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, but it can cause unconsciousness, brain damage or death. Because of this, more than 400 people die as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning each year, a steeper fatality rate than other types of poisoning.

As the weather gets colder, you close up your home for the winter and trust in heating appliances to keep warm. This is where the risk of carbon monoxide inhalation is highest. Thankfully you can protect your family from a gas leak in different ways. One of the most efficient methods is to add CO detectors around your home. Use this guide to help you understand where carbon monoxide comes from and how to reap the benefits of your CO detectors.

What causes 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. Prevalent causes of carbon monoxide in a house consist of:

  • Blocked up clothes dryer vent
  • Malfunctioning 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 sitting in the garage
  • Portable generator, grill, power tool or lawn equipment being used in the garage

Do smoke detectors recognize carbon monoxide?

No, smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. Instead, they begin an alarm when they detect a certain concentration of smoke generated by a fire. Having dependable smoke detectors reduces the risk of dying in a house fire by nearly 55 percent.

Smoke detectors come in two primary modes—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection functions well with fast-growing fires that emit large flames, while photoelectric models are more applicable for smoldering, smoky fires. A few smoke detectors incorporate both types of alarms in a single unit to increase the chance of responding to a fire, no matter how it burns.

Obviously, smoke detectors and CO alarms are both essential home safety devices. If you check the ceiling and find an alarm of some kind, you might not know whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual difference is based on the brand and model you have. Here are a few factors to keep in mind:

  • Quality devices are visibly labeled. If not, try to find a brand and model number on the back of the detector and look it up online. You should also find a manufacture date. If the device is older than 10 years, replace it right away.
  • Plug-in devices that use power with an outlet are almost always carbon monoxide detectors94. The device will be labeled as such.
  • Some alarms are two-in-one, offering protection against both smoke and carbon monoxide with a separate indicator light for each. Nevertheless, it can be hard to tell without a label on the front, so reviewing 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 depends on your home’s size, how many floors it has and the number of bedrooms. Consider these guidelines to guarantee total coverage:

  • Add carbon monoxide detectors nearby bedrooms: CO gas exposure is most common at night when furnaces are running more often to keep your home comfortable. Therefore, each bedroom should have a carbon monoxide sensor installed about 15 feet of the door. If multiple bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, one detector is adequate.
  • Install detectors on every floor:
    Concentrated carbon monoxide gas can become stuck on a single floor of your home, so try to have at least one CO detector on each floor.
  • Install detectors within 10 feet of an attached garage door: Many people unsafely leave their cars on in the garage, leading to dangerous carbon monoxide buildup, even if the large garage door is completely open. A CO alarm just inside the door—and in the room above the garage—alerts you of elevated carbon monoxide levels inside your home.
  • Install detectors at the appropriate height: Carbon monoxide weighs about the same as air, but it’s commonly carried along with the hot air released by combustion appliances. Installing 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.
  • Install detectors around 15 feet from combustion appliances: Certain fuel-burning machines emit a small, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide when they start. This breaks up quickly, but when a CO detector is positioned too close, it may lead to false alarms.
  • Install detectors away from extreme heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have certain tolerances for heat and humidity. To reduce false alarms, don't 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 detector?

Depending on the design, the manufacturer will sometimes recommend monthly testing and resetting to sustain 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 starts chirping, whichever happens first. Then, replace the CO detector entirely 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 unique to your unit, understanding that testing follows this general procedure:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It may need 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to start.
  • Loud beeping means the detector is functioning correctly.
  • Release the Test button and wait for two fast beeps, a flash or both. If the device goes on beeping when you release the button, press and hold it again for five seconds to silence it.

Change the batteries if the unit won't work as expected during the test. If replacement batteries don’t change anything, replace the detector entirely.

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. A few models automatically reset themselves in under 10 minutes of these events, while other alarms require a manual reset. The instruction manual should 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 listen for a beep, a flash or both.

If you don’t hear a beep or see a flash, attempt the reset again or replace the batteries. If it’s still not working, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with support from the manufacturer, or install a new detector.

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

Follow these steps to protect your home and family:

  • Do not dismiss the alarm. You won't always be able to identify dangerous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so expect the alarm is operating properly when it starts.
  • Evacuate all people and pets as soon as possible. If you're able to, open windows and doors on your way out to try and weaken the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or your local fire department and explain that the carbon monoxide alarm has started.
  • Don't 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 creating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders show up, they will enter your home, evaluate carbon monoxide levels, try to find the source of the CO leak and figure out if it’s safe to return. Depending on the cause, you might need to schedule repair services to stop the problem from recurring.

Find Support from Jack Nelson 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 Jack Nelson Service Experts is qualified to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair problems with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We recognize which signs indicate a likely carbon monoxide leak— including excess 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 Jack Nelson Service Experts for more information.

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