Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a common risk found in the home. Dubbed the “silent killer,” CO gas is colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-irritating, however it can cause unconsciousness, brain damage or death. As a result, more than 400 people die of accidental carbon monoxide exposure each year, a steeper fatality rate than any other kind of poisoning.

When the weather cools off, you insulate your home for the winter and trust in heating appliances to stay warm. This is when the risk of carbon monoxide inhalation is highest. Fortunately you can defend your family from a gas leak in several ways. One of the most successful methods is to install CO detectors throughout your home. Check out this guide to help you understand where carbon monoxide comes from and how to take full advantage of your CO detectors.

What produces carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of something burned. Because of this, this gas can appear anytime a fuel source burns, including natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Frequent causes of carbon monoxide in a house include:

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

Do smoke detectors detect carbon monoxide?

No, smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. Instead, they sound an alarm when they recognize a certain amount of smoke caused by a fire. Installing functional 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 functions well with quick-moving fires that produce large flames, while photoelectric detection is more applicable for smoldering, smoky fires. A few smoke detectors incorporate both forms 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 similarly important home safety devices. If you look up at the ceiling and see an alarm of some kind, you won't always recognize whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual contrast is determined by the brand and model you have. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Quality devices are clearly labeled. If not, try to find a brand and model number on the back of the detector and locate it online. You will also find a manufacture date. If the device is more than 10 years old, replace it at the earliest opportunity.
  • Plug-in devices that draw power from an outlet are generally carbon monoxide sensors94. The device is supposed to be labeled as such.
  • Some alarms will be two-in-one, detecting both smoke and carbon monoxide with a separate indicator light for each. Still, it can be tough to tell if there's no label on the front, so checking the manufacturing details on the back is worthwhile.

How many carbon monoxide detectors will I want in my home?

The number of CO alarms you require is dependent on your home’s size, how many floors it has and bedroom arrangement. Consider these guidelines to guarantee total coverage:

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors nearby bedrooms: CO gas exposure is most likely at night when furnaces have to run more often to keep your home warm. As a result, every bedroom should have a carbon monoxide sensor installed within 15 feet of the door. If two bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, just one detector is enough.
  • Put in detectors on every floor:
    Dense carbon monoxide buildup can become stuck on a single floor of your home, so do your best to have at least one CO detector on every level.
  • Put in detectors within 10 feet of an attached garage door: A lot of people unsafely leave their cars running in the garage, resulting in dangerous carbon monoxide gas, even if the large garage door is fully open. A CO detector just inside the door—and in the room over the garage—alerts you of elevated carbon monoxide levels entering your home.
  • Install detectors at the proper height: Carbon monoxide features a weight similar to air, but it’s commonly carried upward in the hot air created by combustion appliances. Installing detectors up against the ceiling is ideal to catch this rising air. Models with digital readouts are best installed at eye level to make them easier to read.
  • Add detectors around 15 feet from combustion appliances: Some fuel-burning machines emit a small, harmless amount of carbon monoxide when they start. This disperses quickly, but in situations where a CO detector is installed right next to it, it could give off false alarms.
  • Have detectors away from excess heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have specific tolerances for heat and humidity. To minimize false alarms, don't install them in bathrooms, in harsh sunlight, near air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide detector?

Depending on the specific unit, the manufacturer may encourage monthly tests and resetting to sustain proper functionality. Also, replace the batteries in battery-powered units after 6 months. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery once a year or when the alarm starts chirping, whichever starts first. Then, replace the CO detector outright after 10 years or in line with the manufacturer’s instructions.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

It only takes a minute to test your CO sensor. Read the instruction manual for directions individual to your unit, with the knowledge that testing uses this general process:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It may need 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to start.
  • Loud beeping signifies the detector is functioning correctly.
  • Release the Test button and wait for two fast beeps, a flash or both. If the device keeps beeping when you let go of the button, press and hold it again for five seconds to quiet it.

Swap out the batteries if the unit isn't performing as expected after the test. If replacement batteries don’t make a difference, replace the detector immediately.

How to reset your carbon monoxide alarm

You only need to reset your unit once the alarm goes off, after a test or after changing the batteries. Certain models automatically reset themselves in under 10 minutes of these events, while others 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 get a beep or observe a flash, attempt the reset again or replace the batteries. If nothing happens, 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 safeguard your home and family:

  • Do not ignore the alarm. You won't always be able to detect hazardous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so assume the alarm is working properly when it is triggered.
  • Evacuate all people and pets as soon as possible. If you're able to, open windows and doors on your way out to help weaken the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or your 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 can help air it out, but the root cause could still be producing carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders arrive, they will go into your home, assess carbon monoxide levels, try to find the source of the CO leak and determine if it’s safe to go back inside. Depending on the cause, you might need to arrange repair services to prevent the problem from reappearing.

Seek Support from Robinson Service Experts

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

The team at Robinson Service Experts is ready to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair issues with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We understand what signs suggest a likely carbon monoxide leak— such as increased 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 Robinson Service Experts for more information.