Just when I think I know everything there is to know about running a household, I’m woken in the middle night by an extremely loud chirping noise. No, we hadn’t been invaded by giant crickets, but instead, our smoke detector was low on batteries. While I’m a little groggy this morning, I am grateful for the awakening.
We removed the battery and tried to get back to sleep, but instead I found myself awake and reading up on smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. I was shocked at how much I didn’t know, especially about CO. I honestly bought the detector, plugged it in and figured we were covered. Which we are, but there is more to it. Here’s what I learned in my late night online searching…
Carbon Monoxide, or CO for short, is an invisible, odourless, tasteless gas that is often referred to as a “silent killer.” It travels through the air and when inhaled, the gas attaches itself to the hemoglobin in your bloodstream and slows the rate of oxygen to your brain and body. It is completely undetectable to human senses. It can be produced by several fuel-burning home appliances (any that burn gas, kerosene, oil or wood), so having a CO detector is a must. Without one, even a low level leak can be dangerous. Some leaks are fast and furious, others are low and slow. Both can be deadly or have serious long term impacts.
A small leak can cause “flu-like” symptoms – headache, tiredness, weakness, nausea. A larger, stronger leak can cause loss of vision, confusion and loss of consciousness. It’s so important to have a functioning CO detector in your home so that you don’t mistake feeling a bit under the weather for low level exposure, and if the leak is intense, you want to know immediately before possibly losing consciousness. Long term or high exposure can cause brain damage. Young children, babies and the elderly are especially susceptible. Nighttime makes everyone vulnerable because you’re asleep and won’t notice if you feel any symptoms.
What type of CO detector should you get?
Battery operated can be installed in any location and offers protection during a power outage. AC operated with a battery back-up can be plugged into any outlet and if there is a power outage it will switch to battery mode. A CO detector can also be hardwired into your home with your smoke detector.
Many people mistakenly think that CO detectors last forever. This is false. Almost all units these days have a 10-year life span and will sound an alert to let you know it should be replaced. They also have a low battery alert. A good rule of thumb is to replace batteries when the clocks change in fall and it’s close to that time you turn your furnace on. Make sure you take note of the date you installed any units. Most will have a sticker directly on the unit where you can record the date it was activated.
My first thought as I was reading through several articles was all we have is a furnace that could cause this, so why did I put our CO detector in the upstairs hallway? It’s a common mistake to install CO alarms right beside the furnace. It makes sense to think that’s where it should be if that’s where the gas could come from. While there is no harm in having a detector on all levels of your house, you want to make sure they are installed either in your bedroom or centrally to all sleeping areas so that you will hear the alarm loud and clear if goes off while you’re asleep.
And let me assure you – they are loud. If you ever want to test your CO detector, they all come with a “Test” button, but be sure to place your finger over where the alert will sound so that the sound is muffled while you are testing. Long exposure to the alarm can cause hearing damage.
What should you do if your CO detector starts making noise? If it starts chirping, a single sound every 30-60 seconds, you can check the small screen on the unit to see if its indicating low battery or “End” which means it’s near the end of its life and should be replaced.
If the unit is emitting four loud beeps followed by five seconds of silence, followed by 4 more beeps, etc., this is an emergency and you need to leave your house immediately and call 911. Make sure everyone leaves the premises, including your pets as they are also susceptible to CO poisoning.
You will see articles saying to press the “Test” button or open windows and turn off any appliances that could be emitting the gas, but it is best to treat this situation as urgent and get outside right away. Better to err on the side of caution. Once emergency responders have investigated your home and cleared it, they will reset your CO detector.
A note to renters – by law in Ontario, your landlord has to provide you with a CO detector, its current operating manual, the date it was purchased and activated. They must install it in accordance with Ontario Fire Code and maintain it regularly. They must also maintain any appliance that could possibly emit CO. As a tenant you are required to NOT disable the unit and you must inform your landlord when the unit is not working or needs to be replaced.
As we approach the changing of the season and get close to the clocks falling back, I hope this post inspires you to purchase any detectors you may need, check your current CO and smoke detector batteries, and replace units if need be. It’s also a great time to schedule furnace maintenance!