A Quick Guide: Do Smoke Detectors Detect Carbon Monoxide?

Indoor Air Quality, Safety

You made a life-saving decision by installing smoke alarms in your home. After all, in 2021 alone, 3,800 fatalities and 14,700 injuries occurred from 1,353,500 fires all around America that year. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) said that having fully-operational smoke detectors lower the risk of death by fire by 55%.

But another household danger looms. Carbon monoxide poisoning takes the lives of at least 430 people and silently damages the health of 50,000 and more people each year.

You now wonder, “Do smoke detectors detect carbon monoxide?”

DP do smoke detectors detect carbon monoxide

Can the Smoke Detector in my Home also Detect Carbon Monoxide?

Smoke detectors DO NOT detect carbon monoxide. Smoke alarms are triggered by the presence of smoke in a smoldering or flaming fire. They are designed to identify fire through heat, small black soot particles, or when smoke breaks the light beam emitted by the smoke detector.

Meanwhile, carbon monoxide (CO) has virtually no visible clues: no color, no odor, nor taste. Carbon monoxide detectors specialize in sensing the presence of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere of a room. Its silicon microchip sets off an alarm at a minimum of 30 parts per million (ppm) if carbon monoxide is detected in 30 consecutive days. But at 400 ppm, the CO detector will promptly sound within 4 to 15 minutes.

For maximum and ideal protection, you can install combination devices that detect both smoke and carbon monoxide. But they must be labeled to determine immediately that they have the dual-sensor ability. 

How to Detect Carbon Monoxide in Your House?

Carbon monoxide earned its name as the “silent killer” because of being practically untraceable to the naked eye and through other common senses. Its characteristic of being odorless, tasteless, and colorless qualifies CO to the shortlist of deadliest gases on earth.

That being said, you definitely want to know if there is carbon monoxide present in your house. 

Carbon monoxide is produced when incomplete combustion occurs. A complete chemical reaction when fuel burns result in a harmless and natural substance we all know as carbon dioxide (1 carbon atom, 2 oxygen atoms). But when there is not enough supply of oxygen, only 1 oxygen atom is paired with the 1 carbon atom, making it into carbon monoxide.

There are only two surefire ways you can detect the presence of CO in your home. Unfortunately, one of them involves already having the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Classic symptoms of CO poisoning include headache, fatigue, dizziness, vomiting, bellyache, and chest and muscle pains. Prolonged exposure may also result in mental problems such as confusion, memory loss, lack of concentration, speech defects, depression, and parkinsonism.

Thankfully, the other method of detecting carbon monoxide is hazard-free, practical, and inexpensive.

Installing carbon monoxide detectors, possibly on every level of your house, can significantly decrease the threat of CO poisoning to your family. It should also be installed near fuel-burning appliances such as gas-powered furnaces, fireplaces, gas stoves, and water heaters.

But for a newbie in shopping for carbon monoxide detectors, what should you look for in a quality device? And since smoke alarms do not exactly detect carbon monoxide, how can you tell the smoke detectors and CO alarms apart?

What’s the Difference Between a Smoke Detector and a Carbon Monoxide Detector?

Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide sensors are the most sought-after detectors on the market for home safety. Rightly so, these devices are detecting threats and warning residents of the impending dangers of fires and CO poisoning, which are serious health threats in all over America.

But if you place these detectors side by side to each other, it is easy to get confused because they are pretty similar in appearance.

Here are some ways you can identify which is a smoke alarm and which is a carbon monoxide detector: 

  • Smoke alarms alert you when there is smoke or fire in the house. Carbon monoxide is designed to detect carbon monoxide only and will warn you against dangerous levels of CO in your home.
  • Carbon monoxide detectors are mostly labeled prominently as such on the face of the device near the ‘TEST’ button. Smoke alarms seldom have label or distinctions or if there are any, it is somewhere in the back along with the brand and model.
  • Smoke detectors are typically installed on the ceiling while carbon monoxide detectors are required to be installed in low-wall receptacles of sleeping areas if they are plugged in.
  • Most smoke alarms are round in shape, while CO detectors can come in round, square, or rectangular shapes.
  • Smoke detectors are much cheaper than carbon monoxide monitors. A smoke alarm’s price can range from $10 to $75. While CO detectors can cost $20 to $150.
  • Both smoke and carbon monoxide detectors need a power source to operate. They can be hardwired into the electrical system of your home or through batteries. Some professionally-installed detectors can also be connected to the home security systems and have a backup battery in case there is no electricity.

Types of Smoke Detectors and Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors have various classifications based on how they work. Before you shop for either a smoke detector or a CO monitor, be sure you have complete information on the different kinds and which ones suit your family’s needs.

Ionization Smoke Detectors

Smoke alarms detect fire or the presence of smoke depending on their type. Ionization smoke detectors have two charged plates where positive and negative ions flow between them. When smoke disrupts this current, the smoke detector alarms. 

Photoelectric Smoke Detectors

Photoelectric smoke detectors emit a light beam to their immediate area and when smoke is present, it will reflect light onto the source so it will be triggered.

Biomimetic Sensor 

Inside the detection chamber of a CO detector is the carbon monoxide gas sensor. The alarm will sound if your sensor detects a high buildup of carbon monoxide due to poorly-vented gas-powered appliances emitting hazardous levels of carbon monoxide.

A carbon monoxide detector with a biomimetic sensor has a gel inside it that changes color when it senses CO from the room. As the color of the gel changes, the alarm will be triggered.

Electrochemical Sensor

Using electrochemical instant detection and response (IDR) sensors, this kind of carbon monoxide alarm has two electrodes submerged in a chemical solution. These electrodes have charged molecules passing through them. If the electrical current changes because of the presence of CO, the carbon monoxide detector alerts you immediately.

Metal Oxide Semiconductor Detector

This variety of carbon monoxide alarms makes use of a silica chip with circuits. As soon as it detects CO in the immediate surrounding, the chip will lower its electrical resistance and sound the alarm.

What is unique about this kind of CO detector is it needs a significant amount of electricity to operate so it is commonly plugged into an electrical source rather than relying on a battery.

Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detectors–Combination Alarms

There is a growing popularity of combination detectors, which integrate the fire-sensing ability of a smoke alarm and the carbon monoxide detection of a CO detector.

In case of a fire and/or carbon monoxide buildup, combination alarms make use of ionization and photoelectric techniques to sense smoke plus the CO sensor. Some models can also be monitored via a smartphone.

The benefit of having a combination alarm instead of a separate smoke detector and carbon monoxide monitor is its space-saving feature. You will also have to maintain just one device instead of two.

It is crucial though that these combination alarms are labeled smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors so household members will be knowledgeable about their signals.

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