Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is one of the most hazardous gases found in the home. Known as the “silent killer,” CO gas is colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-irritating, however it can result in unconsciousness, brain damage or death. Consequently, more than 400 people suffer fatal carbon monoxide poisoning each year, a higher fatality rate compared to any other kind of poisoning.

When the weather gets colder, you close up your home for the winter and rely on heating appliances to stay warm. This is when the danger of carbon monoxide exposure is highest. The good news is you can defend your family from a gas leak in several ways. One of the most successful methods is to add CO detectors in your home. Try this guide to better understand where carbon monoxide comes from and how to take full advantage of your CO detectors.

What causes carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct whenever something combusts. As a result, this gas can appear when a fuel source burns, including natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Prevalent causes of carbon monoxide in a house include:

  • Clogged clothes dryer vent
  • Broken down water heater
  • Furnace or boiler with a broken heat exchanger
  • Closed fireplace flue while a fire is lit
  • Poorly vented gas or wood stove
  • Vehicle idling in the garage
  • Portable generator, grill, power tool or lawn equipment being used in the garage

Do smoke detectors detect carbon monoxide?

No, smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. In fact, they begin an alarm when they sense a certain concentration of smoke caused by a fire. Installing functional smoke detectors lowers the risk of dying in a house fire by nearly 55 percent.

Smoke detectors come in two primary types—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection functions well with fast-growing fires that produce large flames, while photoelectric detection is more suited for smoldering, smoky fires. The newest smoke detectors come with both types of alarms in one unit to boost the chance of sensing a fire, no matter how it burns.

Unmistakably, smoke detectors and CO alarms are equally beneficial home safety devices. If you look up at the ceiling and see an alarm of some kind, you won't always know whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual contrast depends on the brand and model you prefer. Here are several factors to remember:

  • Most devices are properly labeled. If not, check for a brand and model number on the back of the detector and locate it online. You can also find a manufacture date. If the device is more than 10 years old, replace it at the earliest opportunity.
  • Plug-in devices that extract power with an outlet are almost always carbon monoxide detectors94. The device is supposed to be labeled so.
  • Some alarms will be two-in-one, sensing both smoke and carbon monoxide with an indicator light for each. That being said, it can be difficult to tell without a label on the front, so checking the manufacturing details on the back is smart.

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, how many floors it has and the number of bedrooms. Consider these guidelines to ensure total coverage:

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors around sleeping areas: CO gas leaks are most prevalent at night when furnaces have to run constantly to keep your home heated. As a result, all bedrooms should have a carbon monoxide alarm installed around 15 feet of the door. If two bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, a single alarm is enough.
  • Install detectors on each floor:
    Concentrated carbon monoxide buildup can become caught on a single floor of your home, so try to have at least one CO detector on every level.
  • Put in detectors within 10 feet of your internal garage door: Many people end up leaving their cars idling in the garage, leading to dangerous carbon monoxide buildup, even while the large garage door is completely open. A CO alarm right inside the door—and in the room above the garage—alerts you of elevated carbon monoxide levels entering your home.
  • Install detectors at the correct height: Carbon monoxide weighs about the same as air, but it’s commonly carried upward in the hot air released by combustion appliances. Having detectors near the ceiling is best to catch this rising air. Models that come with digital readouts are best installed at eye level to keep them easy to read.
  • Install detectors about 15 feet from combustion appliances: Some fuel-burning machines give off a tiny, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide when they start. This dissipates quickly, but if a CO detector is nearby, it could trigger false alarms.
  • Put in detectors away from excess heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have certain tolerances for heat and humidity. To reduce false alarms, avoid installing them in bathrooms, in harsh sunlight, next to 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 encourage testing once a month and resetting to maintain proper functionality. Also, swap out the batteries in battery-powered units after 6 months. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery once a year or when the alarm is chirping, whichever starts first. Then, replace the CO detector completely every 10 years or according to the manufacturer’s guidelines.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

All it takes is a minute to test your CO detector. Review the instruction manual for directions unique to your unit, knowing that testing uses this general procedure:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It might take 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 short beeps, a flash or both. If the device keeps beeping when you release the button, press and hold it again for five seconds to stop it.

Swap out 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 only have to reset your unit when the alarm goes off, after running a test or after changing the batteries. Some models automatically reset themselves in 10 minutes of these events, while other alarms require a manual reset. The instruction manual should note which function you should use.

Use 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, try the reset again or replace the batteries. If that doesn't help either, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with support from the manufacturer, or get rid of the faulty detector.

What can I do if a carbon monoxide alarm starts?

Listen to these steps to safeguard your home and family:

  • Do not disregard the alarm. You might not be able to recognize hazardous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so anticipate the alarm is functioning properly when it starts.
  • Evacuate all people and pets as quickly as possible. If possible, open windows and doors on your way out to help thin out the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or your local fire department and inform them that the carbon monoxide alarm has gone off.
  • It's wrong to think it’s safe to reenter your home when the alarm stops beeping. Opening windows and doors might help air it out, but the source might still be generating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders show up, they will search your home, evaluate carbon monoxide levels, try to find the source of the CO leak and figure out if it’s safe to go back inside. Depending on the cause, you will sometimes need to arrange repair services to stop the problem from returning.

Seek Support from Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning

With the proper precautions, there’s no need to be afraid of carbon monoxide poisoning in your home. Along with installing CO alarms, it’s worthwhile to maintain your fuel-burning appliances, especially as winter arrives.

The team at Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning 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 likely carbon monoxide leak— including 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 Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning for more information.

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