True Life Safety Includes CO Detection

Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is one of the most serious toxic gases encountered in society today. In fact, hundreds of people are killed and seriously injured each year because of CO in the workplace and the home.

In this and next month’s “Fire Side Chat,” we will discuss ways fire technicians can assist homeowners in the fight against CO. This month, we will discuss CO, its various sources, its effect on the body, and how CO detectors do what they do.

Building Practices Increase Risk

CO is virtually undetectable by the human nose or naked eye. Its presence is often the result of unburned fuel during the combustion process. The most common fuel sources involved include: natural gas; oil; kerosene; liquefied petroleum (LP gas); coal; wood.
Just about any device that burns the fuel types listed above can generate CO. Examples include residential furnaces; gasoline engines, such as portable generators in the home; charcoal grills; gas hot water heaters (nonelectric); gas heaters with an open flame; portable butane devices, such as camp stoves and portable camping heaters; and others.

The problem is compounded by modern construction practices that foster the buildup of CO over a period of time. Homes are built tighter, for example, not only to reduce air drafts, but to minimize the transfer of heat into and out of the home. Of course, the latter involves monetary savings to homeowners. For this reason, local communities have adopted building codes that demand tighter construction practices.

The various building trades also aggressively fire stop. Plumbers are directed to install fire stops where water pipes penetrate wood plates and studs. Electricians are likewise directed to install fire stops where electrical wires pass through wood studs as well as inside junction boxes in any openings or unused cable holes in the boxes themselves.
Prolonged exposure to CO can lead to mental impairment or death. Although humans cannot easily detect CO, there are symptoms: headache; shortness of breath; dizziness; fatigue; nausea.

It is important for fire technicians to understand this information so they are able to (1) educate existing clients and new prospects on the inherent CO risk; (2) create brochures that act to sell CO detection; and (3) subsequently sell their services.

Reducing CO-Related Illness, Death

There are several ways life safety and health authorities are fighting the accidental CO exposure problem. One of those methods is public awareness.

Several years ago, CO detection became a major topic of discussion nationally by the media. CO detector manufacturers as well joined in the effort by advertising their CO wares and developing new ones. And yet, an overwhelming majority of U.S. homes remain without CO detection.

Local government is working to increase the number of homes equipped with the devices by initiating laws that require the installation of self-contained CO detectors. Several years ago, for example, Chicago passed a law requiring the use of CO detectors in certain residential-related applications.

Businesses and homeowners alike have also responded to the call by taking better care of heating systems and other sources of CO. Preventative maintenance is by far the most effective means of dealing with the CO problem. Many homeowners, for example, have taken a proactive posture, purchasing CO detectors for every bedroom as well as each floor of their homes.

Meters Help Curb CO Problems

Corporate America has also taken measures to curb CO casualties by purchasing CO meters that enable maintenance staff to track down possible sources of CO.

Most fire departments are also likely to have a CO meter. Most of them are willing to make house calls when someone phones in a possible CO problem.

In addition, it is commonplace to include CO detection systems in closed parking garages. Automobiles are a major source of CO, so this arrangement has undoubtedly saved lives and deterred hundreds of injuries.

Detection in the Home: An Easy Sell

Since family members spend so much time there, the home is probably one of the most vulnerable places CO can exist. Not only that, CO does the most harm when people are asleep, after the sun sets, the temperature drops and the heating source is the most
active. If a furnace is pumping CO into a home environment, a person could easily fall victim to its deadly effects.

In response to this threat, many people install a single-station CO detector, which should be considered the beginning point of protection. Of course, the best type of CO detector is part of an overall electronic detection system, capable of notifying the central station so help can be immediately sought.

For the fire technician or security dealer who has installed an electronic detection system in a home, this should be an easy sell. In some cases, single-station models equipped with a set of dry contacts can simply be incorporated into an existing alarm system that has the additional zonage to accommodate them. Another alternative is to use a system-type CO detector that provides integrated control through a centralized control panel (see next month’s column).

Manufacturers, recognizing a new and ready market, have engineered a variety of combination smoke-CO detectors. These devices are commonly incorporated in a single housing where they provide the better of two worlds.

The Ceiling vs. Pillow Height Debate

A misunderstood area of life safety under which CO detection falls is where and how to install the detectors. Placement depends largely on whom you ask because there are actually two schools of thought on the issue.

First, some manufacturers recommend installers place their CO detectors at ceiling height, while others recommend they be installed somewhere between pillow height and 4 or 5 feet above floor level.

To make some sense of this, let us look at the rudimentary mechanics surrounding CO in residential applications. CO is slightly heavier than air, lending credence to the assumption that CO has the tendency to move toward the floor, displacing ordinary air. This assumption further supports the premise that CO detectors should be installed at pillow height.

However, when CO first leaves its point of origin, it is hot, as is the surrounding air. For this reason, First Alert, as well as others, maintain that CO has a tendency to rise, and that’s why they instruct installers to place their CO detectors at ceiling height.

Perhaps the best course of action is to install CO detectors on the ceiling when in fairly close proximity to its point of origin, while placing them at pillow height in other, more remote areas of the home. The premise for this is being that near to the hot source, CO will rise with hot air while, in other areas of the home, the air and CO has cooled, thus falling toward the floor.

A better rule of thumb is to carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions that came with the CO detectors. This will avoid expensive litigation: If the instructions are ignored, the installer may very well find himself or herself alone at the defendant’s table when the court fight begins.

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