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, but it can result in unconsciousness, brain damage or death. As a result, more than 400 people die of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning each year, a larger fatality rate compared to any other type of poisoning.

When the weather cools off, you seal your home for the winter and rely on heating appliances to keep warm. These situations are when the risk of carbon monoxide exposure is highest. The good news is you can protect your family from a gas leak in several ways. One of the most efficient methods is to put in CO detectors in your home. Check out this guide to better understand where carbon monoxide is produced and how to take full advantage of your CO sensors.

What generates carbon monoxide in a house?

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of incomplete combustion. Because of this, this gas is produced anytime a fuel source is ignited, like natural gas, propane, oil, charcoal, gasoline, woo, and more. Prevalent causes of carbon monoxide in a house consist of:

  • Clogged clothes dryer vent
  • Faulty water heater
  • Furnace or boiler with a broken heat exchanger
  • Closed fireplace flue with a lit fire
  • Improperly 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 sense carbon monoxide?

No, smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. Instead, they begin an alarm when they detect a certain level of smoke generated by a fire. Possessing functional smoke detectors reduces the risk of dying in a house fire by nearly 55 percent.

Smoke detectors are available in two primary types—ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. Ionization detection works best with fast-moving fires that emit large flames, while photoelectric detectors are more suited for smoldering, smoky fires. A few smoke detectors include both types of alarms in one unit to increase the chance of recognizing a fire, no matter 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 recognize whether it’s a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. The visual difference is based on the brand and model you have. Here are several factors to keep in mind:

  • Most devices are visibly labeled. If not, check for a brand and model number on the back of the detector and find it online. You should also find a manufacture date. If the device is more than 10 years old, replace it as soon as possible.
  • Plug-in devices that draw power with an outlet are generally carbon monoxide detectors94. The device should be labeled saying as much.
  • Some alarms are really two-in-one, offering protection against both smoke and carbon monoxide with a separate indicator light for each. That being said, it can be hard to tell if there's no 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 is determined by your home’s size, number of floors and the number of bedrooms. Follow these guidelines to guarantee total coverage:

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors around bedrooms: CO gas leaks are most common at night when furnaces must run frequently to keep your home warm. Therefore, every bedroom should have a carbon monoxide alarm installed around 15 feet of the door. If two bedroom doors are less than 30 feet apart, a single alarm is adequate.
  • Add detectors on each floor:
    Dangerous carbon monoxide buildup can become caught on a single floor of your home, so do your best to have at least one CO detector on every level.
  • Put in detectors within 10 feet of an attached garage door: Many people accidentally leave their cars running in the garage, leading to dangerous carbon monoxide gas, even when the large garage door is wide open. A CO detector right inside the door—and in the room above the garage—alerts you of heightened carbon monoxide levels within your home.
  • Put in detectors at the correct height: Carbon monoxide weighs about the same as air, but it’s frequently carried upward in the hot air produced by combustion appliances. Putting in detectors near the ceiling is a good way to catch this rising air. Models that come with digital readouts are best located at eye level to keep them easy to read.
  • Add detectors around 15 feet from combustion appliances: A few fuel-burning machines produce a small, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide as they first start running. This dissipates quickly, but if a CO detector is installed right next to it, it might lead to false alarms.
  • Install 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 direct sunlight, near air vents, or close to heat-generating appliances.

How do I test/troubleshoot a carbon monoxide detector?

Depending on the model, the manufacturer may suggest testing once a month and resetting to maintain proper functionality. Also, swap out the batteries in battery-powered units after 6 months. For hardwired units, replace the backup battery once a year or when the alarm starts chirping, whichever starts first. Then, replace the CO detector entirely every 10 years or according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

How to test your carbon monoxide alarm

All it takes is a minute to test your CO sensor. Review the instruction manual for directions specific to your unit, knowing that testing uses this general routine:

  • Press and hold the Test button. It may need 5 to 20 seconds for the alarm to start.
  • Loud beeping signifies the detector is working 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.

Swap out the batteries if the unit isn't performing as expected for the test. If replacement batteries don’t change anything, replace the detector immediately.

How to reset your carbon monoxide alarm

You only need to reset your unit when 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 others need a manual reset. The instruction manual will note which function you should use.

Carry out 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 observe a flash, try the reset again or replace the batteries. If nothing happens, troubleshoot your carbon monoxide alarm with help from the manufacturer, or get rid of the faulty detector.

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

Use these steps to protect your home and family:

  • Do not ignore the alarm. You may not be able to detect unsafe levels of carbon monoxide until it’s too late, so expect the alarm is working correctly when it is triggered.
  • Evacuate all people and pets immediately. If possible, open windows and doors on your way out to attempt to dilute the concentration of CO gas.
  • Call 911 or a local fire department and inform them that the carbon monoxide alarm has triggered.
  • It's wrong to think it’s safe to reenter your home when the alarm stops beeping. Opening windows and doors might help air it out, but the source might still be producing carbon monoxide.
  • When emergency responders show up, they will go into your home, measure carbon monoxide levels, check for the source of the CO leak and figure out if it’s safe to go back inside. Depending on the cause, you may need to schedule repair services to prevent the problem from returning.

Get Support from A-PLUS Service Experts

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

The team at A-PLUS Service Experts is happy to inspect, clean, diagnose and repair problems with furnaces, boilers, water heaters and other combustion appliances. We understand what signs could mean a possible carbon monoxide leak— such as 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 A-PLUS Service Experts for more information.

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