Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

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

As the weather cools down, you insulate your home for the winter and count on heating appliances to stay warm. These situations are when the threat of carbon monoxide exposure is highest. Thankfully you can safeguard your family from a gas leak in different ways. One of the most successful methods is to install CO detectors around your home. Check out this guide to help you understand where carbon monoxide can appear from and how to make the most of your CO alarms.

What generates carbon monoxide in a house?

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

  • Overloaded clothes dryer vent
  • Broken down water heater
  • Furnace or boiler with a damaged heat exchanger
  • Closed fireplace flue while a fire is lit
  • Poorly vented gas or wood stove
  • Vehicle running in the garage
  • Portable generator, grill, power tool or lawn equipment operating in the garage

Do smoke detectors recognize carbon monoxide?

No, smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. In fact, they start an alarm when they recognize a certain amount of smoke caused by a fire. Installing dependable smoke detectors reduces the risk of dying in a house fire by nearly 55 percent.

Smoke detectors are available in two basic types—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection works best with fast-moving fires that produce large flames, while photoelectric detectors are more suited for smoldering, smoky fires. The newest smoke detectors come with both kinds of alarms in one unit to increase the chance of sensing a fire, regardless of how it burns.

Clearly, smoke detectors and CO alarms are similarly important home safety devices. If you look up at the ceiling and notice an alarm of some kind, you won't always recognize 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 a few factors to keep in mind:

  • Most devices are clearly labeled. If not, look for a brand and model number on the back of the detector and look it up online. You should also find a manufacture date. If the device is more than a decade old, replace it as soon as possible.
  • Plug-in devices that draw power from an outlet are almost always carbon monoxide sensors94. The device should be labeled as such.
  • Some alarms will be two-in-one, offering protection against both smoke and carbon monoxide with an indicator light for each. Still, it can be hard to tell if there's no label on the front, so reviewing the manufacturing details on the back is your best bet.

How many carbon monoxide detectors should I install in my home?

The number of CO alarms you require is dependent on your home’s size, the number of stories and bedroom arrangement. Use these guidelines to provide complete coverage:

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors near bedrooms: CO gas leaks are most likely at night when furnaces are running frequently to keep your home heated. Therefore, each 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 enough.
  • Put in detectors on every floor:
    Dangerous carbon monoxide gas can become caught on a single floor of your home, so make sure you have at least one CO detector on every level.
  • Have detectors within 10 feet of an attached garage door: Many people accidentally leave their cars on in the garage, producing dangerous carbon monoxide gas, even while the large garage door is completely open. A CO sensor right inside the door—and in the room above the garage—alerts you of elevated carbon monoxide levels within your home.
  • Have detectors at the proper height: Carbon monoxide is a similar density as air, but it’s frequently 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 keep them easy to read.
  • Add detectors about 15 feet from combustion appliances: A few fuel-burning machines produce a small, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide at startup. This disperses quickly, but in situations where a CO detector is positioned too close, it could lead to false alarms.
  • Put in detectors away from extreme 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, near air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide sensor?

Depending on the design, the manufacturer will sometimes recommend monthly tests and resetting to maintain proper functionality. Also, replace the batteries in battery-powered units after 6 months. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery annually or when the alarm begins chirping, whichever comes first. Then, replace the CO detector entirely after 10 years or in line with the manufacturer’s recommendations.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

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

  • Press and hold the Test button. It might need 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to go off.
  • Loud beeping means the detector is functioning correctly.
  • Release the Test button and wait for two short 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 silence it.

Replace the batteries if the unit fails to perform as expected during the test. If replacement batteries don’t help, replace the detector entirely.

How to reset your carbon monoxide alarm

You only need to reset your unit once the alarm goes off, after running a test or after changing the batteries. Certain models automatically reset themselves in under 10 minutes of these events, while other alarms 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 wait for a beep, a flash or both.

If you don’t get a beep or see a flash, start 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 should I do if a carbon monoxide alarm goes off?

Use these steps to take care of your home and family:

  • Do not dismiss the alarm. You won't always be able to recognize dangerous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so expect the alarm is working correctly when it starts.
  • Evacuate all people and pets immediately. If you can, open windows and doors on your way out to help dilute the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or a local fire department and report that the carbon monoxide alarm has gone off.
  • Don't assume 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 search your home, measure carbon monoxide levels, try to find the source of the CO leak and figure out if it’s safe to come back inside. Depending on the cause, you may need to schedule repair services to prevent the problem from returning.

Seek Support from Finch Air Conditioning & Heating

With the proper precautions, there’s no need to be afraid of carbon monoxide exposure in your home. Besides installing CO alarms, it’s important to maintain your fuel-burning appliances, namely as winter gets underway.

The team at Finch Air Conditioning & Heating is ready to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair malfunctions with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We understand what signs suggest a likely carbon monoxide leak— like 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 Finch Air Conditioning & Heating for more information.