Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a potentially hazardous gas found in the home. Dubbed the “silent killer,” CO gas is colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-irritating, yet it can cause unconsciousness, brain damage or death. Because of this, more than 400 people die as a result of carbon monoxide influence each year, a larger fatality rate versus other types of poisoning.

While the weather cools down, you close up your home for the winter and count on heating appliances to stay warm. These situations are when the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is highest. The good news is you can defend your family from carbon monoxide in different ways. One of the most successful methods is to install CO detectors around your home. Use this guide to better understand where carbon monoxide comes from and how to take full advantage of your CO sensors.

What produces carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct whenever something combusts. Therefore, this gas can appear whenever a fuel source is ignited, like natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Prevalent causes of carbon monoxide in a house consist of:

  • Blocked up clothes dryer vent
  • Malfunctioning water heater
  • Furnace or boiler with a damaged heat exchanger
  • Closed fireplace flue with a lit fire
  • Poorly vented gas or wood stove
  • Vehicle sitting 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. Alternatively, they start an alarm when they detect a certain level of smoke caused by a fire. Installing functional smoke detectors decreases the risk of dying in a house fire by nearly 55 percent.

Smoke detectors come in two primary forms—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection functions well with fast-moving fires that produce large flames, while photoelectric models are more suited for smoldering, smoky fires. A few smoke detectors incorporate both types of alarms in one unit to increase the chance of responding to a fire, no matter how it burns.

Unmistakably, smoke detectors and CO alarms are equally important home safety devices. If you look up at the ceiling and notice an alarm of some kind, you won't always realize whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual contrast is determined by the brand and model you prefer. Here are several factors to consider:

  • Quality devices are visibly labeled. If not, look for a brand and model number on the back of the detector and locate it online. You will also find a manufacture date. If the device is more than 10 years old, replace it as soon as possible.
  • Plug-in devices that use power from an outlet are almost always carbon monoxide alarms94. The device is supposed to be labeled as such.
  • Some alarms are two-in-one, offering protection against both smoke and carbon monoxide with an indicator light for each. Still, it can be tough to tell if there's no label on the front, so double checking the manufacturing details on the back is your best bet.

How many carbon monoxide detectors should I install in my home?

The number of CO alarms you should have is dependent on your home’s size, the number of stories and bedroom arrangement. Use these guidelines to guarantee complete coverage:

  • Add carbon monoxide detectors nearby wherever people sleep: CO gas poisoning is most likely at night when furnaces have to run frequently to keep your home heated. As a result, each bedroom should have a carbon monoxide sensor installed about 15 feet of the door. If a couple of bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, a single alarm is sufficient.
  • Add detectors on every floor:
    Dense carbon monoxide buildup can become trapped on a single floor of your home, so do your best to have at least one CO detector on all floors.
  • Have detectors within 10 feet of your internal garage door: A lot of people unsafely leave their cars on in the garage, leading to dangerous carbon monoxide gas, even when the large garage door is fully open. A CO detector right inside the door—and in the room above the garage—alerts you of heightened carbon monoxide levels inside your home.
  • Have detectors at the proper height: Carbon monoxide features a weight similar to air, but it’s often carried along with the hot air released by combustion appliances. Installing detectors close to the ceiling is best to catch this rising air. Models with digital readouts are best installed at eye level to make them easier to read.
  • Put in detectors about 15 feet from combustion appliances: A few fuel-burning machines produce a tiny, harmless amount of carbon monoxide when they start. This breaks up quickly, but in situations where a CO detector is installed right next to it, it may lead to false alarms.
  • Put in detectors away from excess heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have certain tolerances for heat and humidity. To minimize false alarms, try not to install them in bathrooms, in direct sunlight, near air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide alarm?

Depending on the design, the manufacturer will sometimes recommend testing once a month and resetting to maintain proper functionality. Also, change out the batteries in battery-powered units after 6 months. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery annually or when the alarm begins chirping, whichever starts first. Then, replace the CO detector entirely after 10 years or as outlined by the manufacturer’s guidelines.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

You only need a minute to test your CO sensor. Read the instruction manual for directions unique to your unit, knowing that testing uses this general procedure:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It may need 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to begin.
  • Loud beeping means the detector is working correctly.
  • Release the Test button and wait for two fast beeps, a flash or both. If the device keeps beeping when you release the button, press and hold it again for five seconds to silence it.

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

How to reset your carbon monoxide alarm

You're only required to reset your unit when the alarm goes off, after running a test or after swapping the batteries. Some models automatically reset themselves in 10 minutes of these events, while others need a manual reset. The instruction manual should note which function is applicable.

Carry out 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, start the reset again or replace the batteries. If that doesn't help either, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with help from the manufacturer, or install a new detector.

What should I do if a carbon monoxide alarm goes off?

Follow these steps to take care of your home and family:

  • Do not dismiss the alarm. You may not be able to detect hazardous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so expect the alarm is operating correctly when it goes off.
  • Evacuate all people and pets immediately. If possible, open windows and doors on your way out to try and dilute the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or your local fire department and explain that the carbon monoxide alarm has gone off.
  • Don't assume it’s safe to reenter your home when the alarm stops beeping. Opening windows and doors might help air it out, but the source may still be creating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders arrive, they will search your home, assess carbon monoxide levels, look for the source of the CO leak and determine if it’s safe to return. Depending on the cause, you may need to schedule repair services to prevent the problem from reappearing.

Find Support from Rob's Albertan Service Experts

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

The team at Rob's Albertan Service Experts is happy to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair malfunctions with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We recognize which signs indicate a possible carbon monoxide leak— including excessive soot, rusted flue pipes and a yellow, flickering burner flame—along with the necessary repairs to prevent them.

Do you still have questions or concerns about CO exposure? Is it time to schedule annual heating services? Contact Rob's Albertan Service Experts for more information.

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