FAQ on Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Why do I need a carbon monoxide detector? Because it can save your life but it can’t do so if it isn’t fully functioning.

By Rebecca Martin

“A carbon monoxide detector–it can save your life.”

This warning was reiterated by the Red Cross Home Fire Safety Expert for Colorado and Wyoming, Jackie Rodriguez, on Thursday night after an apartment complex in Aurora, Colorado was evacuated due to the presence of carbon monoxide. Dozens of residents were evacuated and two were treated at the hospital when Aurora Firefighters responded to what initially was a medical call. Carbon monoxide levels at the scene were determined to be over 1900 parts per million. The Red Cross was on the scene to help thirty people displaced by the incident. The Red Cross also assisted after the incident in supplying residents with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. https://denver.cbslocal.com/2021/12/17/carbon-monoxide-detector-silent-killer/

There have been many instances the past few weeks of organizations stepping in to make sure that smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are in use in as many homes as possible with the onset of the colder weather which normally brings with it more incidents of carbon monoxide poisonings.

carbon monoxide detector issues

Carbon monoxide detector FAQ’s include how much do I need to spend, how do they work, what do the beeps mean.

In central Ohio, Lifecare Alliance and Columbus Gas distributed 400 carbon monoxide detectors to those in need. President and CEO of Lifecare Alliance Chuck Gehring said it replaced more than 40 furnaces which is when it saw the need for the detectors. Detectors are free to all of their clients.

“Many of our clients, because they’re lower income or in an older home, have furnaces that are older,” Gehring said. https://www.nbc4i.com/news/local-news/columbus/lifecare-alliance-aims-to-keep-residents-safe-from-carbon-monoxide/

Donate a Carbon Monoxide Alarm

Members of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port donated 1000 carbon monoxide detectors to Lafourche Fire District 3 in Galliano, Louisiana.

“Many of us don’t often consider the risk of Carbon Monoxide poisoning, and it’s probably the last thing we are thinking about as the community rebuilds from the hurricane, but it’s a real risk and can be prevented, and that’s our focus with getting these detectors out in the community,” LOOP President Terry Coleman said. https://www.houmatoday.com/story/news/2021/12/13/loop-donates-1-000-carbon-monoxide-detectors-lafourche-fire-district-3/6493278001/

Carbon monoxide detectors are the front line defense against this invisible and odorless gas. Numerous donations and programs across the country are working to bring that protection to as many residences as possible in order to reduce death and injury from this preventable occurrence.

“While about 95 percent of U.S. homes report having at least one working smoke alarm, only 42 percent report having a working CO alarm.”https://jamaicahospital.org/newsletter/do-you-have-a-carbon-monoxide-alarm-in-your-home/

Information Key to Getting Alarms Where Needed

According to studies there is a high correlation between homeowners’ level of understanding of carbon monoxide and the presence of properly placed carbon monoxide detectors in homes. Approximately two-thirds of homeowners surveyed on behalf of Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning were not sure they would recognize carbon monoxide symptoms. More than half of those surveyed were unaware that: A clothes dryer could be a source of carbon monoxide, the proper location to install carbon monoxide detectors, or the importance of annual inspections for furnaces. 41% said they never replaced their carbon monoxide detectors and were not aware how to do so. https://www.achrnews.com/articles/131043-survey-shows-many-homeowners-unclear-on-carbon-monoxide-safety

Where Should I Place Carbon Monoxide Detector?

Where should carbon monoxide detectors be placed? There are standardized guidelines for the placement of carbon monoxide detectors in residences. Carbon monoxide detectors should be placed on every floor of a home including the basement, outside every sleeping area, inside every bedroom and ideally adjacent to the entry to an attached garage and in the area/room above the garage. The ideal placement is about five feet above the floor as carbon monoxide can travel on the same warm air that circulates through the home. They should not be placed directly above a fireplace or flame-producing appliance, or in very humid areas such as a bathroom. They should not be placed directly by open windows, aggressive air systems or in direct sunlight.

I was thinking about the placement of co detectors today and a conversation came to mind regarding CO detectors in general. That conversation involved “out of sight, out of mind” which appears to be a common problem with the placement of CO detectors. With many homeowners simply forgetting that their CO detectors may need batteries replaced or to be replaced entirely over time, it is not unseemly to recommend that proper placement should include visibility as a reminder that maintenance may be needed. Most detectors should be replaced every 5-6 years.

How Often do Carbon Monoxide Alarms Have to be Replaced?

Most existing CO Alarms after 5 Years. This is more often than smoke detectors because they use active versus passive detection.

The first carbon monoxide detectors were developed by two employees of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, Chester Gordon and James Lowe in 1925. Designed for detecting carbon monoxide in manholes and other confined spaces, they worked by manually crushing a glass container filled with chemicals and getting a visual reading. But since the discovery of carbon monoxide in the 1700s, the concern was always with devising a way to alert to the presence of carbon monoxide. It wasn’t until the release of the first carbon monoxide detectors designed to alert to the presence of carbon monoxide that the first residential standards were published. The first battery-powered carbon monoxide detectors became available in 1993, with combination smoke/carbon monoxide detectors following three years later.

Different Types of Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Today there are three basic types of carbon monoxide detectors:

  1. Biomimetic or biotechnology-based detectors like the original detectors which come on the market in the 1990s,
  2. Electrochemical sensors and
  3. Semiconductor sensors.

Biomimetic sensors consist of a gel which absorbs carbon monoxide much like our hemoglobin. The gel darkens as the concentration of carbon monoxide rises and the change in color causes the sensor to activate and sound an alarm.

Electrochemical sensors have internal electrodes coated in specific chemicals. When carbon monoxide is present it allows a current to occur and thus sounds an alarm.

Metal oxide semiconductors have an internal silica chip which when exposed to carbon monoxide causes a drop in electrical resistance. The sensor detects this drop and sounds an alarm. All three types of carbon monoxide detectors are reliable.

All carbon monoxide detectors fall into two categories: Wireless and Hardwired. Battery operated wireless carbon monoxide detectors may have a shorter lifespan than hardwired detectors. Regardless of what the manufacturers state, do not try to get 10 years of out of a detector. Our recommendation is that all detectors be replaced at least every five years as the manufacturers of the majority of CO alarms recommend five to seven years. Those life expectancy numbers can vary based on the environment and overall air quality in the home.

Today, the best option for carbon monoxide detectors in the home are those that can be connected to smart devices which offer the advantage of sending alerts to your phone and can differentiate what area in the home is responsible for the alert. One of the benefits of these systems is that they can interact with your home’s thermostat to turn off HVAC if carbon monoxide is detected.

How much Should I spend on a Carbon Monoxide Detector?

Much of the decision as to what type of carbon monoxide detectors are used depends on the homeowner’s budget. The government did studies back in 2011 that found that 40% of detectors failed to alarm in the presence of carbon monoxide. While detectors have inevitably improved in the decade since those studies, it is still wise to check which detectors are receiving good ratings for operation. There are many sources for recommendations on the internet. Consumer Reports, Bob Vila and Popular Mechanics to name a few.

This past May, a recall was issued for certain models of Kidde TruSense Smoke Alarms and Combination Smoke/Carbon Monoxide Alarms. 226,000 units were recalled as of May 6, 2021. These alarms were sold at Walmart, Home Depot, Menards and other department, home and hardware stores and electrical distributors nationwide, and online at Amazon.com, ShopKidde.com and other online retailers from May 2019 through September 2020 for between $10 and $70. https://www.cpsc.gov/Recalls/2021/Kidde-Recalls-TruSense-Smoke-and-Combination-Smoke-Carbon-Monoxide-Alarms-Due-to-Risk-of-Failure-to-Alert-Consumers-to-a-Fire

It is essential that carbon monoxide detectors in the home receive proper maintenance. They should be tested and cleaned once a month. It is important to read the owner’s manual for the proper care of the detectors in your home. If a manual is not available, they can be found online by searching for the make and model. When testing your detector monthly it is recommended that it is cleaned by vacuuming as well.

The basics for maintaining your carbon monoxide detectors are Test, Batteries, Power and Replace. Test them once a month by pressing the button on the front. Replace batteries as often as recommended. If you have hardwired detectors with a power backup make sure both sources are working. Replace your detectors according to manufacturer’s instructions as sensors decline in efficiency as time goes on. Many detectors have an end of life alarm which you should be familiar with.

Why is my CO Alarm Beeping?

Which brings us to one of the most commonly asked questions: What do the beeps from my detector mean? One beep every minute means that the battery is low and needs to be replaced. Five beeps means your detector needs to be replaced. Replacing the batteries will not override the fact that the sensor in your detector is now malfunctioning. Four beeps and a pause means EMERGENCY. Carbon monoxide has been detected. You should vacate the area and call 911. NOTE: Not every detector alerts exactly the same. In general, continuous beeping that repeats immediately indicates that carbon monoxide is present.

The significance of different beeping might mean different things for different types of detectors. If your detector is low on battery, you will likely hear a short chirp every minute.

Do Not Ignore Beeping, Regardless of Type

To warn of dangerous CO levels, most detectors will beep 4 or 5 times in a row about every 4 seconds. Do not mistake dangerous levels of poisonous gas for a detector with low battery! Even if no one in the building is experiencing symptoms yet, if there’s a chance your detector is signaling carbon monoxide, get everyone outside to fresh air.” http://blog.encorefireprotection.com/blog/carbon-monoxide-detector-beeping

For more on why to call 911 from outside, click here.

The simplest way to familiarize yourself with the alerts that your particular detector uses is to run a search online for the manufacturer or to read the manual if it is available. But much like a smoke detector, a beep every thirty seconds is most likely a signal that the battery needs changing and not a cause for alarm.

When the detector has sounded, it is time to vacate the premises and get to fresh air. Exit immediately and call 911. Do not return to the premises until directed to do so by emergency services. Do not first try to air out the premises. Call 911 once outside the premises, not while still indoors. Carbon monoxide can impair one’s judgement quickly causing one to become disoriented and unable to vacate.

If the alarm sounded but first responders were unable to detect carbon monoxide levels of concern, don’t assume there is no danger. Opened windows and doors may temporarily dissipate fumes or a furnace turning off and on may produce mixed readings which require further investigation. It is unlikely your CO detector gave a false alarm. If household members are feeling the symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure after an alert, it is important to discern the source of the exposure regardless of findings at the location. It is highly advised that anyone exposed to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide seek medical attention as the impact on health may not be evident at the scene and may present hours or days afterwards.

Carbon monoxide detectors are often coupled with smoke detectors or explosive gas detectors. Consumer Reports contends that combination smoke and carbon monoxide detectors may not be the best route to follow and that the safest configuration is one which includes different types of dedicated detectors.

It is important to remember that when using hardwired devices that only models which the manufacturer has deemed compatible with their system are used. A qualified technician should oversee the installation of hardwired devices to guarantee the overall functioning and optimum life of the system. I can attest to the importance of this personally when I recently discovered that my electric fireplace was hardwired into the same system as my smoke detectors and consequently any time it was turned on it set off my smoke alarms.

Inconvenient but these types of blunders can be deadly. There are many reasons to have your system installed by a qualified electrician. They are familiar with the which models are reliable, safe and up to code, they know where to place the devices, they can save you money in the long run by avoiding repairs, and they are up to date with current codes. They are also aware of which devices are compatible. In addition, a qualified electrician can also address other electrical issues they might run across. An electrician should be licensed, bonded and insured and have extensive experience with the installation of smoke/carbon monoxide detector systems.

Whatever your budget there are sources to make sure your home and family is protected against carbon monoxide. Standalone detectors average around $25. Hardwired systems depend on your area and code requirements. Free carbon monoxide detectors may be available in your community through community programs. Check with your local fire department or city for information on available programs. Some cities list these programs on their websites. These programs generally have income requirements so you will need to qualify. In some states landlords are required to provide carbon monoxide detectors for renters. There are also programs for the elderly in some areas and detectors may be available from local gas companies or other services for the elderly.

Remember that in most cases carbon monoxide detectors are only required in structures with fuel-burning devices which does not protect you in the event you have an apartment over a communal garage or perhaps adjacent to the housing for a swimming pool heater. Take a moment to consider possible sources of carbon monoxide not directly connected to fuel-burning devices in your home. Carbon monoxide incidents have occurred during construction and from other external sources.

A helpful sample diagram showing the recommended placement for both wireless and hardwired systems is available at https://www.brkelectronics.com/faqs/newconstruction/recommended_locations_for_smoke_alarms

 

 

 

 

 

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