Carbon Monoxide Free Winter Heating Season

Preparing for the winter heating season must include preventing carbon monoxide poisoning, which must start with carbon monoxide detectors and comprehensive furnace maintenance.

By Rebecca Martin 

October is a time to make last minute preparations for the approaching cold weather and this is especially true when it comes to carbon monoxide safety. It is that time of year when furnaces are turned on for the first time, or the first fires are lit in our fireplaces. October continues to also have forecasts of impending storms and potential power outages. It is also a great time to make sure carbon monoxide detectors are updated and in working order and properly installed throughout our homes, businesses and other indoor spaces.

winter heating season is here

Winter heating season is here and it is time to make sure your home is safe from carbon monoxide poisoning. Safety starts with carbon monoxide detectors and proper furnace maintenance.

I was reminded of how we often forget the basics of home heating when watching a scene in a movie in which the characters were diligently sealing up a home, while a roaring fire burned in the fireplace and numerous candles and lanterns provided light while the furnace continuously malfunctioned. Yet every winter we hear tragic stories in which the same dynamics prove deadly because we don’t give indoor dangers the respect they deserve. Oversights can be made in a movie plot but the danger in our day to day lives is very real.

CO Detectors for Safe Winter Heating Season

First and foremost in importance is the proper utilization of carbon monoxide detectors throughout our homes. Carbon monoxide detectors have a lifespan of five to seven years and do need to be replaced when their efficacy fades. Detectors with batteries should be checked monthly and batteries replaced every six months. Detectors should be placed on every floor of a home, and in every room and common area adjacent to where people will be sleeping. Even if your home has no fuel burning appliances, carbon monoxide detectors in conjunction with smoke detectors can provide early fire warnings.

Attached garages should also be equipped with an alarm audible to residents. The risks of carbon monoxide poisoning from vehicles is still high, especially in light of keyless ignition systems in cars.

Multi-Family Winter Heating Season Hazards

In multi-unit dwellings, consider that your neighbors may not be as conscientious and fumes from the garage below you or the apartment next to you may cause toxic levels of carbon monoxide. Entire complexes have been put at risk due to a problem in one unit. Dryer vents can also be a source of carbon monoxide if they become blocked or clogged.

It is a violation of industry standards and clear proof of negligence if a multi-family property does not have a licensed HVAC contractor do winter heating season maintenance on all furnaces, water heaters and fireplaces, as detailed below. In house maintenance personnel do not have the training or equipment to do all the proper tests. For more on apartment carbon monoxide cases,  click here.

Carbon monoxide detectors are programmed to beep every minute when the batteries are low. Five beeps every minute indicate your detector has reached the end of its life and should be replaced. In contrast, when the alarm sounds, it is far more compelling, not a chirp but a loud demand for attention. The alarm means carbon monoxide has been detected and you should seek fresh air and call 911, once outside the dwelling.

Every fuel burning device requires air for combustion. That air enters your home to match the rate that warmed air is being produced and escapes. In the case of a furnace that air is coming in through the lower portion of the house and escaping through the upper portions of your house as warm air rises. The air flow in a house is balanced if the air distribution is handled correctly. Annual furnace inspections and maintenance can ensure that all aspects of a heating system are operating correctly.

Furnace Maintenance for Winter Heating Season

Too many people think that if they know how to replace they regularly replace the filters on their furnace, that they have addressed adequate maintenance for their furnace. That is not true.

Replacing the air filter does little to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

A forced air furnace has two separate air systems. The one to circulate the warm air inside the unit (the supply/return air), and the one for the air for the furnace to burn, and then exhaust the fumes. Filters only clean the air that is circulating in the breathable air. They do not have anything to do with maintaining the flow of air to and from the flame. Carbon monoxide is most often formed when something goes wrong with one of the following:

  • The air flow to and from the flame, combustion air;
  • The amount of fuel that gets to the flame, natural gas supply;
  • The fuel isn’t burning clean, caused by a problem with the place where the flame is burning, such as dirty burners;
  • If there is a breach between the two air flow systems, such as with cracks in the heat exchanger.

In order to assure that none of these causes occurs, a licensed HVAC technician should be servicing the furnace this time of year. The licensed HVAC contractor, should check the combustion air, check the gas supply and pressure, clean the burners and check the heat exchanger. The color of the flame should be checked to make sure that the fuel is burning clean. Finally and most importantly, the carbon monoxide levels in the exhaust fumes should be measured by a combustion gas analyzer.

Furnaces Have Expiration Dates

Furnaces have a useful life of 18 years. If your furnace is older than 15 years, it is time to start budgeting for its replacement. The older your furnace is, the more important it is that you have the above maintenance done each fall and that you have carbon monoxide alarms installed.

During the months when your furnace is operating, the air filter should also be replaced regularly so that the airflow is adequate to the task of providing airflow for the combustion process. The average 1-2 inch filters should be replaced every one to three months or anytime they appear to be dirty. Air filters will naturally get dirty faster if the thermostat is set so the fan is constantly on as it is removing air contaminants 24/7. But it can also indicate that there are problems in the duct work which is causing more air to flow through than normal. Aside from health hazards this can also diminish the working life of your furnace and increase energy costs. Signs that your air filter needs changing can be that your heating system is running more frequently, the presence of more dust, or burning smells near the unit. Ignoring dirty air filters can also cause mold to develop in ductwork which creates more health issues.

Hot Water Heaters Should be Replaced

The majority of hot water heaters have a life expectancy of 8-12 years and replacement should be considered if it has been in place for this period of time. Inconsistent hot water, murky or cloudy water and leaks can indicate that your hot water heater might be failing. Annual flushing of the system is encouraged to keep sediment from accumulating. A neglected hot water heater can produce carbon monoxide just as a poorly installed or vented one can.

Gas fireplaces also require maintenance before the winter heating season. If a gas fireplace is not adequately maintained or ventilated it can produce carbon monoxide. An annual inspection of the fireplace and chimney/venting system can rule out blockage, damage and operating problems. Wood burning fireplaces require the same diligence to proper ventilation. The National Fire Protection Association code states that chimneys are to be inspected on an annual basis and cleaned if necessary. It is also a good idea to have an inspector take into consideration vent fans in the home that might interact with fireplace ventilation.

Any fuel burning device in your home has the potential to produce carbon monoxide. For example, gasoline lanterns used indoors during a power outage can produce carbon monoxide. In fact using a gasoline lantern in the home is comparable to leaving a car running in a closed garage. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission:

“People die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning from the use of portable camping heaters, lanterns, or stoves inside tents, campers, and vehicles.”–Camping-Equipment

This applies to any indoor use. Carbon monoxide is odorless and invisible and toxic levels can accumulate before you are aware of the danger.

This applies to portable generators as well. Portable generators should be placed well away (at least 20 feet) from the home with the venting directed away from other homes. A generator should never be used inside the home or attached garage or carport.

It almost goes without saying that any type of device which burns fuel should not be used inside the home including grills and other devices meant for outdoor use. Concrete saws are particularly dangerous. Don’t start your chain saw in the garage.

In the colder weather we often decide to warm up the car before driving. If this is done in an attached garage, fumes can quickly enter the house. In the case of keyless starters, failure to turn an engine off can pose the same danger.

Anytime there is a fuel burning device or appliance, there is a need for adequate ventilation and if that ventilation is compromised there is a risk of carbon monoxide. There is also a risk associated with devices or appliances used for an unintended use such as using a gas stove to heat during a power outage. A stove was never meant to fill this purpose. Stoves are designed to function safely under regular use and the air flow required is based on the oven door being closed and components not left on continuously. Not only is there a possibility of carbon monoxide build up if used improperly, there is a higher risk for fire due to combustion failure or overheating.

Even when using alternative sources of heating that are not fuel-burning there is a “three foot rule” which recommends that nothing flammable be closer than three feet to any alternative device such as a space heater.

As much as we always hope that the news each winter does not contain stories of preventable carbon monoxide poisonings and tragic deaths, inevitably there will be headlines. The real tragedy is that they are preventable through education and legislation along with a personal commitment to proper maintenance. This year the number of news stories warning of winter dangers has increased. Some fire departments and other facilities have offered free or low cost carbon monoxide detectors. We can only hope that this winter will be a safe one for everyone as all of us work towards solutions to these incidents.

A guide to winter weather preparedness is available at Start your checklist by taking a moment to familiarize yourself with the basics for facing the months ahead.



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