Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Ultimate Guide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is one of the most hazardous gases found in the home. Nicknamed the “silent killer,” CO gas is colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-irritating, yet it can cause unconsciousness, brain damage or death. As a result, more than 400 people die as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning each year, a larger fatality rate than other types of poisoning.

When the weather cools down, you close up your home for the winter and trust in heating appliances to stay warm. These situations are when the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning is highest. The good news is you can safeguard your family from carbon monoxide in different ways. One of the most efficient methods is to install CO detectors in your home. Use this guide to better understand where carbon monoxide can appear from and how to reap the benefits of your CO alarms.

What generates carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of incomplete combustion. Because of this, this gas is generated anytime a fuel source is ignited, such as natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Common causes of carbon monoxide in a house include:

  • Overloaded clothes dryer vent
  • Faulty 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 operating in the garage

Do smoke detectors detect carbon monoxide?

No, smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. In fact, they sound an alarm when they sense a certain level of smoke generated by a fire. Having functional smoke detectors reduces the risk of dying in a house fire by nearly 55 percent.

Smoke detectors come in two primary forms—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection is ideal with fast-growing fires that generate large flames, while photoelectric detection is more suited for smoldering, smoky fires. A few smoke detectors include both forms of alarms in one unit to increase the chance of recognizing a fire, regardless of how it burns.

Clearly, smoke detectors and CO alarms are similarly beneficial home safety devices. If you inspect the ceiling and find an alarm of some kind, you won't always know whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual difference is based on the brand and model you want. Here are a few 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 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 draw power through an outlet are generally carbon monoxide detectors94. The device will be labeled so.
  • Some alarms are really two-in-one, sensing both smoke and carbon monoxide with a separate indicator light for each. That being said, it can be tough to tell without a label on the front, so checking the manufacturing details on the back is worthwhile.

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

The number of CO alarms you require depends on your home’s size, how many floors it has and the number of bedrooms. Follow these guidelines to ensure total coverage:

  • Place carbon monoxide detectors nearby bedrooms: CO gas exposure is most prevalent at night when furnaces must run constantly to keep your home heated. For that reason, each bedroom should have a carbon monoxide sensor installed about 15 feet of the door. If multiple bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, just one detector is sufficient.
  • Add detectors on every floor:
    Dangerous carbon monoxide buildup can become trapped on a single floor of your home, so try to have at least one CO detector on all floors.
  • Put in detectors within 10 feet of an attached garage door: A lot of people unsafely leave their cars running in the garage, producing dangerous carbon monoxide buildup, even if the large garage door is fully open. A CO alarm immediately inside the door—and in the room up above the garage—alerts you of heightened carbon monoxide levels entering your home.
  • Install detectors at the appropriate height: Carbon monoxide features a weight similar to air, but it’s often carried along with the hot air created by combustion appliances. Having detectors close to the ceiling is a good way to catch this rising air. Models with digital readouts are best installed at eye level to make sure they're easy to read.
  • Install detectors around 15 feet from combustion appliances: A few fuel-burning machines give off a tiny, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide as they first start running. This breaks up quickly, but when a CO detector is installed right next to it, it may lead to false alarms.
  • Put in detectors away from extreme heat and humidity: Carbon monoxide detectors have certain tolerances for heat and humidity. To reduce false alarms, don't install them in bathrooms, in strong sunlight, near air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide sensor?

Depending on the model, the manufacturer will sometimes suggest testing once a month and resetting to maintain proper functionality. Also, change out the batteries in battery-powered units twice a year. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery once a year or when the alarm starts chirping, whichever starts first. Then, replace the CO detector completely after 10 years or as outlined by the manufacturer’s instructions.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

You only need a minute to test your CO alarm. Read the instruction manual for directions unique to your unit, knowing that testing uses this general routine:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It will sometimes take 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to begin.
  • Loud beeping signifies the detector is operating correctly.
  • Release the Test button and wait for two short beeps, a flash or both. If the device goes on beeping when you release the button, press and hold it again for five seconds to stop it.

Replace the batteries if the unit isn't performing as expected during the test. If replacement batteries don’t help, replace the detector immediately.

How to reset your carbon monoxide alarm

You're only required to reset your unit once the alarm goes off, after a test or after changing the batteries. A few models automatically reset themselves in under 10 minutes of these events, while other models need a manual reset. The instruction manual should note which function applies.

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 hear a beep or see a flash, attempt the reset again or replace the batteries. If it’s still not working, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with support from the manufacturer, or get rid of the faulty detector.

What can I do if a carbon monoxide alarm is triggered?

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

  • Do not dismiss the alarm. You may not be able to identify dangerous levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so expect the alarm is functioning correctly when it is triggered.
  • Evacuate all people and pets immediately. If possible, open windows and doors on your way out to help weaken the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or the local fire department and report 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 may help air it out, but the source may still be creating carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders arrive, they will search your home, evaluate 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 will sometimes need to schedule repair services to keep the problem from reappearing.

Find Support from Stevenson Service Experts

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

The team at Stevenson Service Experts is happy to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair malfunctions with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We understand what signs suggest a possible carbon monoxide leak— such as increased soot, rusted flue pipes and a yellow, flickering burner flame—along with the necessary repairs to resolve them.

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

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