Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

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

While the weather cools down, you insulate your home for the winter and trust in heating appliances to keep warm. This is when the risk of carbon monoxide exposure is highest. Thankfully you can defend your family from carbon monoxide in several ways. One of the most efficient 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 reap the benefits of your CO sensors.

What generates carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct whenever something combusts. Therefore, this gas is produced whenever a fuel source is burned, including natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Frequent causes of carbon monoxide in a house may be:

  • Blocked up 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 sitting in the garage
  • Portable generator, grill, power tool or lawn equipment being used in the garage

Do smoke detectors recognize carbon monoxide?

No, smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. Instead, they start an alarm when they sense a certain concentration of smoke generated by a fire. Installing dependable smoke detectors decreases 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 functions well with fast-moving fires that generate large flames, while photoelectric models are more suited for smoldering, smoky fires. A few smoke detectors come with both kinds of alarms in a single unit to maximize the chance of responding to a fire, regardless of how it burns.

Clearly, smoke detectors and CO alarms are equally essential home safety devices. If you check the ceiling and find an alarm of some kind, you might not realize whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual contrast is determined by the brand and model you want. Here are some factors to remember:

  • Most devices are visibly labeled. If not, try to find a brand and model number on the back of the detector and find it online. You can also find a manufacture date. If the device is older than 10 years, replace it as soon as possible.
  • Plug-in devices that extract power from an outlet are typically carbon monoxide detectors94. The device should be labeled as such.
  • Some alarms will be two-in-one, sensing both smoke and carbon monoxide with a different indicator light for each. That being said, it can be hard to tell if there's no label on the front, so reviewing 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 need is determined by your home’s size, number of floors and bedroom arrangement. Follow these guidelines to guarantee total coverage:

  • Add carbon monoxide detectors around bedrooms: CO gas leaks are most common at night when furnaces have to run constantly to keep your home warm. For that reason, each bedroom should have a carbon monoxide sensor installed around 15 feet of the door. If multiple bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, just one detector is adequate.
  • Install detectors on each floor:
    Dense carbon monoxide gas can become trapped on a single floor of your home, so make sure you have at least one CO detector on each floor.
  • Put in detectors within 10 feet of the internal garage door: A lot of people unsafely leave their cars idling in the garage, resulting in dangerous carbon monoxide buildup, even when the large garage door is completely open. A CO sensor right inside the door—and in the room up above the garage—alerts you of heightened carbon monoxide levels entering your home.
  • Have detectors at the proper height: Carbon monoxide features a weight similar to air, but it’s often carried upward in the hot air produced by combustion appliances. Putting in detectors up against the ceiling is ideal to catch this rising air. Models that come with digital readouts are best installed at eye level to make sure they're easy to read.
  • Put in detectors around 15 feet from combustion appliances: Certain fuel-burning machines produce a small, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide as they first start running. This disperses quickly, but if a CO detector is positioned too close, it may lead to false alarms.
  • Install detectors away from extreme heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have specific tolerances for heat and humidity. To reduce false alarms, avoid installing them in bathrooms, in strong sunlight, around air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide alarm?

Depending on the design, the manufacturer may recommend testing once a month and resetting to ensure proper functionality. Also, swap out the batteries in battery-powered units twice a year. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery every year or when the alarm is chirping, whichever comes first. Then, replace the CO detector outright after 10 years or in line with the manufacturer’s recommendations.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

You only need a minute to test your CO alarm. 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 will sometimes take 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to go off.
  • Loud beeping signifies the detector is operating correctly.
  • Let go of the Test button and wait for two quick 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 won't work 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 need to reset your unit when the alarm goes off, after a test or after replacing the batteries. Some models automatically reset themselves in 10 minutes of these events, while other models need a manual reset. The instruction manual can note which function you should use.

Follow 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 notice a beep or observe a flash, try the reset again or replace the batteries. If it’s still not working, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with assistance from the manufacturer, or get rid of the faulty detector.

What can I do if a carbon monoxide alarm goes off?

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

  • Do not disregard the alarm. You might not be able to recognize hazardous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so expect the alarm is operating correctly when it is triggered.
  • Evacuate all people and pets as quickly as possible. If possible, open windows and doors on your way out to attempt to weaken the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or your local fire department and explain that the carbon monoxide alarm has triggered.
  • It's wrong to think it’s safe to reenter your home when the alarm stops running. Opening windows and doors can help air it out, but the source could still be generating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders show up, they will go into your home, evaluate 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 might need to request repair services to prevent the problem from returning.

Get Support from Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning

With the right precautions, there’s no need to be afraid of carbon monoxide exposure in your home. Along with installing CO alarms, it’s worthwhile to maintain your fuel-burning appliances, namely as winter starts.

The team at Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning is qualified to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair problems with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We understand what signs indicate a potential carbon monoxide leak— including excessive 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 Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning for more information.

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