Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a potentially hazardous gas found in the home. Known as the “silent killer,” CO gas is colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-irritating, yet it can result in unconsciousness, brain damage or death. Because of this, more than 400 people suffer fatal carbon monoxide exposure each year, a higher fatality rate versus any other kind of poisoning.

While the weather gets colder, you close up your home for the winter and rely on heating appliances to keep warm. These situations are when the danger of carbon monoxide exposure is highest. Thankfully you can protect your family from carbon monoxide in several ways. One of the most efficient methods is to install CO detectors in your home. Use this guide to help you understand where carbon monoxide comes from and how to take full advantage of your CO alarms.

What causes carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of something burned. Therefore, this gas is produced when a fuel source is burned, including natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Prevalent causes of carbon monoxide in a house consist of:

  • Clogged clothes dryer vent
  • Broken down water heater
  • Furnace or boiler with a cracked 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. Alternatively, they begin an alarm when they sense a certain concentration of smoke generated by a fire. Installing reliable smoke detectors lowers the risk of dying in a house fire by around 55 percent.

Smoke detectors are available in two main forms—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection functions well with quick-moving fires that emit large flames, while photoelectric detection is more suited for smoldering, smoky fires. A few smoke detectors incorporate both forms of alarms in a solitary unit to maximize the chance of recognizing a fire, regardless of how it burns.

Clearly, smoke detectors and CO alarms are both important home safety devices. If you inspect the ceiling and notice an alarm of some kind, you might not realize whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual discrepancy is determined by the brand and model you prefer. Here are some factors to keep in mind:

  • Quality devices are properly labeled. If not, try to find a brand and model number on the back of the detector and locate it online. You should also find a manufacture date. If the device is more than a decade old, replace it at the earliest opportunity.
  • Plug-in devices that extract power from an outlet are generally carbon monoxide alarms94. The device should be labeled saying as much.
  • Some alarms are really two-in-one, offering protection against both smoke and carbon monoxide with a different indicator light for each. Still, it can be tough to tell with no label on the front, so double 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 require is determined by your home’s size, the number of stories and bedroom arrangement. Follow these guidelines to provide thorough coverage:

  • Place carbon monoxide detectors near bedrooms: CO gas exposure is most prevalent at night when furnaces are running frequently to keep your home comfortable. Therefore, 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, a single alarm is sufficient.
  • Add detectors on every floor:
    Dangerous carbon monoxide gas can become stuck on a single floor of your home, so do your best to have at least one CO detector on each floor.
  • Install detectors within 10 feet of your internal garage door: A lot of people unsafely leave their cars running in the garage, leading to dangerous carbon monoxide gas, even while the large garage door is fully open. A CO sensor immediately inside the door—and in the room up above the garage—alerts you of increased carbon monoxide levels within your home.
  • Have detectors at the appropriate height: Carbon monoxide features a weight similar to air, but it’s often pushed up by the hot air produced by combustion appliances. Installing detectors near the ceiling is best to catch this rising air. Models that include digital readouts are best installed at eye level to make sure they're easy to read.
  • Install detectors around 15 feet from combustion appliances: Some fuel-burning machines produce a small, harmless amount of carbon monoxide when they start. This dissipates quickly, but in situations where a CO detector is positioned too close, it could give off false alarms.
  • Have detectors away from high heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have specified tolerances for heat and humidity. To limit 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 model, the manufacturer will sometimes encourage monthly testing and resetting to ensure proper functionality. Also, swap out the batteries in battery-powered units every six months. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery annually or when the alarm is chirping, whichever starts first. Then, replace the CO detector outright every 10 years or according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

It only takes a minute to test your CO detector. Read the instruction manual for directions specific to your unit, understanding that testing uses this general routine:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It will sometimes need 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to go off.
  • Loud beeping signifies the detector is working correctly.
  • Release the Test button and wait for two fast beeps, a flash or both. If the device goes on beeping when you let go of 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 only have to reset your unit after the alarm goes off, after testing the device or after swapping the batteries. Certain models automatically reset themselves within 10 minutes of these events, while others need a manual reset. The instruction manual should note which function is applicable.

Use 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 see a flash, try the reset again or replace the batteries. If it’s still not working, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with help from the manufacturer, or replace the detector.

What can I do if a carbon monoxide alarm starts?

Listen to these steps to protect your home and family:

  • Do not disregard the alarm. You may not be able to identify dangerous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so anticipate the alarm is working correctly when it goes off.
  • Evacuate all people and pets immediately. If you're able to, open windows and doors on your way out to help thin out the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or the 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 may help air it out, but the source could still be creating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders come, they will search your home, assess carbon monoxide levels, look for the source of the CO leak and figure out if it’s safe to return. Depending on the cause, you will sometimes need to schedule repair services to keep the problem from returning.

Get Support from Epperson Service Experts

With the right precautions, there’s no need to be afraid of carbon monoxide inhalation in your home. Besides installing CO alarms, it’s crucial to maintain your fuel-burning appliances, particularly as winter starts.

The team at Epperson Service Experts is happy to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair malfunctions with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We understand what signs could mean a likely carbon monoxide leak— like excess soot, rusted flue pipes and a yellow, flickering burner flame—along with the necessary repairs to avoid them.

Do you still have questions or concerns about CO exposure? Is it time to schedule annual heating services? Contact Epperson Service Experts for more information.

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