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Heating, Safety

7 Ways to Stay Safe with a Carbon Monoxide Detector

 November 12, 2021

By  Robert Bradford

Most kids who have seen The Princess Bride (and if you haven’t seen it stop reading now and go watch it, then you can finish this sentence) dream of building an immunity to poison like the Dread Pirate Roberts. Unfortunately, carbon monoxide, the leading cause of poisoning death in the United States, is not a poison you can build immunity against. Even worse, it’s practically impossible to notice without the aid of a carbon monoxide detector.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a lethal gas that has no color, smell, or taste. The symptoms it creates such as severe headaches, dizziness, tiredness, nausea, confusion, and irritability are often ignored or attributed to other causes. For these reasons and more, EVERY home should have a carbon monoxide detector.

CO is a byproduct created whenever any type of fuel is burned, including in furnaces, cooking appliances, automobiles, small engines, or lanterns. Exposure to even relatively low levels of CO can lead to headaches and difficulty breathing. Ongoing or exposure to high or low levels can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning which manifests through headaches, nausea, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, confusion, and in worst cases, death.

The most effective protection against CO poisoning is installing a carbon monoxide detector in your home. Its function is similar to a fire or smoke alarm system that sounds a siren or warning bell when it senses dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in your living space.

Carbon monoxide detectors should be able to catch CO buildup before you start experiencing discomfort. It would take 8 hours for the alarm to go off if there is a lower concentration of 50 ppm (parts per million) of carbon monoxide detected in your home. While the CO detector will sound an alarm within minutes if the concentration reaches over 150 ppm. 

CO monitors should be installed on every level of your home as per law requirements. It should be placed 5 feet above the floor or on the ceiling and close to bedrooms and sleeping areas. Make sure to place carbon monoxide alarms within close earshot and away from the fireplace or flame-producing appliances.

After installing CO detectors, regularly test and maintain them by cleaning the unit and replacing the batteries at least once a year. Properly vent exhausts from gas-burning appliances and be attentive for signs of damages. Avoid running vehicles inside the garage to avoid CO buildup.

In the same way that people install fire or smoke alarms to keep their family safe from any possible fire, many people realize the real threat of carbon monoxide poisoning in their homes. Especially now that we spend more time indoors than at any other time in history, we want our indoor air to be of the best quality possible.

Let us back up a bit and discuss what is carbon monoxide and how does it impact our health. Also, how does a CO detector can help protect our wellbeing?

How Harmful is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is described by the Mayo Clinic, a leading health and research institution, as "a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced by burning gasoline, wood, propane, charcoal or other fuel.” If your space is tightly sealed and improperly ventilated, CO may accumulate in your home to the point it could cause sickness.

What makes inhaling carbon monoxide so dangerous? Another online health source, HealthLink British Columbia explained that once a person breathes in CO, it mixes and binds with the hemoglobin in our blood and creates carboxyhemoglobin (COHb).

This could be fatal because instead of oxygen binding with our blood, which is essential to our bodily functions, carbon monoxide takes its place. This means that a lesser amount of oxygen will be transported and distributed to our primary organs such as the brain, heart, and tissues.

In the absence of sufficient oxygen, the person who is suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning may experience these symptoms listed by the Mayo Clinic: dull headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, shortness of breath, confusion, blurred vision, and loss of consciousness.

To add insult to injury, the “bond between carbon monoxide and hemoglobin is approximately 250 times stronger than the bond between oxygen and hemoglobin.” So it is very difficult for the body to rid itself of carbon monoxide once CO poisoning occurs.

Additionally, CO is also ridiculously hard to identify without the help of detection devices. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA said that “[Carbon monoxide] is often mixed with other gases that do have an odor. So, you can inhale carbon monoxide right along with gases that you can smell and not even know that CO is present.”

What Does a Carbon Monoxide Detector Do?

Similar to a fire alarm that detects smoke, a carbon monoxide detector measures the level of CO present in the room and sounds a warning to alert you. 

Some more advanced versions of CO monitors can be linked to your smartphone so you can be alerted anytime, anywhere. This could be especially important for households with pets at home alone during the day. Additionally, modern designs can combine the utilities of a fire or smoke detector and the carbon monoxide monitor into one. 

There are various designs of CO detectors so its warning signal may vary. You should familiarize yourself with your brand's beeping patterns and their meaning. A CO monitor may continuously beep every 30 seconds or one minute if its battery needs changing or the device has reached the end of its life. 

Ideally, carbon monoxide detectors should be able to catch CO buildup before you start experiencing discomfort caused by the amount of carbon monoxide in the air. It should be noted that this is not the time to go cheap. 

There are detectors out there, even some available at the big box home improvement stores, that won’t sound the alarm until you are well past dangerous levels. That could mean that it will not alert you to low level exposure in a safe time frame or well past dangerously high levels. It would be like having a fire alarm that doesn’t go off until your home is engulfed in flames.

According to SafeWise, a research organization focusing on home security, it would take 8 hours for the alarm to go off if there is a lower concentration of 50 ppm (parts per million) of carbon monoxide detected in your home. While the CO detector will sound an alarm within minutes if the concentration reaches over 150 ppm.

Having a fully-functioning carbon monoxide detector is not just useful when critical levels of CO are present in your home. Even though the majority begin feeling the telltale signs of CO poisoning at 70 ppm, but some people with pre-existing heart conditions could already experience increased chest pain at lower concentrations.

For these reasons, we recommend discussing your options with an experienced HVAC contractor if possible.

How Many Carbon Monoxide Detectors Do I Need?

The answer to that question depends on how big your home is and with how many levels.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs recommends placing a carbon monoxide detector on every floor of your house, even in the basement and the attic.

As mentioned earlier, certain CO monitors also serve as fire or smoke alarms. If you are thinking about going for those, you might save a few more bucks as you get two detectors in one. Additionally, for aesthetic purposes, you will not need to have so many devices attached to your walls.

Another great tip is to find out what your local neighborhood’s laws require the number of carbon monoxide detectors required for each house.

Where is the Best Place for It?

As with any other sensing device, the location of the carbon monoxide detectors should be strategic and well-thought-out for it to be efficient.

The Environmental Protection Agency or EPA recommends placing the CO monitors about 5 feet above the floor or on the ceiling. Why so high? It is because carbon monoxide is slightly lighter than air, and it is often mixed with warm, rising air.

The EPA says that although you can place the CO detector on the ceiling, it should not be placed right next to or over a fireplace or flame-producing appliance.

The carbon monoxide monitor should also be placed near or outside bedrooms or sleeping areas, close enough to wake you up if it started to go off.

What Other Safety Measures You Should Take?

Installing a carbon monoxide detector is an excellent first step in protecting your family from the harmful effects of CO poisoning in your home. But there are other precautionary measures we can take in making sure that the quality of air inside our living space is in a healthy condition:

1. Regularly test and maintain your CO detectors’ alarms as suggested by the user’s manual and care booklet. Replace the battery at least once a year.

2. Make sure you have proper ventilation around the house especially if you have fuel-burning appliances. 

3. Maintain your fuel-burning appliances routinely and watch out for warning signs for damages such as streaks of soot, excess humidity and condensation on windows, walls, and other surfaces, and oxidation or rust on pipes or jacks of appliances.

4. Pull out the car from the garage right after starting. Carbon monoxide is also a byproduct of automobile combustion and has the potential to create a buildup in the garage, whether it is closed or open.

Robert Bradford


I'm Robert Bradford. I've been in the heating and air conditioning industry for 30 years. Ov​​​​​er 40 if you count the years I helped my father as a kid. On this site, I share everything I've learned about finding the best HVAC contractors and equipment for your home. I'm happy to say that over the last few years, The Comfort Academy has grown into a trusted site with thousands of informed site visitors each year.

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