The Importance of Carbon Monoxide Alarms

Q: How important are carbon monoxide alarms in homes that are all-electric?

A: Think of carbon monoxide alarms as seat belts. You may never need them, but when you do, they may save your life.

The North Carolina Residential Building Code requires carbon monoxide alarms to be installed in all new homes. The inclusion of all homes ensures that if a family installs a gas appliance or attaches a garage at a later date, the family will already be protected with a carbon monoxide alarm. When power outages occur, people occasionally make dangerous decisions by using a camp stove inside or locating a generator too close to a window.

Most people know carbon monoxide as the “silent killer.” It is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas that is produced when fuel burns. But that is only part of the story. Anytime gasoline, kerosene, oil, propane, wood, coal or natural gas burns to produce power or heat, carbon monoxide is created. Examples that may be around your home include the water heater, furnace, clothes dryer, space heater, grill or your car’s exhaust. Think about fuel-burning equipment as a lung. A gas water heater has to inhale fresh air for combustion to occur, and then it exhales the gases that are produced, including carbon monoxide. The exhale is typically through a chimney, flue or exhaust pipe. Your home gets dangerous when the appliance or car exhales into your house.

Carbon monoxide can cause a number of health problems, including headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. It will often cause flu-like symptoms that clear up after leaving the area. Most carbon monoxide alarms don’t sound when there are low levels of carbon monoxide in your home, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 20,000 people in the U.S. visit the emergency room each year for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide alarms with a digital display are especially handy. These alarms can be found in home improvement stores and cost about $40. The digital screen indicates the carbon monoxide concentration, but it will only be effective if you pay attention to it. Place it somewhere where you can see the display; if the display shows anything other than 0, something is putting carbon monoxide into your home, and you’ll need to figure out what. Perhaps your furnace needs to be serviced, or you forgot to turn on the exhaust fan while you were cooking on your gas stove. At the very least, you will know there is a problem in your home that needs to be solved.

Whether you purchase a fancy monitor or a simple device, everyone should have a carbon monoxide alarm at home. Follow these tips from the CDC to stay safe: