by Arnie Katz
Q: When the serviceman came to check our furnace and get it going for the winter, he wanted to sell us a carbon monoxide alarm. I asked him several times if he found a problem that might lead to carbon monoxide getting into the house, and he said there wasn’t. He just thought it was good “safety insurance.” I declined, figuring it was just another way to separate me from my hard-earned money, but I’ve been wondering if I made the right decision.
A: My own opinion is that if you have fires burning in your house, as I do, there is a real possibility of carbon monoxide getting into the air you breathe. Short of eliminating the fires from our caves, the important things are to separate them from the air we breathe, make sure they are vented properly to the outside, make sure they are tuned up and in good working order, make sure we don’t have conditions in our houses that can cause the combustion appliance to backdraft or spill combustion gasses into the house, and, finally, monitor our fires so we can protect ourselves in case of a problem.
Is this a real problem or simply sales hype? A study at a clinic in New York several years ago found that almost 20% of the patients coming in with flu-like symptoms in fact were suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. How extensive this is around the country isn’t known. What is known is that hundreds of people die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning, and thousands are made sick.
The fires we have in our houses include gas and oil furnaces and boilers, gas water heaters and ranges, gas and kerosene space heaters, wood and coal stoves, wood or gas fireplaces, and cars running in attached garages.
The most effective way to eliminate the carbon monoxide problem is to simply not have any of these fires burning in your home.
Since millions of us are drawn (like moths) to our fires, how can we keep the fires and still keep our families safe? The key is to make sure the air from the burning process is totally separated from the air we breathe. There are furnaces and water heaters that have “sealed” combustion and either “direct” venting or power-assisted venting of the combustion gasses.
There are wood stoves and fireplaces that are airtight and bring in combustion air directly from the outside, making them both more energy-efficient and safer. “Vent-free” fires, whether they’re kerosene space heaters or gas fireplaces, are problems waiting to happen. Even aside from carbon monoxide, fires give off other pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide, which can be irritants, and moisture, which can cause a host of problems.
Tests of gas ranges and ovens in several states have indicated significant levels of CO in some homes. These are, essentially, “vent-free” fires, pumping whatever products of combustion they produce into our kitchens. A high-quality range hood, ducted to the outside, is the only way to get these gasses out of the house. And they only work if we turn them on. Don’t be fooled by range hoods that simply filter out some of the grease and odors and blow the gasses right back in your face!
Once you’ve made sure all your fires are tuned up properly, have your house tested to make sure your heating and cooling system, or exhaust fans (range hoods, dryers, bathroom exhaust, etc.) don’t create enough negative pressure to cause back-drafting or spillage. The ability to test for this is relatively new, but over 200 contractors in North Carolina have been trained in this procedure. Even if your equipment is working perfectly, negative pressures can cause serious problems. The only way to know is to test.
Finally, having at least one CO detector in the house is an excellent idea. I prefer the ones that give a digital readout that lets you know a problem is developing before it gets to dangerous levels. A loud alarm at 100 parts per million (PPM) is good, but I’d like to know if I’m living with 50 PPM or 35 or 9. Even if it won’t kill my kids, I’d rather not have any CO in the air in my home which might make them sick. Low level CO monitors are not available in stores. The best way to purchase one is by locating a vendor online through a “Google” search of “low level CO monitor.”
Grandpa had all kinds of fires in his house, and he wasn’t concerned about any of this. However, Grandpa’s house was very leaky, didn’t have central forced air heating and cooling, and didn’t have all those exhaust fans. But, because we don’t live in Grandpa’s house, we do need to be concerned.