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What You Need to Know About Carbon Monoxide in Your House

by Ultimate Heating & Cooling / March 30, 2022

Homeowners in Colorado should be aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide and be proactive in keeping their loved ones safe while at home. Every year, over 400 people die in the U.S. from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Read further to find out what causes carbon monoxide in a house, symptoms of CO poisoning, and what you can do to protect yourself.

What is Carbon Monoxide?

Burning fuels such as propane, charcoal, gasoline, and wood produce carbon monoxide. It is a gas that is odorless, tasteless, and colorless. Carbon monoxide is dangerous when it accumulates in an enclosed or poorly ventilated space, as it can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

What are Causes of Carbon Monoxide in Homes?

Many appliances around the house emit carbon monoxide. Provided they're properly maintained, the CO levels emitted are rarely harmful. Here's a rundown of the main sources of carbon monoxide in homes and how to be safe while using them: 

  • Gas and wood-burning fireplaces, stoves, or ovens. Inspect and sweep your chimney regularly. Blockages prevent CO from escaping. Leaks are also a concern in gas-powered units, and telltale signs of a fault include pilot lights blowing out frequently, soot or yellow/brown stains around components, and yellow-colored burner flames.
  • Vehicles. Do not idle your truck or car in an enclosed space, nor allow large amounts of exhaust fumes to waft indoors through open doors or windows. Clear your exhaust system from obstructions such as snow to avoid blockages.
  • Gas-powered water heaters. Leaks can force your water heater system to run long as it tries to keep up with the flow of water. If it goes unnoticed for several hours, it can produce CO quantities similar to leaving a car engine running in a garage. Regular maintenance and inspection of your water heater reduce the risk of leaks.
  • Gas-powered clothes dryers. As long as your vent isn't clogged or faulty, carbon monoxide is exhausted outdoors through a flue. There is no CO risk with electric dryers unless the temperature setting is set so high that it causes your clothes to ignite.
  • Smoking paraphernalia. Both tobacco and e-cigarette devices produce harmful levels of carbon monoxide if used indoors for long periods. A 2019 study by Bucknell University in Pennsylvania found that some e-cigarettes, when used on their maximum setting, generate carbon monoxide levels that were 20 times higher than recommended outdoor air quality standards. Smoking should occur outdoors or from an open window to avoid harmful CO build-up indoors.
  • Gas-operated power tools. Compressors, lawnmowers, power washers, and chainsaws that are fitted with a gas engine all emit carbon monoxide. Do not use them indoors, even if using a low horsepower engine. Tools that work with long hoses, such as power washers and compressors, can be used indoors if you keep the engine unit outside.

What are Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Symptoms?

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when dangerous levels of the gas build up in your bloodstream and reduce the amount of oxygen in your red blood cells.

Mild Carbon Monoxide Symptoms

Common symptoms of mild carbon monoxide poisoning can feel similar to flu or food poisoning. They include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Tiredness
  • Confusion
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach pain

The level of risk increases the closer you are to the source of the leak, and the longer you're exposed to the gas.

Along with the above symptoms, prolonged exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can lead to:

  • Erratic behavior or emotional changes, such as depression, anxiety, and irritability
  • Difficulty focusing or thinking, or mental fatigue

High Exposure Carbon Monoxide Symptoms

Symptoms of exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide include:

  • Loss of consciousness, which in extreme cases can lead to death within minutes if the amount of gas is exceptionally high
  • Vertigo
  • Heart rate greater than 100 beats per minute (aka tachycardia)
  • Muscle spasms and seizures due to increased electrical activity in the brain
  • Angina or heart attack
  • Loss of coordination

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Colorado

Whether you're at home, camping, or in an RV, if you're around burning fuel you're at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. In 2020, data from Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment showed that 48 people were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning. However, there were over 300 people that were admitted to the emergency department with symptoms and then discharged the same day.

Colorado has a history of carbon monoxide poisoning. One such event happened in 2021, during which a family of seven was admitted to the hospital with carbon monoxide symptoms of headaches, nausea, disorientation, and confusion. They had turned on a faulty furnace which led to toxic gas levels in their Summit County home luckily they all survived. Less fortunate carbon monoxide accidents have occurred in other areas like Central City, Denver, and Aspen

How to Detect Carbon Monoxide?

For homeowners, a carbon monoxide detector is the easiest way to know whether you have any harmful gas build-up indoors. An alarm sounds when unsafe levels are detected, which greatly limits the risk of prolonged exposure. Most major retailers in Denver such as Walmart or The Home Depot, as well as smaller hardware stores, sell carbon monoxide detectors for $15 to $30.

Where should I place a carbon monoxide detector?

Wondering where to put a carbon monoxide detector is a common question. The United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends that each floor needs a separate carbon monoxide detector. Also, homeowners should install them five feet above the floor on a wall, on the ceiling, and keep them away from any flame-producing device.

How do I maintain a carbon monoxide detector?

Minimal maintenance is required to keep carbon monoxide detectors functioning. CO detectors with replaceable batteries require new batteries every six months, and many units have a built-in warning alarm and light when it's low on power. After five to seven years, most CO units need replacing. Refer to the instructions or manufacturer's website to find out exactly when to replace it. It's also a good idea to wipe the carbon monoxide detector down with a dry cloth twice a year to ensure that dust or dirt doesn't obstruct the alarm's sensing chamber. 

When should I seek medical help for carbon monoxide poisoning?

If you experience any of the above symptoms listed or your CO alarm is triggered, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission says to: 

  • Never look for the source of the CO leak
  • Move outside to fresh air immediately
  • Call 911
  • Do not re-enter the premises or operate any appliances until the emergency services responders have given you permission

Even if the alarm is sounding and you only have mild symptoms, such as tiredness or a headache, it's not worth ignoring!

We sell and install carbon monoxide detectors, air quality systems, and ventilation products to give your family peace of mind. Contact us or call us at 720-647-5099 to check your furnace and heating system to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide in your Denver metro area home.

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