According to St. Albans Fire Department Fire Marshal Lt. Chris Collins, carbon monoxide gas is a misunderstood and invisible potential menace in some households.
Collins recounted recently about a request he received approximately a year ago to install smoke alarms in the residence of a local, elderly couple. “I know these folks very well and was all too happy to help them, as they are always ready to lend a hand to help others,” he said.
“While installing the smoke alarms,” Collins continued, “I noticed a ventless fireplace in their basement. I told them about a recent grant we had obtained providing installation of a carbon monoxide alarm in homes that had appliances that used combustible fuel. Before leaving, I installed the alarm in the basement, completed my paperwork, and said goodbye.
“What I did not know at the time was that they also had a home generator. Almost a week later, I received a phone call from the wife, who apologetically told me she thought the alarm was broken. She assumed she bumped it with her chair and told me the alarm was activating. While on the phone with her, she described how she could push a button and the alarm would silence for a while, but, however, would resume activating after ‘a minute or so.’
“I told her that was not typical of a malfunctioning alarm, in my experience, and that I was going to have a fire crew go to her home and check the alarm. When they got there, the fire crew used their portable gas monitoring equipment and detected over 400 parts per million carbon monoxide present inside the home. And that was only 4 feet into the home.”
The fire crew evacuated the couple and investigated the problem. “Apparently, the electricity to the home had gone out and their natural gas-powered generator had kicked on,” Collins explained. “What was not known, however, due to improper installation, the generator exhaust was blowing in the dryer vent and filling the home with deadly carbon monoxide. No one in the family living in the home had any idea.
“Our firefighters reported that the home was rapidly filling with the deadly gas quickly, and that the couple was already showing the physical signs of carbon monoxide poisoning when they arrived. Had it not been for that simple and relatively inexpensive carbon monoxide detector that I’d installed for them, this story may have had a tragic ending.
“But instead, that little device likely saved the lives of two people, the parents of three grown children, grandparents for multiple grandchildren, and the great-grandparents of a baby who will now be able to remember them.”
According to National Fire Protection Association data Collins cited, fire departments responded to 79,600 carbon monoxide incidents in 2016, or an average of nine calls per hour. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention national statistics reported 399 people died in 2017 from carbon monoxide poisoning not related to a structure fire.
Carbon monoxide is a by-product of incomplete combustion, Collins said. “Inside your home, if you have appliances that use combustible fuels, such as natural gas, propane or fuel oil, for heating and cooking, these are potential sources of carbon monoxide.”
Vehicles running in attached garages can also produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, he added.
“Any equipment that’s powered by any fossil fuel produces carbon monoxide,” Collins explained. “They include furnaces, ranges, clothes dryers, water heaters, portable fuel burning space heaters and generators, fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, and certain swimming pool heaters that operate using gasoline, propane, natural gas, oil, or wood. The problem arises when those appliances malfunction, are improperly installed, or not ventilated properly.”
He said blocked chimneys or flues, back drafts, and changes in air pressure; corroded or disconnected vent pipes; and loose or cracked furnace exchangers are some of the other sources and conditions capable of producing carbon monoxide in the home.
“Since CO is colorless and odorless, there is no way to detect its presence without a working carbon monoxide detector, which is available at most department, hardware, and general stores,” Collins said.
The NFPA has issued the following guidelines for the placement of carbon monoxide detectors:
• in the hallway outside of bedrooms
• on every level of the home, including basements, where people inhabit (excluding attics and crawl spaces)
• other locations where required by applicable laws, codes, or standards.
The NFPA also states that each alarm or detector must be located on the wall, ceiling, or other locations as specified in the manufacturer’s published instructions that accompany the unit.
“Finally, you must respond to a carbon monoxide detector activation immediately,” Collins said. “Remember, because carbon monoxide can only be detected by an alarm, you should never ignore a carbon monoxide detector that is alarming.”
Collins said that when a carbon monoxide alarm sounds, all occupants of the home should move immediately move to a fresh air location outdoors or, “if it’s not possible to get outdoors, get to an open window or door. Find everyone inside the home and ensure they either get outside or join you at the window or door. Call 911 for help from that fresh air location and stay there until emergency personnel declare that it is safe to re-enter your home.”
SAFD Lt. Chris Collins can be contacted by calling 304-382-6850 or emailing [email protected]