Beneficial Buildings and Healthy Homes: Carbon Monoxide Detectors

This is the first in a series of articles about what you can do to improve your living and working environments.  There have been many recent breakthroughs in technology, design, and science that give us new ideas to make our buildings safer, healthier, and better for our environment.  The “green” building movement has already made a lot of progress in publicizing techniques to utilize natural building materials, reduce energy consumption, and preserve scarce resources.  The emerging “healthy home” movement is working on ways to make your house (or place of work) safer from hazards, allergens, toxic materials, and man-made or natural disasters.

Please note: This is general advice, not intended for construction purposes.  Check with a licensed architect or contractor, as necessary, for specific recommendations for your individual circumstances.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Here is a simple idea to make your home a little bit safer and give you some peace of mind:  install a carbon monoxide detector.  Why?  Carbon monoxide is colorless, tasteless, and odorless, but very toxic.  It can be produced by any fuel-burning appliance, typically gas-powered, such as furnaces, water heaters, fireplaces, and stoves.  In a properly working appliance, the carbon monoxide is exhausted up the flue.  If the appliance has a defect such as a cracked manifold, carbon monoxide can leak into the house.  The two most common causes of carbon monoxide poisoning in homes, however, are improperly maintained chimneys and gas space heaters.

You probably already know that your home should have smoke detectors.  We now recommend that you replace your smoke detectors with dual-purpose smoke/carbon-monoxide detectors.  New construction code requirements call for a smoke detector/carbon monoxide detector in each bedroom and in hallways.   You do not want one near the kitchen, but you might want one in the garage, near the water heater and/or furnace. For remodels or new construction, the preferred installation method is to hard-wire into the home electrical system with battery back-up.  In older homes, you can use a battery-powered unit.  They cost $30-$50, and are available at building supply stores such as Home Depot or Orchard Supply Hardware. 

You can install the battery-powered units yourself, but an electrician must install electricity-powered units.  (Work on your electrical system requires a building permit and city/county inspection.)  For more information on Carbon Monoxide Detectors, and the medical effects of carbon monoxide exposure, visit this website: http://freenet.msp.mn.us/people/guestb/pubed/cofaq.html

Other Tips

Never use an open oven to heat the house.  (This is tempting when there is an electrical power outage, but don’t do it, just bundle up in blankets.) Ovens do produce carbon monoxide, and are typically not well ventilated.  Get in the habit of using your range ventilation fan whenever you are cooking with the gas range or the gas oven.

Never store paper (such as shopping bags or newspaper) next to the refrigerator, freezer or furnace.  These get brittle and can develop a very low flashpoint, causing fire even from a properly functioning appliance. 

While you are inspecting your home safety systems, consider adding a fire sprinkler head near the water heater and/or furnace in your garage. This is a relatively simple plumbing job that could prevent a fire started by these appliances.  They are a common source of house fires.

And lastly, teach your children how to call 911 in an emergency.  A good idea is to role-play with an unplugged telephone.  You can pretend to be the emergency response operator and the child could practice how to dial and what to say.

Lorianna Kastrop

Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc.

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