Does all the carbon monoxide go up the flue like it should?

Home Work

November 25, 1995|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can, if sufficient concentrations build up in your home, kill you fairly quickly.

Most people know that, but there has been a recent rash of close calls with excess carbon monoxide in people's homes. One case in which people became seriously ill occurred just around the corner from Karol's house.

Most indoor carbon monoxide buildups come from gas- or oil-fired furnaces and water heaters. It doesn't matter if your house is completely weather-tight or pretty drafty. Carbon monoxide can still build up to lethal levels.

Avoiding disaster is not, in general, difficult: It's often just a matter of routine maintenance.

Before you turn on your gas- or oil-fired furnace or boiler in the fall, check the vent system to see if it's working properly. And if your water heater uses oil or gas, you need to check the venting periodically throughout the year.

The metal vent that runs from the furnace or water heater into the chimney should be firmly connected at both ends, solid, with no rust, holes or cracks, and there should be nothing blocking the vent or the chimney. If there's a problem, it needs fixing immediately. If you can't tell a vent from a water pipe, let a heating contractor take a look.

It's not enough to check just the outside of the vent, because sometimes the problem is not in the vent, but in the chimney flue it connects to.

The vent carries fumes from the furnace or water heater into the chimney, where they rise through the flue and are released into the air, where they become harmless.

The chimney can also be the problem. It can get be damaged by lightning, or blocked by loose bricks, mortar or construction debris, or by birds' nests.

Inspect the top of the chimney to make sure no bricks are loose or missing. If the inside of a brick chimney has been parged, or coated with cement, pieces may peel off and fall to the bottom of the flue. If the vent comes in at the bottom, the debris could block the vent opening. It pays to remove the vent every couple of years and check the flue -- with a gloved hand -- for debris in the bottom.

A heating contractor can check the draft in the chimney to make sure it is drawing properly, and fumes are being exhausted. Inadequate draft may signal blockage.

Carbon monoxide poisoning starts with flu-like symptoms such as nausea and headaches, and progresses to fainting. If everyone in a household is experiencing symptoms at the same time, bad air could be the culprit. You can buy carbon monoxide detectors, similar to smoke detectors, but they're no substitute for regular maintenance. Vent-checking is an ugly little task that falls under the weary category of isn't-home-ownership-grand, but it's a simple step that could even save a life.

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