Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a common risk found in the home. Dubbed the “silent killer,” CO gas is colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-irritating, but it can lead to unconsciousness, brain damage or death. Consequently, more than 400 people die of accidental carbon monoxide influence each year, a larger fatality rate than other types of poisoning.

As the weather cools off, you close up your home for the winter and trust in heating appliances to keep warm. This is when the danger of carbon monoxide inhalation is highest. The good news is you can defend your family from carbon monoxide in several 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 comes from and how to make the most of your CO alarms.

What produces carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of incomplete combustion. Because of this, this gas is generated anytime a fuel source is burned, like natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Common causes of carbon monoxide in a house include:

  • Blocked up clothes dryer vent
  • Faulty water heater
  • Furnace or boiler with a cracked heat exchanger
  • Closed fireplace flue with a lit fire
  • Improperly vented gas or wood stove
  • Vehicle running in the garage
  • Portable generator, grill, power tool or lawn equipment operating in the garage

Do smoke detectors sense carbon monoxide?

No, smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. In fact, they start an alarm when they detect a certain amount of smoke produced by a fire. Installing functional smoke detectors reduces 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 works best with fast-moving fires that produce large flames, while photoelectric detectors are more effective with smoldering, smoky fires. The newest smoke detectors incorporate both forms of alarms in a solitary unit to maximize the chance of sensing a fire, no matter how it burns.

Unmistakably, smoke detectors and CO alarms are equally essential home safety devices. If you check the ceiling and find an alarm of some kind, you won't always recognize whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual contrast is determined by the brand and model you have. Here are a few factors to keep in mind:

  • Some devices are clearly labeled. If not, look for a brand and model number on the back of the detector and find it online. You should also find a manufacture date. If the device is more than 10 years old, replace it at the earliest opportunity.
  • Plug-in devices that use power through an outlet are almost always carbon monoxide sensors94. The device will be labeled as such.
  • Some alarms will be two-in-one, sensing both smoke and carbon monoxide with an indicator light for each. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to tell with no label on the front, so checking the manufacturing details on the back is worthwhile.

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

The number of CO alarms you should have depends on your home’s size, how many floors it has and bedroom arrangement. Use these guidelines to ensure complete coverage:

  • Place carbon monoxide detectors nearby sleeping areas: CO gas leaks are most common at night when furnaces have to run constantly to keep your home comfortable. For that reason, each bedroom should have a carbon monoxide alarm installed within 15 feet of the door. If a couple of bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, just one detector is sufficient.
  • Add detectors on each floor:
    Concentrated carbon monoxide gas can become trapped on a single floor of your home, so make sure you have at least one CO detector on every level.
  • Install detectors within 10 feet of the internal garage door: A lot of people accidentally leave their cars running in the garage, leading to dangerous carbon monoxide gas, even while the large garage door is completely open. A CO detector immediately inside the door—and in the room up above the garage—alerts you of increased carbon monoxide levels inside your home.
  • Have detectors at the correct height: Carbon monoxide is a similar density as air, but it’s commonly pushed up by the hot air created by combustion appliances. Putting in detectors close to the ceiling is a good way to catch this rising air. Models that come with digital readouts are best placed at eye level to make them easier to read.
  • Put in detectors at least 15 feet from combustion appliances: Some fuel-burning machines emit a small, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide as they first start running. This disperses quickly, but in situations where a CO detector is positioned too close, it could lead to false alarms.
  • Install detectors away from high heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have certain tolerances for heat and humidity. To minimize false alarms, don't install them in bathrooms, in harsh sunlight, near air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide sensor?

Depending on the design, the manufacturer will sometimes recommend monthly tests and resetting to ensure proper functionality. Also, change out the batteries in battery-powered units every six months. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery every year or when the alarm is chirping, whichever starts first. Then, replace the CO detector outright after 10 years or as outlined by the manufacturer’s guidelines.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

All it takes is a minute to test your CO sensor. Check the instruction manual for directions specific to your unit, understanding that testing follows this general process:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It may need 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to start.
  • Loud beeping indicates the detector is working correctly.
  • Let go of the Test button and wait for two fast beeps, a flash or both. If the device keeps beeping when you let go of the button, press and hold it again for five seconds to quiet it.

Swap out the batteries if the unit fails to perform as expected after the test. If replacement batteries don’t make a difference, replace the detector entirely.

How to reset your carbon monoxide alarm

You only need to reset your unit when the alarm goes off, after running a test or after changing the batteries. Some models automatically reset themselves within 10 minutes of these events, while others require a manual reset. The instruction manual will note which function applies.

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 see a flash, start the reset again or replace the batteries. If nothing happens, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with assistance from the manufacturer, or install a new detector.

What should I do if a carbon monoxide alarm is triggered?

Follow these steps to take care of 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 assume the alarm is operating properly when it is triggered.
  • Evacuate all people and pets immediately. 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 a local fire department and report 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 may help air it out, but the root cause may still be creating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders show up, they will go into your home, measure carbon monoxide levels, try to find the source of the CO leak and establish if it’s safe to go back inside. Depending on the cause, you may need to request repair services to keep the problem from returning.

Get Support from Orangutan Home Services

With the right precautions, there’s no need to fear carbon monoxide exposure in your home. In addition to installing CO alarms, it’s crucial to maintain your fuel-burning appliances, especially as winter gets underway.

The team at Orangutan Home Services is ready to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair malfunctions with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We understand what signs indicate a potential 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 Orangutan Home Services for more information.

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