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

While the weather cools off, you insulate your home for the winter and rely on heating appliances to remain warm. These situations are when the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning is highest. Thankfully you can safeguard your family from carbon monoxide in a variety of ways. One of the most effective methods is to put in CO detectors around your home. Check out this guide to better understand where carbon monoxide comes from and how to reap the benefits of your CO alarms.

What causes carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of incomplete combustion. Therefore, this gas can appear when a fuel source is ignited, including natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Frequent causes of carbon monoxide in a house include:

  • Overloaded clothes dryer vent
  • Faulty water heater
  • Furnace or boiler with a cracked heat exchanger
  • Closed fireplace flue with a lit fire
  • Poorly 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. Instead, they begin an alarm when they sense a certain level of smoke produced by a fire. Installing dependable smoke detectors decreases the risk of dying in a house fire by nearly 55 percent.

Smoke detectors are available in two main types—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection is ideal with fast-moving fires that produce large flames, while photoelectric detectors are more effective with smoldering, smoky fires. Some newer smoke detectors come with both types of alarms in one unit to increase the chance of responding to a fire, no matter how it burns.

Unmistakably, smoke detectors and CO alarms are similarly important home safety devices. If you inspect the ceiling and notice an alarm of some kind, you won't always realize whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual difference is determined by the brand and model you have. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Quality devices are properly labeled. If not, try to find a brand and model number on the back of the detector and look it up online. You can also find a manufacture date. If the device is more than 10 years old, replace it right away.
  • Plug-in devices that extract power through an outlet are almost always carbon monoxide detectors94. The device will be labeled saying as much.
  • Some alarms will be two-in-one, sensing both smoke and carbon monoxide with a separate indicator light for each. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to tell without a 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 need depends on your home’s size, number of floors and the number of bedrooms. Follow these guidelines to guarantee complete coverage:

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors near sleeping areas: CO gas poisoning is most likely at night when furnaces must run frequently to keep your home warm. As a result, each bedroom should have a carbon monoxide detector installed about 15 feet of the door. If a couple of bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, a single alarm is adequate.
  • Put in detectors on all floors:
    Dense 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.
  • Have detectors within 10 feet of the internal garage door: A lot of people accidentally leave their cars running in the garage, producing dangerous carbon monoxide gas, even when the large garage door is wide open. A CO alarm immediately inside the door—and in the room over the garage—alerts you of elevated carbon monoxide levels entering your home.
  • Have detectors at the proper height: Carbon monoxide weighs about the same as air, but it’s frequently carried along with the hot air released by combustion appliances. Putting in detectors close to the ceiling is a good way to catch this rising air. Models with digital readouts are best installed at eye level to keep them easy to read.
  • Install detectors at least 15 feet from combustion appliances: A few fuel-burning machines give off a tiny, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide at startup. This breaks up quickly, but in situations where a CO detector is installed right next to it, it may trigger false alarms.
  • Install detectors away from high heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have specific tolerances for heat and humidity. To limit false alarms, don't install them in bathrooms, in harsh sunlight, around air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide alarm?

Depending on the design, the manufacturer may suggest monthly tests and resetting to ensure proper functionality. Also, change out the batteries in battery-powered units after 6 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 outright after 10 years or as outlined by the manufacturer’s recommendations.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

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

  • Press and hold the Test button. It might take 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to start.
  • Loud beeping indicates the detector is operating correctly.
  • Let go of the Test button and wait for two fast beeps, a flash or both. If the device keeps beeping when you release 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 for 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 after the alarm goes off, after running a test or after replacing the batteries. Certain models automatically reset themselves in under 10 minutes of these events, while other models 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 hear a beep or observe a flash, start the reset again or replace the batteries. If it’s still not working, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with assistance from the manufacturer, or install a new detector.

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

Follow these steps to protect your home and family:

  • Do not ignore the alarm. You might not be able to identify hazardous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so expect the alarm is working correctly when it is triggered.
  • 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 a local fire department and explain that the carbon monoxide alarm has started.
  • It's wrong to think it’s safe to reenter your home when the alarm is no longer beeping. Opening windows and doors may help air it out, but the root cause could still be generating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders come, they will search your home, assess carbon monoxide levels, check for the source of the CO leak and establish if it’s safe to return. Depending on the cause, you will sometimes need to schedule repair services to keep the problem from recurring.

Seek Support from McElroy Service Experts

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

The team at McElroy Service Experts is qualified to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair malfunctions with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We recognize which signs suggest a possible carbon monoxide leak— including increased soot, rusted flue pipes and a yellow, flickering burner flame—along with the necessary repairs to resolve them.

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

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