Hold Your Breath

Last week, I ran this in the Author’s Notes area:

It’s very weird to call 911 to summon help, but I did so this weekend. We have a carbon monoxide alarm, and it was going off. Once may be a fluke, but after being reset it went off again, so I asked the fire department to swing by with a professional grade detector to see what they got — and they found 250 ppm of CO, which is definitely NOT good. Luckily, levels in my office were low, but we opened a window, turned the furnace off, and I went back to work. The men in red called the gas company and a beleaguered guy being run ragged by emergency calls all over the county showed up about 5 hours later. I love it when a competent person shows up!

We figured out that the furnace was not defective, but rather the problem was “my fault”: my wife had been painting the walls while I was writing this week’s column, and when she was done I turned on the attic fan to blow out the paint fumes. Since it was chilly outside the furnace had kicked on, but by then there was so much negative pressure from the attic fan that the furnace’s vent pipe had a downdraft, which blew the CO fumes into the basement. Case solved, but we never would have known without that detector. The $40-60 they cost is well worth it. If you don’t have one, give your family an early Christmas present: Get One!

There are hundreds of deaths and thousands of people made ill enough to go to a hospital every year from CO poisoning. Do you have working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms? Your (and your children’s) lives may depend on it. If not, get one. Today.

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4 Comments on “Hold Your Breath

  1. Thanks for the CO detector plug! And right at the start of cold weather, when furnaces are kicking in — great timing. I was speaking with an elderly lady yesterday and she mentioned that her detector was beeping. Though I’m a firefighter, I was not on duty and the discussion was not an official one, so I had to beg her to call the fire department. She was concerned about CO, but was more concerned about ‘bothering’ the fire department.

    Randy, it took me several minutes to get it through her head that she wouldn’t be bothering us — this is why we’re here! It ain’t glamorous, and doesn’t bring the adrenaline rush of a structure fire, but we’d gladly leave our dinner on the table in order to keep her from dying in her CO-filled home.

  2. I too have CO detectors in my house. I added them after a near disaster. We had just moved to Michigan and my wife, two children and I were living in a mobile home. The gas water heater was located behind a false wall in the master bedroom closet, well out of sight. The water heater had developed a leak over time and subsequently rotted the floorboards under it. The water heater had fallen through the floor! When it did, however, it basically straddled a floor joist, so it only fell a matter of six inches and continued to work.

    Unfortunately, the vent stack did not have enough length to withstand a six inch drop and we were venting the exhaust directly into the master bedroom closet. At the time my wife was doing licensed child care out of our home. Since she was working out of the home, she felt the effects of the poisoning more than the rest of the family, or the daycare children. We only found the problem when we had the home inspected in preparation to sell it.

    Can you believe the State of Michigan does not require a CO detector in a licensed daycare center? Thanks for bringing this life saving device to the attention of your readers.

    For other readers: does your kids’ daycare center have working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms? Your children’s lives may depend on it. If not, don’t just complain: buy them one. Today.

  3. Randy, may I make a plug? There are companies that make a living by appealing to the panic factor. (The Y2K one was one of the biggest scams. And how about those gas mask sales after 9/11?)

    But I’ve noticed that people quickly become used to the smell of anything in pretty short order. Leaking natural gas in a house is one example. My nose has picked it up many times in various homes, to be verified after my insistence to call the gas company.

    And CO is odorless. I am not a panic perpetrator, but I do have a CO detector, which is ALSO a combination flammable chemical detector. They rank right up with smoke detectors. As you said, $60 – $80 might seem steep, but they last for years and I think anyone would find it a cheap price if it saves their life.

    I’m very sensitive to natural gas odor (or, actually, the mercaptan they put in it, since gas is naturally odorless), but I know some people don’t really notice it, leading to tragic results. I didn’t realize flammable gas detectors were so cheap now. Good to hear. And now that I look more closely, I see some of the detectors in the link I posted at the end detect gas as well as CO — and for as little as $50. -rc

  4. You recommended strongly that people buy both smoke detectors and CO detectors. Yeeeessss…. but with a caveat. A lot of apartment smoke detectors are too sensitive. I lived in one apartment where boiling two pots of water on the stove at the same time (and no, there wasn’t anything under that burner that was smoking; it was quite clean) set off the smoke alarm at the far end of the apartment. Inevitably, I took the battery out of the smoke alarm. It was that or give up cooking.

    And I know it’s not necessary for them to be that sensitive. I know that because in my current apartment I have one right outside the kitchen, and I’ve never yet had a false alarm from it, in five years.

    I agree that’s ridiculous. The solution isn’t to not have an alarm, the solution is to get a better one. -rc


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