You can’t smell it, see it or taste it, but when present inside your home, it can make you sick or even kill you. Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning kills more than 400 people each year in the United States and sends another 20,000 to the emergency room, according to the CDC. These rates peak in winter, when gas-powered heating systems are being taxed by cold weather. This is why carbon monoxide testing is crucial.
To protect yourself and your family from this “silent killer,” it’s important to know the key sources of CO in your home, the symptoms of CO poisoning and the best ways to detect it before it can cause harm.
Household Sources of Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide is the byproduct of incompletely burned fossil fuels, including gas, oil, charcoal and coal. It is commonly produced by older gas furnaces as well as HVAC systems and gas-powered water heaters without sufficient ventilation. Electric heaters and other electric appliances do not typically produce carbon monoxide and create little risk of CO poisoning.
Other potential sources of excess carbon monoxide include:
- Gas dryers
- Gas ovens and stoves
- Portable (non-electric) space heaters
- Charcoal and gas grills
- Wood-burning stoves
- Running vehicles in enclosed spaces, such as a garage
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
People who have been exposed to excess carbon monoxide frequently experience headache, dizziness, weakness, vomiting, chest pain and disorientation. Individuals with high levels of CO in their blood may feel like they have the flu and can pass out or become unresponsive. People who are sleeping, drunk or otherwise sedated can die from CO poisoning without waking up to become aware of these symptoms.
While all humans are susceptible to CO poisoning, some groups are more likely to be affected by elevated CO levels, including babies, the elderly and people with anemia or chronic heart or lung problems.
If you and your family experience any of the above symptoms at home but notice they abate when you leave, open all windows and doors and shut off your HVAC system, water heater and stove. Get out of the house and immediately contact your fire station or a professional air testing service.
Carbon monoxide levels are measured in parts per million (ppm), and symptoms escalate as levels in your home increase. Safe levels of CO in homes with gas appliances range from .5 to 5 ppm. At levels between 5 and 70 ppm, extended exposure (six to eight hours) can result in headaches and dizziness. At 100 ppm, it takes just two hours for headache, nausea and fatigue to appear. At 150 to 200 ppm, death can occur.
For a stronger resonance of the smart home, smart carbon monoxide detectors from companies like Nest exist. These connect well with smart home thermostats and other smart devices such as smart sprinkler systems and smart locks.
Carbon Monoxide Testing in Your Home
The best method for ensuring that your home has safe CO levels is conducting an indoor air quality assessment. This piece of carbon monoxide testing is available via private companies, and in some areas, local fire departments and utilities will also check your CO levels for a nominal fee.
These comprehensive air quality tests use a portable electronic multi-gas monitor, which can detect even trace amounts of carbon monoxide gas in the air. Air-testing companies may also offer additional tests for radon gas, mold, allergens and other harmful materials.
HVAC Carbon Monoxide Testing
If the testing agency suspects your HVAC system is causing elevated levels of carbon monoxide, you can hire an HVAC contractor to test your system with a combustion analyzer, which assesses the gases produced by your heating and cooling system to make sure the ratio of carbon monoxide to oxygen is at a safe level.
Consumer-Grade CO Detectors
Household carbon monoxide detectors are an affordable and effective way to monitor CO levels in your home (and may even be required by your state or municipal government). While not as sensitive as professional-grade portable electronic toxic multi-gas monitors, they will alert you when CO levels in your home become dangerously high.
They are not intended to identify the source of high CO levels, such as furnaces or kitchen appliances and should be placed 20 feet from HVAC systems and at least five feet from gas appliances like stoves or water heaters. They also should not be installed in areas of direct sunlight, high-humidity areas like bathrooms or near ceiling fans, windows or other well-ventilated zones.
If your carbon monoxide detector goes off, you should immediately open all windows and doors and contact your utility company, fire department or an independent testing agency as soon as possible. Do not remain in your house, and do not re-enter until a professional has told you it is safe to do so.