Carbon Monoxide Detectors Mandates Needed for All Indoor Premises

Carbon Monoxide Detectors Mandates must be extended to include all indoor premises that have fuel burning appliances, anywhere in the structure. Just having them in the same room as the appliance is not sufficient as CO fumes can invade into any part of the indoor premises. 

By Rebecca Martin

I had my first apartment back in college. It was one of those complexes in which my neighbor and I both lived over a semi enclosed garage situated in a natural hollow which captured the morning air. A pleasant location during hot weather but not very conducive to air quality. My neighbor routinely went down to the garage in the wee hours when the sun was just coming up and started his Jaguar to let it run a good half hour to an hour before work. And as it was situated directly beneath my bedroom window, I was routinely awakened by a very loud engine and the smell of exhaust. Annoying to be sure. During that year at school I suffered from inexplainable headaches and visited the infirmary and my doctor often to ask for some explanation. I was sent for scans and injected with dye and even referred to an ophthalmologist to rule out a visual problem. It never occurred to me or anyone that the problem might be carbon monoxide seeping into my bedroom every morning.

All places where people sleep must be subject to Carbon Monoxide Detector Mandates

Carbon monoxide detectors mandates must extend to all rooms in any hotel that has a boiler, regardless of whether there is a fuel burning appliance in a given room. The chimney shown here leaked into the adjacent rooms, causing a severe carbon monoxide poisoning at this Days Inn.

These days we know better and that 1) cars don’t need to be warmed up and 2) carbon monoxide detectors would have gone a long way in protecting the residents of the apartment complex. Back then the dots weren’t immediately connected to raise any concerns that I might have been suffering from some long term carbon monoxide exposure. This is just a mild example of what can occur in an apartment complex, housing development or any living situation which involves tenants and a landlord.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors Mandates for all Apartments

In January, 2020 over 100 people were evacuated, and nine people hospitalized in a Long Island apartment complex. The assistant chief of the Hempstead Fire Department noted that his meter was going off even before entering the location. The landlord had illegally installed heating units in all of the apartments without permits. Because the installation was not professionally done, carbon monoxide had permeated the entire complex. To add insult to injury it was discovered that the landlord was charging each tenant $100 more gas each month over and above the agreed upon utility costs.

In April of 2020, a Northwest DC woman perished  from carbon monoxide poisoning when her stove was left on. There was not a carbon monoxide detector in the apartment. The 12-unit building was evacuated and ventilated.

In January of 2021, one person died, one person was hospitalized  and 36 apartment units were evacuated in Orlando, Florida after a gas leak which produced elevated carbon monoxide levels. The leak was discovered after another resident noted that the gas burner in one apartment had been left on for over 24 hours. Hazmat crews discovered a burner on a gas range had been left on high for at least 24 hours and the resident was found deceased.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors Mandates for any Building Attached to Garage

In February, 2020, a woman was found deceased in her running car in an apartment garage in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Tulsa Fire Department was alerted by a 911 call from a resident who lived in the apartment above the garage whose carbon monoxide detector had begun alarming and awakened her. They toxic levels of carbon monoxide in the apartment which were rapidly rising prompting an evacuation. They discovered that the garage underneath the resident’s apartment was warm to the touch and slid a gas monitor under the door. The levels were over 500 parts per million which is immediately deadly to life and health (IDLH). The deceased woman was discovered in her vehicle with the carbon monoxide detector in the garage sounding. The carbon monoxide had spread to several of the surrounding apartments and the area had to be cleared by a hazmat crew. The hazmat crew reported the carbon monoxide readings were on high, which meant that the equipment couldn’t even register how high the levels were. The 4 AM 911 call from the resident in the apartment above undoubtedly saved others from possible poisoning. In this case carbon monoxide detectors did their job and an investigation was launched to determine why the deceased woman was unable to respond.

CO Alarms not Always Mandated at Present

This sampling of stories from the news begins to paint a picture of when and if a landlord might be liable for damages due to carbon monoxide poisoning. In only one of the instances did we see carbon monoxide detectors playing a role in averting a disaster. 27 states and the District of Columbia require carbon monoxide detectors in private dwellings though 11 states limit this to buildings with fossil-fuel burning devices, while others may require this only upon sale of the property or unit. Another 11 states have amendments to existing building regulations to require carbon monoxide detectors in new construction. At this time there is no federal regulation governing the use of carbon monoxide detectors in apartments or housing developments. Click here for First Alert’s summary map of where CO Alarms are mandated.

Some states have laws which require landlords to not only provide specific types of carbon monoxide detectors, but also to maintain them in working order and replace when needed. And there are states which have “negligence per se” laws which do not require the victim to prove negligence on the landlord’s part. If the landlord fails to follow the law, negligence is established. In others, blame might be established if tenants can prove the detectors were not installed or maintained correctly, or in some cases, the incorrect detectors were installed. A landlord can be libel under a breach of contract if the property was presented as being or in the process of being, fully equipped with adequate detection and did not follow through. And as we have seen, sometimes neglect falls under faulty maintenance and installation of devices which can produce carbon monoxide, as in the case of improperly installed heating and ventilation. Because we have no universal federal legislation on the issue of carbon monoxide detectors in all residents, whether they be private homes or rentals, the state laws governing carbon monoxide safety in our homes can be complicated to follow without an attorney.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors Mandates in Building Codes

States which go the building code route do so by attaching a carbon monoxide detector amendment to existing building codes or by adopting the International Residential Code. The International Residential Code covers four main points in regard to installation of carbon monoxide detectors.

First is that, in all new construction which contains a dwelling unit or unit, in which fuel-burning appliances are installed; that a carbon monoxide detector is installed in the immediate vicinity of each bedroom or individual sleeping area. In some cases this requirement is modified to allow for combination smoke/carbon monoxide detectors.

Second, that existing dwellings which are modified so that interior alterations, repairs, or appliance replacement or alterations, requiring a permit, conform to the requirement for carbon monoxide detectors. Any bedrooms or sleeping areas added to an existing residence fall into this category.

The third guideline of the code is the requirement that all alarms are loud enough to be heard over any background noise and through closed doors to all bedrooms and sleeping areas.

The fourth point concerns the power supply. It requires that all carbon monoxide detectors be hardwired if the residence is connected to a commercial power source and have a battery backup in case of a power failure. There should be no power cut off switch installed to cut power to carbon monoxide detectors. And if more than one detector is installed they should be interconnected so that when one alarm sounds, all the alarms sound.

As you can see, this code deals with new construction and renovation or remodeling which requires a building permit. It is such an inexpensive requirement to add to a state’s existing building regulations that it is pitiful that this code has not been put in place across all the states.

California is one state which requires carbon monoxide detectors in all single family dwelling units. This was established in 2010 with the passage of the Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Act. It requires carbon monoxide detectors for all units which have gas appliances, including stoves, gas water heaters and fireplaces. It requires detectors for homes with wood burning fireplaces. And it requires detectors in all homes with an attached garage. It also requires that all equipment is approved by the California State Fire Marshall and in new construction is hard wired in with a battery backup. They have added the locations in which the detectors are installed to include all levels of the house, including the basement, where fuel-burning devices are located. This can include stoves, water heaters and fireplaces.

Grandfathering Leaves Many Dwellings Without Alarms

Despite a strong movement over the last decade for increasing Carbon Monoxide Detectors mandates, most laws do not apply retroactively for existing buildings. Thus, even in places like apartments, the code or statute may not require their installation. This is bad public policy. The older the structure, the more likely there is to be carbon monoxide poisoning as HVAC systems deteriorate over time. Natural draft furnaces have greater risks of poisoning than high efficiency appliances as they don’t have dedicated combustion air and rely on aging chimneys and flues to exhaust air out of the premises.

The question arises as to what a tenant can do in the case of older construction, in a state with no specific regulations. Ideally you have become aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and can opt to install your own battery powered detectors.

Where is the proper place to install detectors?  As mentioned, in the vicinity of every bedroom or sleeping area and on any level where a gas-burning device is located as well as in the vicinity of an attached garage. And ideally in the garage itself but just in the garage is not sufficient because an alarm going off in a garage, may not be heard inside the dwelling.  They should be installed 5 feet from the floor and at least 3 feet from any HVAC venting. They should also be at least 6 inches from exterior walls. There are many guides online to help in choosing a carbon monoxide detector. One is available at https://www.safety.com/carbon-monoxide-detectors/ There are many choices, with some featuring ten year batteries. But you should still check your detector every six months to make sure it is working properly.

We will continue to see stories of carbon monoxide poisoning occurring in apartment complexes and housing developments, usually resulting in tenants being evacuated and in some cases, death and injury. Until the Federal regulations currently on hold are finally put through, states have chosen to respond or not to the number of deaths and injuries which do occur annually. Congress passed a bill in December of 2020 requiring carbon monoxide detectors in all federally subsidized housing. The provision was attached to the Covid-relief bill.

There is also military housing to consider. Although carbon monoxide detectors are required in units owned and operated by the DOD, which follows the International Residential Code, it is estimated that 63% of all military families live off base. And many of those in multi-family dwellings.

Hopefully, 2021 will see the passage of federal legislation regarding carbon monoxide detectors.

But the standard of care is for carbon monoxide detectors in all indoor spaces, especially if there is a fuel burning appliance in or near such structure. Just in the rooms where the fuel burning appliance is housed is not enough. The worst CO disasters have occurred in places that were inside the same building as the source of CO, but in different rooms. Think of the Boone, North Carolina Best Western saga. Those deaths were from a malfunctioning pool heater. The room where two different fatal incidents occurred, were not the same room as the heater. Anywhere that exhaust can flow with a defective or backed up exhaust must have a detector. That is even more clear if someone is sleeping in such premises. All hotels and apartments much have CO alarms if there is a fuel burning appliance or engine on the premises. CO poisoning is foreseeable and must be guarded and warned against.

 

 

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