Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is one of the most hazardous gases found in the home. Known as the “silent killer,” CO gas is colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-irritating, but it can cause unconsciousness, brain damage or death. Consequently, more than 400 people die of accidental carbon monoxide exposure each year, a larger fatality rate compared to any other type of poisoning.

As the weather cools down, you close up your home for the winter and count on heating appliances to remain warm. These situations are when the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning is highest. The good news is you can safeguard your family from carbon monoxide in different ways. One of the most effective methods is to put in CO detectors throughout your home. Use this guide to help you understand where carbon monoxide can appear from and how to take full advantage of your CO alarms.

What causes carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of something burned. Because of this, this gas is generated anytime a fuel source is ignited, such as natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Frequent causes of carbon monoxide in a house consist of:

  • Overloaded clothes dryer vent
  • Faulty water heater
  • Furnace or boiler with a broken heat exchanger
  • Closed fireplace flue during an active fire
  • Improperly vented gas or wood stove
  • Vehicle running in the garage
  • Portable generator, grill, power tool or lawn equipment being used in the garage

Do smoke detectors detect carbon monoxide?

No, smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. In fact, they start an alarm when they recognize a certain concentration of smoke caused by a fire. Having dependable smoke detectors reduces the risk of dying in a house fire by about 55 percent.

Smoke detectors are available in two basic forms—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection functions well with fast-growing fires that emit large flames, while photoelectric detection is more applicable for smoldering, smoky fires. The newest smoke detectors come with both kinds of alarms in one unit to maximize the chance of responding to a fire, no matter how it burns.

Clearly, smoke detectors and CO alarms are equally essential home safety devices. If you look up at the ceiling and notice an alarm of some kind, you may not know whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual difference depends on the brand and model you have. Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Some devices are clearly labeled. If not, try to find a brand and model number on the back of the detector and look it up online. You will also find a manufacture date. If the device is more than a decade old, replace it as soon as possible.
  • Plug-in devices that draw power with an outlet are typically carbon monoxide detectors94. The device is supposed to be labeled as such.
  • Some alarms are really two-in-one, detecting both smoke and carbon monoxide with a different indicator light for each. Still, it can be hard to tell without a label on the front, so double checking the manufacturing details on the back is your best bet.

How many carbon monoxide detectors do I need in my home?

The number of CO alarms you should have is dependent on your home’s size, how many floors it has and the number of bedrooms. Use these guidelines to guarantee thorough coverage:

  • Add carbon monoxide detectors nearby wherever people sleep: CO gas exposure is most prevalent at night when furnaces must run more often to keep your home comfortable. Therefore, all bedrooms should have a carbon monoxide alarm installed within 15 feet of the door. If two bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, just one detector is adequate.
  • Put in detectors on all floors:
    Dangerous carbon monoxide buildup can become stuck on a single floor of your home, so try to have at least one CO detector on all floors.
  • Install detectors within 10 feet of an attached garage door: Many people accidentally leave their cars idling in the garage, producing dangerous carbon monoxide gas, even if the large garage door is wide open. A CO detector just inside the door—and in the room over the garage—alerts you of increased carbon monoxide levels entering your home.
  • Have detectors at the correct height: Carbon monoxide is a similar density as air, but it’s commonly carried upward in the hot air produced by combustion appliances. Putting in detectors up against the ceiling is a good way to catch this rising air. Models that come with digital readouts are best installed at eye level to make them easier to read.
  • Put in detectors around 15 feet from combustion appliances: Some fuel-burning machines produce a small, harmless amount of carbon monoxide as they first start running. This dissipates quickly, but when a CO detector is installed right next to it, it might give off false alarms.
  • Put in detectors away from excess heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have specific tolerances for heat and humidity. To reduce false alarms, try not to install them in bathrooms, in strong sunlight, next to air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide detector?

Depending on the model, the manufacturer might encourage monthly tests and resetting to ensure proper functionality. Also, replace the batteries in battery-powered units after 6 months. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery once a year or when the alarm starts chirping, whichever comes first. Then, replace the CO detector completely every 10 years or according to the manufacturer’s guidelines.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

All it takes is a minute to test your CO sensor. Read the instruction manual for directions individual to your unit, knowing that testing practices this general process:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It may need 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to begin.
  • Loud beeping signifies the detector is functioning correctly.
  • Let go of the Test button and wait for two short beeps, a flash or both. If the device continues beeping when you release the button, press and hold it again for five seconds to stop it.

Change the batteries if the unit isn't performing as expected for the test. If replacement batteries don’t help, replace the detector immediately.

How to reset your carbon monoxide alarm

You only have to reset your unit when the alarm goes off, after running a test or after swapping the batteries. A few models automatically reset themselves within 10 minutes of these events, while other models need a manual reset. The instruction manual should note which function applies.

Follow these steps to reset your CO detector manually:

  • Press and hold the Reset button for 5 to 10 seconds.
  • Release the button and wait for a beep, a flash or both.

If you don’t notice a beep or observe a flash, try the reset again or replace the batteries. If nothing happens, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with help from the manufacturer, or get rid of the faulty detector.

What can I do if a carbon monoxide alarm starts?

Follow these steps to protect your home and family:

  • Do not disregard the alarm. You might not be able to notice hazardous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so anticipate the alarm is operating correctly when it goes off.
  • Evacuate all people and pets as soon as possible. If you're able to, open windows and doors on your way out to try and thin out the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or the local fire department and explain that the carbon monoxide alarm has triggered.
  • Don't assume it’s safe to reenter your home when the alarm stops beeping. Opening windows and doors can help air it out, but the root cause might still be producing carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders arrive, they will enter your home, assess carbon monoxide levels, try to find the source of the CO leak and determine if it’s safe to come back inside. Depending on the cause, you may need to schedule repair services to stop the problem from returning.

Seek Support from Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning

With the proper precautions, there’s no need to worry about carbon monoxide inhalation in your home. Along with installing CO alarms, it’s worthwhile to maintain your fuel-burning appliances, particularly as winter gets underway.

The team at Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning is qualified to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair problems with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We understand what signs indicate a possible carbon monoxide leak— like increased soot, rusted flue pipes and a yellow, flickering burner flame—along with the necessary repairs to avoid them.

Do you still have questions or concerns about CO exposure? Is it time to schedule annual heating services? Contact Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning for more information.

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