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 result in unconsciousness, brain damage or death. Consequently, more than 400 people suffer fatal carbon monoxide exposure each year, a larger fatality rate compared to any other type of poisoning.

While the weather cools off, you seal your home for the winter and trust in heating appliances to keep warm. This is when the threat of carbon monoxide inhalation is highest. Fortunately you can defend your family from carbon monoxide in different ways. One of the most successful methods is to install CO detectors in your home. Use this guide to better understand where carbon monoxide is produced and how to take full advantage of your CO sensors.

What produces carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct whenever something combusts. As a result, this gas is produced when a fuel source is burned, such as natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Frequent causes of carbon monoxide in a house include:

  • Overloaded clothes dryer vent
  • Malfunctioning water heater
  • Furnace or boiler with a cracked heat exchanger
  • Closed fireplace flue while a fire is lit
  • Poorly vented gas or wood stove
  • Vehicle sitting 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 start an alarm when they detect a certain amount of smoke generated by a fire. Installing functional smoke detectors decreases the risk of dying in a house fire by about 55 percent.

Smoke detectors come in two basic types—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection works best with fast-moving fires that generate large flames, while photoelectric detectors are more applicable for smoldering, smoky fires. Some newer smoke detectors include both types of alarms in a solitary unit to boost the chance of recognizing a fire, regardless of how it burns.

Clearly, smoke detectors and CO alarms are both essential home safety devices. If you inspect the ceiling and notice an alarm of some kind, you may not recognize whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual difference is determined by the brand and model you want. Here are some factors to remember:

  • Quality devices are clearly 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 a decade old, replace it at the earliest opportunity.
  • Plug-in devices that use power from an outlet are typically carbon monoxide sensors94. The device is supposed to be labeled as such.
  • Some alarms are really two-in-one, detecting both smoke and carbon monoxide with an indicator light for each. Still, it can be tough 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 do I need in my home?

The number of CO alarms you should have is dependent on your home’s size, the number of stories and the number of bedrooms. Follow these guidelines to guarantee total coverage:

  • Place carbon monoxide detectors around bedrooms: CO gas leaks are most common at night when furnaces have to run frequently to keep your home comfortable. For that reason, each bedroom should have a carbon monoxide alarm installed about 15 feet of the door. If a couple of bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, a single alarm is enough.
  • Put in detectors on every floor:
    Concentrated carbon monoxide gas can become stuck on a single floor of your home, so make sure you have at least one CO detector on every level.
  • Have detectors within 10 feet of an attached garage door: Many people accidentally leave their cars on in the garage, resulting in dangerous carbon monoxide gas, even when the large garage door is fully open. A CO alarm immediately inside the door—and in the room over the garage—alerts you of increased carbon monoxide levels inside your home.
  • Put in detectors at the appropriate height: Carbon monoxide features a weight similar to air, but it’s often pushed up by the hot air produced by combustion appliances. Having detectors near the ceiling is ideal to catch this rising air. Models with digital readouts are best placed at eye level to keep them easy to read.
  • Put in detectors around 15 feet from combustion appliances: Some fuel-burning machines emit a tiny, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide when they start. This breaks up quickly, but when a CO detector is nearby, it might lead to false alarms.
  • Install detectors away from extreme heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have specific tolerances for heat and humidity. To minimize false alarms, try not to install them in bathrooms, in harsh sunlight, next to air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide alarm?

Depending on the specific unit, the manufacturer may recommend monthly testing and resetting to maintain proper functionality. Also, change out the batteries in battery-powered units twice a year. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery once a year or when the alarm is chirping, whichever starts first. Then, replace the CO detector entirely every 10 years or in line with the manufacturer’s guidelines.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

You only need a minute to test your CO alarm. Check the instruction manual for directions specific to your unit, knowing that testing follows this general process:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It may take 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to begin.
  • Loud beeping means the detector is functioning correctly.
  • Release the Test button and wait for two short beeps, a flash or both. If the device continues beeping when you let go of the button, press and hold it again for five seconds to stop it.

Swap out the batteries if the unit isn't performing as expected during the test. If replacement batteries don’t make a difference, replace the detector immediately.

How to reset your carbon monoxide alarm

You're only required to reset your unit once the alarm goes off, after running a test or after changing the batteries. Certain models automatically reset themselves in 10 minutes of these events, while other alarms need a manual reset. The instruction manual will note which function applies.

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

What can I do if a carbon monoxide alarm goes off?

Follow these steps to protect your home and family:

  • Do not disregard the alarm. You may not be able to recognize dangerous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so anticipate the alarm is functioning correctly when it goes off.
  • Evacuate all people and pets as soon as possible. If possible, open windows and doors on your way out to attempt to weaken the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or the 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 might still be creating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders come, they will go into your home, measure carbon monoxide levels, look for 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 schedule repair services to keep the problem from returning.

Find Support from Levy & Son Service Experts

With the proper precautions, there’s no need to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning in your home. In addition to installing CO alarms, it’s important to maintain your fuel-burning appliances, especially as winter starts.

The team at Levy & Son Service Experts is qualified to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair issues with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We know what signs suggest a likely carbon monoxide leak— like excess 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 Levy & Son Service Experts for more information.

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