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 result in unconsciousness, brain damage or death. Consequently, more than 400 people suffer fatal carbon monoxide poisoning each year, a higher fatality rate versus any other kind of poisoning.

As the weather cools down, you insulate your home for the winter and trust in heating appliances to stay warm. These situations are when the threat of carbon monoxide exposure is highest. Fortunately you can safeguard your family from a gas leak in a variety of ways. One of the most successful methods is to put in CO detectors throughout your home. Check out this guide to help you understand where carbon monoxide is produced and how to make the most of your CO detectors.

What causes carbon monoxide in a house?

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

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

Do smoke detectors sense carbon monoxide?

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

Smoke detectors are offered in two primary modes—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection is ideal with fast-growing fires that produce large flames, while photoelectric detection is more effective with smoldering, smoky fires. A few smoke detectors incorporate both kinds 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 both essential home safety devices. If you check the ceiling and notice an alarm of some kind, you won't always know whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual discrepancy depends on the brand and model you want. Here are a few 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 older than 10 years, replace it as soon as possible.
  • Plug-in devices that use power through an outlet are generally carbon monoxide detectors94. The device should be labeled saying as much.
  • Some alarms are two-in-one, sensing both smoke and carbon monoxide with a different indicator light for each. Still, 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, how many floors it has and the number of bedrooms. Use these guidelines to guarantee thorough coverage:

  • Add carbon monoxide detectors nearby sleeping areas: CO gas exposure is most common at night when furnaces are running frequently to keep your home warm. As a result, all bedrooms should have a carbon monoxide alarm installed within 15 feet of the door. If two bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, one detector is adequate.
  • Put in detectors on all floors:
    Concentrated carbon monoxide gas can become trapped 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: A surprising number of people accidentally leave their cars idling in the garage, resulting in dangerous carbon monoxide gas, even if the large garage door is wide open. A CO alarm right inside the door—and in the room above the garage—alerts you of elevated carbon monoxide levels inside your home.
  • Install detectors at the correct height: Carbon monoxide is a similar density as air, but it’s commonly carried upward in the hot air released by combustion appliances. Having detectors close to the ceiling is a good way to catch this rising air. Models that include digital readouts are best placed at eye level to make them easier to read.
  • Add detectors about 15 feet from combustion appliances: Certain fuel-burning machines give off a tiny, harmless amount of carbon monoxide at startup. This dissipates quickly, but in situations where a CO detector is installed right next to it, it might trigger false alarms.
  • Have detectors away from extreme heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have specified tolerances for heat and humidity. To limit 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 design, the manufacturer may suggest testing once a month and resetting to maintain proper functionality. Also, swap out the batteries in battery-powered units twice a year. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery every 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 detector. Read the instruction manual for directions specific to your unit, with the knowledge that testing practices this general process:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It may need 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to go off.
  • Loud beeping means the detector is operating correctly.
  • Release the Test button and wait for two quick beeps, a flash or both. If the device continues beeping when you release the button, press and hold it again for five seconds to quiet it.

Replace the batteries if the unit fails to perform as expected after the test. If replacement batteries don’t make a difference, 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 testing the device or after swapping the batteries. Certain models automatically reset themselves in 10 minutes of these events, while other models require a manual reset. The instruction manual will note which function you should use.

Follow these steps to reset your CO detector manually:

  • Press and hold the Reset button for 5 to 10 seconds.
  • Release the button and wait 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 that doesn't help either, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with assistance from the manufacturer, or get rid of the faulty detector.

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

Use these steps to protect your home and family:

  • Do not ignore the alarm. You won't always be able to recognize unsafe levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so expect the alarm is working correctly when it starts.
  • Evacuate all people and pets immediately. If you're able to, open windows and doors on your way out to help dilute the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or a local fire department and report that the carbon monoxide alarm has triggered.
  • Do not assume it’s safe to reenter your home when the alarm stops running. Opening windows and doors can help air it out, but the root cause could still be generating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders come, they will enter your home, measure carbon monoxide levels, check for the source of the CO leak and determine if it’s safe to come back inside. Depending on the cause, you will sometimes need to schedule repair services to keep the problem from recurring.

Find Support from Stark Services

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

The team at Stark Services is qualified to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair issues with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We know what signs suggest a potential carbon monoxide leak— like 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 Stark Services for more information.