Carbon Monoxide – What’s all the fuss about?
California now requires homeowners to install carbon monoxide detectors in their homes. Many heating and air conditioning professionals have been recommending them for years, long before the law was put into place. Why? Well, it is a gas that is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and deadly to humans. The minimal cost of detectors and some other precautions are well worth it! If those proper precautions are taken, the risk of ingesting the deadly gas can be all but eliminated.
So how does it get into my house?
Carbon monoxide is the byproduct of partial combustion. When there is not quite enough oxygen around when an appliance is burning fuel, it will produce carbon monoxide. This is often true because it is extremely difficult to get an appliance running absolutely perfectly and then keep it that way through the life of the system.
During normal operation, the deadly gas is simply blown to the outdoors through the appliance’s exhaust vent. Once it is outside, the gas is harmless because it dissipates and very small amounts of it are found in the air all the time. Forest fires, volcanoes, and other naturally occurring events produce the gas on a regular basis.
The gas ends up in your house when an appliance is not venting properly. This could happen if your water heater does not have enough draft to pull the exhaust out of the house. It also could happen if your furnace has a crack in its heat exchanger. The heat exchanger is just like your car’s exhaust pipe but it’s inside your furnace.
Have you ever noticed how hot your car’s exhaust pipe gets? In the furnace, indoor air is blown across the heat exchanger in order to heat up the air and then the air is blown back into the house. As the furnace runs, it continually burns gas to keep that heat exchanger hot. The exhaust fumes are pulled through that heat exchanger and then blown outside through the exhaust vent.
When the heat exchanger cracks, exhaust gases, including carbon monoxide, get mixed in with the indoor air and it’s blown into the house. This is much like running a car and blowing the car’s exhaust into the house. In this case, however, the exhaust gas is odorless, colorless and tasteless so you could get poisoned by it before even noticing that it was there.
I pay for maintenance on my furnace, doesn’t that cover me?
As a major part of routine maintenance, Lee’s does perform an inspection of the heat exchanger. If the technician notices a crack, the gas will be shut off to the unit immediately and the customer will be notified as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, most heat exchangers are not completely visible during routine maintenance. The technicians are trained to know where cracks are likely to occur and to use mirrors and other methods to view those areas; however, some areas simply cannot be seen without completely uninstalling and disassembling the furnace. That would be comparable to removing and reinstalling the engine of your car every time you wanted to get your oil changed and engine serviced.
Having your furnace maintained will do a great deal to help extend the life of your heat exchanger and to prevent cracks from occurring, but cracks can still happen and still can go unseen.
What else should I do to protect my home and my family?
The best thing to do is to go to your local hardware store and pick up a few carbon monoxide detectors for your home. Some are fairly inexpensive. Some require wiring and others are simply battery operated. They look like standard smoke detectors and some even come as a smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector combination.
With whatever device you choose, you must follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and change batteries if necessary if it is going to be of any use at all. This, in conjunction with routine furnace maintenance, will give you peace of mind when it comes to the threat of carbon monoxide.
What should I do if my carbon monoxide detector goes off?
- Turn off all appliances immediately. If you do not know how to turn off a particular appliance, do not spend time trying to figure it out. Proceed to step two.
- Leave the building and open doors and windows on the way out if at all possible.
- Do a head-count to make sure that everyone is out of the building.
- Check to see if anyone is experiencing any of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning which include nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, fatigue, drowsiness, dizziness, confusion, and headaches.
- If anyone is experiencing symptoms, call 911.
- Call a professional to have your appliances inspected and do not go back into the building until it is determined to be safe.
How long does it take for carbon monoxide to get out of my house or my body?
Carbon monoxide is slightly lighter than air. It will dissipate if appliances are off and windows and doors are open. How long it takes to get out of your building just depends on how much air is flowing through it.
Getting the gas out of your body is a different story. Carbon monoxide has a half-life in a human body of about 5 hours. This means that if you are breathing fresh, carbon monoxide-free air, it will take five hours to get half the carbon monoxide out of your system. Then it will take another five hours to cut that level in half, and so on. It is best to consult a medical professional if you feel the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
People do not need to be living in constant fear of carbon monoxide but what they do need to do is just make sure that they are taking the simple precautions necessary to make sure that they are protected from it.