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Carbon Monoxide, Why is Everyone So Casual about it

Carbon Monoxide, Why is Everyone So Casual about it

I finally set aside the time to relate this story very close to home. We have some close friends who lost a daughter to cancer years ago and who better to know what it's like to deal with a loss, than them? That's why it's amazing how casual they were when that shriek of sound emitted from their carbon monoxide (CO) detector one night. It is also important to note that they had two other children, yet remained so casual.

I received a call the morning after the event informing me that their CO detector had gone off asking if I knew what the problem might be. My first question was, "What did you do when it went off"? The second question, "Why did you not call me to come out immediately"? The reply, nothing and no reason we couldn't see anything wrong and we all felt OK, so we went to bed.

I can confirm that this is a typical response; persons often will call my company at 2:00 AM and inform us that their CO detector has just alarmed. No, they do not want us out. They want to know what the problem is and how they can fix it. In addition, when they do not take our advice, they further refuse our advice to call the Utility.

Strange, isn't it? With all the media attention over CO related events and deaths. Why is it consumers are obsessed about asbestos, PCB's, CFC's, nuclear power, water quality, and other potential products that may, or may not have, any documented environmental impact, yet these same people can be so carefree about such an undisputable hazard that takes its toll - like invisible, tasteless, odorless, but ubiquitous carbon monoxide?

Sounding the Alarm about Ignoring your CO Alarm

Paul K. Clifford, Ph.D., of Mosaic Industries asked himself that same question when he studied field experiences to determine what causes CO alarm activation and how homeowners respond. His results showed upon activation of their CO alarm 62% called no one, 23% considered it a false alarm, 30% knew of a probable source yet did nothing, 58% performed no investigation and 10% called the utility. One other important caution Clifford pointed out "CO detectors are a small part of the solution". People may install them in lieu of regular service by a qualified contractor and then may not respond when the alarm goes off.

CO is undoubtedly a most dangerous substance that is often only thought of when reading or listening in the news about another person or family who were rushed to hospital or flown to a city having a hyper baric chamber for victims of CO poisoning. While winter was always thought to have been the most serious time for increased potential of carbon monoxide in buildings, because storm windows were in place, the heating system in full gear and fires in fireplaces. The fact is homes built today are sealed tight 365 days/year with climate-controlled ventilation, air conditioning and air filtration systems CO can happen anytime.

Paul Nebrasky, President of Nebrasky Plumbing and Heating said, "Most people think that CO comes from the exhaust of a car and that is it. But actually, eight out of 10 times the problem stems from a heating or hot water appliance, with water heaters being the No.1 emitter of CO in a home.

Knowing the Signs of CO Production

As Building Officials, Contractors, Utilities, Technicians, etc, we all must have a better understanding of the characteristics and dangers of carbon monoxide gas. CO, scientifically speaking, is a clear, odorless, toxic, flammable, colourless gas with a similar specific gravity to air. However, there are visual signs that carbon monoxide gas is being produced or that it is likely present. From a practical and visual sense, carbon monoxide is not odorless, nor colourless. When carbon monoxide is being produced there is soot, water vapour and/or water staining, discoloured face plates on the furnace, scaling, deteriorated venting and if severe enough, a pungent odor that can be sensed by your nose. This odor is created from aldehydes, the by-products of incomplete combustion that are being produced. So while you cannot smell or see CO, you can see and smell the effects of CO and the by-products produced.

Carbon monoxide detectors/alarms mounted in homes can make detection possible, however most are set to alarm at 100PPM. It is possible to have carbon monoxide in small amounts under 100PPM. In addition, there might also be a high concentration of (NOX) nitrogen oxide, which is commonly called smog. It is this CO2 that may be causing asthma-like symptoms and making occupants feel so terrible.

It is still a wise investment to recommend the purchase of a CO detector to homeowners, however this is only part of the solution. Be sure to point out the visual signs that CO leaves behind when being produced so that they can check periodically themselves. Also, don't forget to let them know that they still need annual maintenance and cleaning performed by a qualified technician.

The Most Common Contributor of CO

Flue gas spillage termed "back drafting" describes the most common contributing factor of carbon monoxide poisoning. This happens when the venting from the appliance(s) to the chimney or the chimney itself becomes blocked or deteriorated. Products of combustion are then channeled back into the home instead of being safely vented outdoors and if the burners are not burning properly, CO may be produced creating a potentially hazardous condition.

In Manitoba, we should be proud of the fact that we live in some of the "tightest" built homes in Canada. In an effort to reduce energy consumption we continue to tighten our existing buildings by installing added insulation, weather stripping, windows, energy efficient furnaces, etc. We even incorporate controlled temperature, humidification, ventilation, and air purification systems, all in an effort to achieve the perfect indoor comfort controlled environment.

However, tight homes do not come free of side effects. Everything that you do within your home affects something else. The results may be positive airflow or negative airflow (depressurization) depending on your particular building. For example, the installation of any one or combination of appliances such as a dryer, central vacuum system, fireplace, wood stove, kitchen or bathroom exhaust fan can possibly be enough to cause the chimney to back draft, spilling the combustion products into the building. Other factors such as closing off a combustion air intake or enclosing a furnace or hot water heater can create back drafting.

Understanding the Chemistry & the Symptoms

To understand carbon monoxide one needs to know the fuel source and its chemical make up. The main component of natural gas is methane. For combustion to take place, the gas to air mixture needs to be between 4 - 14% natural gas in the air. The by-products of complete combustion are heat/light, carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor (H2O), and nitrogen oxide (NOX). Natural gas ignites at approximately 1170 F. When incomplete combustion takes place, the dangerous by-product produced is carbon monoxide. Incomplete combustion is the result of the lack of air, which inhibits the combustion process, commonly known as starving the air.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are tightness across the forehead, headaches, giddiness, faintness, flushing, muscular weakness, mental confusion, collapse, nausea, vomiting and dimness of vision. These symptoms mimic those of the flu. Carbon Monoxide enters our bodies through the air we breathe into our lungs and is absorbed into our blood stream. The usual treatment is to administer oxygen as soon as possible.

Minimize Your Risk

As homeowners, tenants or landlords there are many things that they can do to minimize the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning. They are as follows:

  • Keep the utility room or furnace areas clean and clear of debris. Restricting air to the appliance can starve the air causing incomplete combustion to occur.
  • Make sure that if the furnace is in an enclosed utility room that there is sufficient air to allow for complete combustion to take place. If there is not sufficient air, a combustion air intake pipe must be installed from outside.
  • Be sure to check the combustion air intake screen if there is a separate combustion air intake pipe installed to the outdoors. All too often combustion air vents are found closed or blocked, because they allow cold air to fall in or be drawn into the building continuously creating comfort problems. Mechanical combustion air dampers that interlock with the appliances that resolve comfort problems are available. They open only when the appliances are operating, eliminating the cold air problem. These motorized interlocked dampers are relatively inexpensive and very reliable.
  • Have the heating equipment and appliances cleaned by qualified service technicians to ensure that they are operating safely and efficiently. Dirty burners or deteriorated venting systems may leak carbon monoxide into the building.
  • When using a fireplace or wood stove that does not utilize outdoor air for the combustion process, make certain to leave a window open during use. These appliances use and exhaust huge amounts of air from the building that can create back drafting.
  • Be certain the chimneys are cleaned and inspected on a regular basis for debris and obstructions. Often in the summer birds, raccoons, squirrels, and even ducks have been known to use the chimneys as nests.
  • In homes with attached garages open the garage door before starting the car. Back the car out immediately. Do not allow the car to sit in the garage running. Often there is a bedroom above and/or an entry door to the building. Check the foundation where the garage and building meet to ensure that all cracks and holes around wires and pipes are sealed.
  • When using a fireplace or wood stove never go to bed with a fire still burning; put it out and leave the damper open until the next day. Think of this as a campfire. You would not leave a campfire unattended.
  • Purchase an approved carbon monoxide detector. Compare detectors, as some require replacement sensors and or batteries, some wire directly into the building wiring, while others simply plug into any standard 120-volt outlet. Still others require no replacement of batteries or power and can be mounted anywhere.
  • Use timers on exhaust fans to minimize fan "on" time. This limits the amount of air drawn from the home minimizing the potential for depressurization while at the same time saving energy.

Don't Become a Statistic

The numbers of persons who die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning varies from a few hundred to a couple thousand depending on the source. The one thing that everyone agrees upon is that many deaths and injuries are associated with home fuel burning equipment like furnaces, room heaters, and charcoal grills. The sad part is that every one of those deaths could have been prevented.

The hype that always surrounds incidents of carbon monoxide is all too soon forgotten, as consumers only seem to react when it's in the news. Maybe its time that we all stepped up our marketing efforts and reached out to better inform each other.

The diagnosis of the CO alarm at our friends home was the basement bathroom exhaust fan that ran for a full day and night exhausting air from the home causing the chimney to reverse and allow the products of combustion into the home (depressurization) while at the same time the appliance was producing CO.

Honeywell   Honeywell


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