Are carbon monoxide detectors sensitive enough?

Are carbon monoxide detectors sensitive enough?

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With furnaces working around the clock now, many people are checking the batteries in their carbon monoxide detectors -- but are they sensitive enough?

The detectors are required by state law, and they are designed to warn you when carbon monoxide concentrations are unsafe so that you can get out of your house and into fresh hair, but there's new concern over lower levels that won't trigger those alarms.

Typical carbon monoxide detectors are designed to issue a warning once a level has been high for a few hours. This prevents against false alarms caused by short spikes in carbon monoxide levels when a furnace kicks in or when the door to the garage is opened up; however, because of that design, chronic low levels may go unnoticed.

Whenever he does a fall furnace tune-up, Jim Dacus always checks the carbon monoxide output. He'll check the water heater too, as well as stoves, fireplaces and other sources of carbon monoxide.

"A lot of times, if it's just a simple repair, we can correct that problem with better venting," he explained.

His boss, John Owens, is now selling a carbon monoxide detector that specifically detects those low levels inside a home, saying he believes they can make people chronically sick if they stay steady.

"If you've got a low-level of carbon monoxide in your home, that's a serious situation," he said.

State law requires a detector near every bedroom. The kind that can be bought off the shelf will start displaying at 30 parts per million and will sound an alarm at 70 parts per million after a few hours have passed. Owens, however, is concerned about the readings of 15-30 parts per million which can linger for weeks or months.

"Maybe for healthy adults, it's not a big deal -- but if you've got young kids, older adults, people with compromised immune systems, that can be a real problem," he said.

That's why his low-level detector starts displaying at 5 parts per million and sounds an alarm once it detects 15 parts per million for five minutes. It'll also show you the exact carbon monoxide level in real time once it's over 5 parts per million -- but they're expensive. Owens sells them for about $130, but there are others available online that cost even more.

The medical research regarding long-term exposure to low-level carbon monoxide is a little fuzzy, but it can lead to symptoms that resemble the flu. Those include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea

Those same symptoms could be blamed on stress or allergies.

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