Does your home have a carbon monoxide detector?

Installing a carbon monoxide detector is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself, your family and anyone else in your home.

A detector is designed to warn you before carbon monoxide concentrations reach a dangerous level.

What is carbon monoxide? And why is it dangerous?

Carbon monoxide — also called CO — is an invisible gas. It has no color, and you cannot smell or taste it. 

If carbon monoxide gas escapes into your home, it can easily poison you before it’s detected, which is why it’s known as the “invisible killer.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), accidental carbon monoxide poisoning kills approximately 430 people each year and sends 50,000 people to hospital emergency rooms.   

Potential sources of carbon monoxide include any home appliance or device that burns fuel, such as gas, oil or coal:

  • Clothes dryers, ranges and gas refrigerators
  • Furnaces
  • Portable generators
  • Pressure washers
  • Space heaters
  • Water heaters

If these devices are not well-ventilated and operating properly, carbon monoxide can build up inside the home.

Symptoms of CO poisoning

Be aware — carbon monoxide poisoning can happen at different rates depending on the source and nature of the leak. Poisoning can occur slowly by the release of small amounts of carbon monoxide over a long period of time. Or, poisoning can take place quickly when a large amount enters a home or office space.

CO poisoning can create flu-like symptoms. These can include:  

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting

High levels of carbon monoxide can also cause confusion, loss of consciousness or death.

Breathing in carbon monoxide during sleep can result in death before symptoms are ever experienced.

Protect against carbon monoxide by using a detector

For your safety, the CDC recommends the use of carbon monoxide detectors to signal when there is a possible leak.

  • Select a detector that is battery-operated or contains a battery backup.
  • Carefully follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions.
  • Place detectors on each level of your home and near bedrooms (you want the alarm to wake you).
  • Change the batteries in your carbon monoxide detectors every six months; don’t wait until they “chirp.” Test alarms monthly.
  • Replace carbon monoxide detectors every five years or according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

If the carbon monoxide detector sounds, leave the home or office immediately and dial 911.

Who needs a carbon monoxide detector?

Even if a furnace and other appliances run on electric power — instead of gas, oil or coal — experts say carbon monoxide detectors are still a good idea.  

If you have an attached garage and someone accidentally leaves a car or lawnmower running, the colorless, odorless carbon monoxide fumes may enter the home through walls or doorways.

Also, when using gas generators or other appliances outdoors, carbon monoxide can seep inside the house.

Other important precautions

To help prevent accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in your home, take these precautions too:  

  • Ask a trained service technician to check your furnace, water heater, and all gas, oil or coal-burning appliances each year. Make sure they are vented and operating properly. (Read the product safety manuals to learn about carbon monoxide risk.)
  • Never cook indoors with a barbecue grill or gas camp stove. Keep these items outdoors, away from windows. 
  • If you use a power generator, place it at least 20 feet away from your house. Keep pressure washers and all gas-powered devices away from windows, doors and vents.
  • Make sure all fireplaces, grills and stoves are properly vented. Have chimneys inspected annually. (Debris blocking a chimney can cause carbon monoxide to build up inside your house.)
  • Make sure space heaters are properly vented.
  • Never run a car or lawnmower inside your garage, even if you leave the door open.
  • Never use a gas range or oven to heat a house, cabin or camper.
  • When you buy gas-powered equipment, look for the seal of a national testing agency, such as Underwriters Laboratories.

With knowledge, you can prevent carbon monoxide poisoning in your home. For even more valuable tips, check out the CDC's carbon monoxide resources.

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