Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

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

While the weather cools off, you close up your home for the winter and trust in heating appliances to stay warm. This is when the threat of carbon monoxide exposure is highest. Thankfully you can defend your family from a gas leak in different ways. One of the most efficient methods is to put in CO detectors throughout your home. Check out this guide to better 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 whenever something combusts. Therefore, this gas is generated anytime a fuel source burns, like natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Common causes of carbon monoxide in a house consist of:

  • Clogged clothes dryer vent
  • Malfunctioning water heater
  • Furnace or boiler with a damaged heat exchanger
  • Closed fireplace flue during an active fire
  • Improperly vented gas or wood stove
  • Vehicle idling in the garage
  • Portable generator, grill, power tool or lawn equipment operating in the garage

Do smoke detectors detect carbon monoxide?

No, smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. Instead, they start an alarm when they sense a certain amount of smoke caused by a fire. Installing reliable smoke detectors lowers the risk of dying in a house fire by around 55 percent.

Smoke detectors are offered in two basic types—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection works best with fast-growing fires that generate large flames, while photoelectric detectors are more effective with smoldering, smoky fires. Some newer smoke detectors include both kinds of alarms in one unit to boost the chance of responding to a fire, regardless of how it burns.

Unmistakably, smoke detectors and CO alarms are similarly important home safety devices. If you look up at the ceiling and see an alarm of some kind, you may not recognize whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual discrepancy is determined by the brand and model you have. Here are several factors to remember:

  • Quality devices are visibly labeled. If not, try to find a brand and model number on the back of the detector and find it online. You can also find a manufacture date. If the device is more than a decade old, replace it as soon as possible.
  • Plug-in devices that extract power through an outlet are generally carbon monoxide sensors94. The device is supposed to be labeled as such.
  • Some alarms are two-in-one, sensing both smoke and carbon monoxide with a separate indicator light for each. That being said, it can be hard to tell without a 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 need is determined by your home’s size, number of floors and bedroom arrangement. Consider these guidelines to ensure thorough coverage:

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors near bedrooms: CO gas poisoning is most common at night when furnaces must run more often to keep your home comfortable. As a result, each bedroom should have a carbon monoxide detector installed within 15 feet of the door. If a couple of bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, one detector is adequate.
  • Put in detectors on each floor:
    Concentrated carbon monoxide buildup can become stuck on a single floor of your home, so do your best to have at least one CO detector on every level.
  • Put in detectors within 10 feet of an attached garage door: Many people end up leaving their cars on in the garage, producing dangerous carbon monoxide buildup, even when the large garage door is wide open. A CO sensor immediately inside the door—and in the room above the garage—alerts you of increased carbon monoxide levels within your home.
  • Put in detectors at the correct height: Carbon monoxide features a weight similar to air, but it’s frequently pushed up by the hot air released by combustion appliances. Installing detectors near the ceiling is best to catch this rising air. Models with digital readouts are best located at eye level to keep them easy to read.
  • Install detectors around 15 feet from combustion appliances: A few fuel-burning machines emit a tiny, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide as they first start running. This disperses quickly, but when a CO detector is installed right next to it, it may lead to false alarms.
  • Install detectors away from high heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have specified tolerances for heat and humidity. To reduce false alarms, don't install them in bathrooms, in strong sunlight, near air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide detector?

Depending on the specific unit, the manufacturer will sometimes recommend testing once a month and resetting to maintain proper functionality. Also, swap out the batteries in battery-powered units every six months. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery once a year or when the alarm begins chirping, whichever happens first. Then, replace the CO detector entirely every 10 years or in line with the manufacturer’s recommendations.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

You only need a minute to test your CO detector. Check the instruction manual for directions individual to your unit, knowing that testing practices this general procedure:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It might take 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to go off.
  • Loud beeping means the detector is working correctly.
  • Let go of the Test button and wait for two quick beeps, a flash or both. If the device goes on beeping when you let go of the button, press and hold it again for five seconds to silence it.

Replace the batteries if the unit fails to perform as expected after the test. If replacement batteries don’t help, replace the detector entirely.

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 changing the batteries. A few models automatically reset themselves within 10 minutes of these events, while others require a manual reset. The instruction manual should note which function is applicable.

Follow these steps to reset your CO detector manually:

  • Press and hold the Reset button for 5 to 10 seconds.
  • Release the button and listen for a beep, a flash or both.

If you don’t notice a beep or observe a flash, attempt the reset again or replace the batteries. If nothing happens, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with help from the manufacturer, or replace the detector.

What do I do if a carbon monoxide alarm starts?

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

  • Do not dismiss the alarm. You might not be able to notice hazardous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so expect the alarm is functioning properly when it goes off.
  • Evacuate all people and pets as soon as possible. If possible, open windows and doors on your way out to help dilute the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or your local fire department and explain that the carbon monoxide alarm has started.
  • Do not assume it’s safe to reenter your home when the alarm stops beeping. Opening windows and doors might help air it out, but the root cause could still be generating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders show up, they will search your home, assess carbon monoxide levels, look for the source of the CO leak and establish if it’s safe to come back inside. Depending on the cause, you may need to request repair services to stop the problem from reappearing.

Get Support from Stevenson Service Experts

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

The team at Stevenson Service Experts is ready to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair problems with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We recognize which signs could mean a potential carbon monoxide leak— like excessive soot, rusted flue pipes and a yellow, flickering burner flame—along with the necessary repairs to avoid them.

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

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