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Carbon Monoxide - The Silent Killer

A most dangerous substance that is often only thought of when reading or listening in the news about another person or family who were rushed to hospital or flown to a city having a chamber for victims of carbon monoxide poisoning. Winter is the most serious time for increased potential of carbon monoxide in buildings, because storm windows are in place, the heating system in full gear and fires in fireplaces.

As homeowners, tenants, landlords, etc., we all must have a better understanding of the characteristics and dangers of carbon monoxide gas. Carbon monoxide, scientifically speaking, is a clear, odourless, toxic, flammable, colourless gas with a similar specific gravity to air. However, there are visual signs that carbon monoxide gas is being produced or that it is likely present. From a practical and visual sense, carbon monoxide is not odourless or colourless. When carbon monoxide is being produced there is soot, water vapour and/or water staining, discoloured face plates on the furnace, scaling, deteriorated venting and if severe enough, a pungent odour that can be sensed by your nose. This odour is created from aldehydes, the by-products of incomplete combustion that are being produced.

Detectors Save Lives

So while you cannot see or smell CO, you can see and smell the effects of CO and the by-products. True, a carbon monoxide detector can make detection possible, however most are set to alarm at 100PPM. It is possible to have carbon monoxide in small amounts under 100PPM; in addition, you might also have a high concentration of (NOX) nitrogen oxide, which is commonly called smog. It may be the high CO2 levels causing your asthma-like symptoms making you feel terrible. A carbon monoxide detector is still a wise investment; however don't forget there are visual signs that CO is being produced. If you notice any of the signs, you should contact a trained qualified technician immediately.

Carbon Monoxide detector - Custom Vac provides a full range of heating and air conditioning services, water tank sales, and 24 hour emergency service.Flue gas spillage termed "back drafting" describes the most common contributing factor of carbon monoxide poisoning. This happens when the venting from the appliance(s) to the chimney or the chimney itself becomes blocked or deteriorated. Products of combustion are then channelled back into the home instead of being safely vented outdoors and if the burners are not burning properly, CO may be produced creating a potentially hazardous condition.

Side Effects of an Energy Efficient Home


In Manitoba, we should be proud of the fact that we live in some of the "tightest" built homes in Canada. In an effort to reduce energy consumption we continue to tighten our existing buildings by installing added insulation, weather stripping, windows, energy efficient furnaces, etc. We even incorporate controlled temperature, humidification, ventilation, and air purification systems, all in an effort to achieve the perfect indoor comfort controlled environment.

However, tight homes do not come free of side effects. Everything that you do within your home affects something else. The results may be positive airflow or negative airflow (depressurization) depending on your particular building. For example, the installation of a dryer, central vacuum system, fireplace, wood stove, kitchen or bathroom exhaust fan can possibly be enough to cause the chimney to back draft, spilling the combustion products into the building. Other factors such as closing off a combustion air intake or enclosing a furnace or hot water heater can create back drafting.

The Chemistry of CO

To understand carbon monoxide one needs to know the fuel source and its chemical make up. The main component of natural gas is methane. For combustion to take place, the gas to air mixture needs to be between 4 - 14% natural gas in the air. The by-products of complete combustion are heat/light, carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapour (H2O), and nitrogen oxide (NOX). Natural gas ignites at approximately 1170 F. When incomplete combustion takes place, the dangerous by-product produced is carbon monoxide. Incomplete combustion is the result of the lack of air, which inhibits the combustion process, commonly known as starving the air.

Know the Symptoms

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are tightness across the forehead, headaches, giddiness, faintness, flushing, muscular weakness, mental confusion, collapse, nausea, vomiting and dimness of vision. These symptoms mimic those of the flu. Carbon Monoxide enters our bodies through the air we breathe into our lungs and is absorbed into our blood stream. The usual treatment is to administer oxygen as soon as possible.

There are many things you can do in an effort to minimize carbon monoxide poisoning. They are as follows:

  • Keep the utility room or furnace areas clean and clear of debris. Restricting air to the appliance can starve the air causing incomplete combustion to occur.

  • Make sure that if the furnace is in an enclosed utility room that there is sufficient air to allow complete combustion to take place. If there is not sufficient air, a combustion air intake pipe must be installed from outside.

  • Be sure to check the combustion air intake screen if you have a separate combustion air intake pipe installed to the outdoors. All too often combustion air vents are found closed or blocked, because they allow cold air to fall in or be drawn into the building continuously creating comfort problems. Mechanical combustion air dampers that interlock with the appliances that resolve comfort problems are available. They open only when the appliances are operating, eliminating the cold air problem. These are relatively inexpensive and Custom Vac can install the proper sized one for you.

  • Having your furnace and appliances cleaned by one of Custom Vac's qualified service technicians will ensure that the appliances are operating safely and efficiently. Dirty burners or deteriorated venting systems may leak carbon monoxide into the building.

  • When using a fireplace or wood stove that does not utilize outdoor air for the combustion process, make certain that you leave a window open during use. These appliances use and exhaust huge amounts of air from the building that can create back drafting.

  • Be certain to clean and check the chimneys on a regular basis for debris and obstructions. Often in the summer birds, raccoons, squirrels, and even ducks have been known to use the chimneys as nests.

  • In homes with attached garages open the garage door before starting the car. Back the car out immediately. Do not allow the car to sit in the garage running. Often there is a bedroom above and/or an entry door to the building. Check the foundation where the garage and building meet to ensure that all cracks and holes around wires and pipes are sealed.

  • When using a fireplace or wood stove do not go to bed with the fire still burning; put it out and leave the damper open until the next day. Think of this as a campfire never leave a fire unattended.

  • Purchase an approved carbon monoxide detector. Compare detectors, as some require replacement sensors and or batteries, some wire directly into the building wiring, while others simply plug into any standard 120-volt outlet. Still others require no replacement of batteries or power and can be mounted anywhere.

  • Use timers on exhaust fans to minimize fan "on" time. This limits the amount of air drawn from the home minimizing the potential for depressurization while at the same time saving energy.

Grim Statistics that could have been Prevented

More than 230 people die each year in the US from carbon monoxide poisoning associated with home fuel burning equipment like furnaces, room heaters, and charcoal grills. The sad part is that every one of those deaths could have been prevented.

The hype that always surrounds these incidents of carbon monoxide is all too soon forgotten. However, consumers only seem to react when it's in the news again.

Buy the Right CO Monitor

Custom Vac has been solving indoor air quality problems since 1970. Don't panic and rush out to purchase the first detector you see; look at the approvals, options, overall lifetime maintenance cost and performance. Do however purchase one to protect your family, tenants or employees. The potential for an incident is not worth risking a life.

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Indoor Air Quality - Carbon Monoxide


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