Most people wouldn't consider their homes safe without a smoke detector. However, fewer homeowners have the same passion about carbon monoxide (CO) detectors, perhaps because they live in mostly electric-powered homes and don't think a CO accident could happen to them.
Carbon monoxide is a toxic, odorless gas that's released when wood, coal, natural gas, kerosene and propane among other fuels don't burn completely. The gas can cause symptoms like headache, shortness of breath and nausea within minutes. Longer or more intense exposure leads to confusion, loss of muscle control, unconsciousness and worse.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 10,000 people in the United States are sickened and more than 400 lose their lives to carbon monoxide poisoning each year.
Washington requires carbon monoxide detectors in all homes (with some exceptions) and both Washington and Oregon require them in most circumstances before a home can be sold. Landlords also must install them in rentals.
Places where carbon monoxide might turn up
Common culprits are malfunctioning or improperly used fireplaces, wood stoves, furnaces, gas water heaters, grills, portable generators or other appliances. One surprising source: keyless cars.
Carbon monoxide facts and safety tips
Here are five important ways to safeguard yourself, your family and your guests from carbon monoxide exposure:
- Never use portable camp stoves indoors. This problem usually occurs when Northwest storms knock out power and people turn to alternate cooking methods for a hot meal. Camp stoves and grills are intended only for outdoor use with unlimited ventilation. The same goes for portable generators – including your neighbor's. If they set up one during a power outage, make sure the exhaust isn't pointed toward your open window, porch, door or garage where fumes can be drawn in. In a power outage, don't try to heat the room with your gas stove.
- Get your gas furnace and water heater serviced annually. Technicians can spot problems like loose, rusted or disconnected vent pipes that may not be obvious to homeowners.
- Have your chimney professionally cleaned after each half cord of wood burned. Not only does that remove creosote buildup that can lead to a chimney fire, but your chimney pro can make sure it's free of blockages that could send smoke or gasses back into the room.
- Double-check that your keyless car is turned off. Without that physical cue of taking out the key, it's easier for weary commuters to shut the garage door and go inside with their whisper-quiet cars still running.
- Follow EPA guidelines for installing CO detectors. Over the years, advice has changed on how many CO detectors you need and where to put them. Here's the latest: Each floor needs its own CO detector located about five feet above the floor or on the ceiling. To minimize false alarms, avoid placing detectors too close to the fireplace or in the garage. Follow manufacturer's instructions for installation.
If you need help deciding which CO detector to buy, check out these suggestions from our friends at Consumer Reports.
Not only will your efforts pay off in peace of mind, but alarms (fire, gas/CO, theft, water) help you save on your homeowners or renter insurance, too, with our Protective Device Discount.
And a bonus tip for drivers and boaters: Your car could be a source of CO poisoning if its exhaust system is compromised (you may recall this story about police vehicles from a few years ago). Or, on a boat, dangerous levels of CO can build up if fumes from cooking or gas refrigeration units get trapped in the enclosed cabin. To steer clear of trouble, have your vehicle's exhaust system checked every year for leaks. If you're stuck in the snow, make sure the tailpipe is clear so fumes won't get drawn into the vehicle. And always install a CO detector on your boat or RV.