What you might not know about your CO detector

Posted by: Abigail Wood


With furnaces, gas fireplaces, and sealed homes in the winter, it’s important to be alert to the dangers of carbon monoxide.

Having a good CO detector is important, but Kevin Buis of Climatech outside Lincoln says it might not be enough. His concern with CO detectors is that they are only set to alarm when large amounts of CO pour into the air over a short period of time. This doesn’t account for poisoning at low levels.
"Most furnaces when they crack or break or don’t operate correctly let out a small amount of CO over days, weeks, or months periods of time," Buis said.

It doesn’t take much carbon monoxide before you feel the effects. The EPA standards say if you breathe in just 5-15 parts per million of carbon monoxide over an 8-hour period you can start suffering from headaches, nausea, exhaustion, and dizziness. Get this: CO detectors on average don’t alarm until they reach 70-100 parts per million.
"In my opinion," Buis said, "they need to be set at lower rates because over a long period of time it can still have lots of issues that can show up in your health."

Detectors used to alarm at lower CO concentrations, but this meant the fire department had to respond to a lot of false alarms. Buis suggests buying an alarm with a digital reading so you can see when you may need your furnace checked without waiting until levels are life-threatening. One problem in the winter is that low-level CO poisoning can look a lot like cold-season sickness.
"You’ll get headaches, you’ll notice flu–like symptoms," Buis said. "A good test is to see if your nail beds are very pink if you pinch them and they don’t come back to be nice and white that might be an indication you have some CO in your blood."

Anything that burns fuel puts off CO fumes. That’s why state codes require all gas-burning appliances to be vented to the outside of the house.