Take steps to keep home free of carbon monoxide

The Inspector's Eye

November 04, 2001|By Dean Uhler

It might seem a mundane concern compared to the anthrax scare, but carbon monoxide poisoning is a cold-weather hazard that can be deadly.

Carbon monoxide is a year-round concern, but its risks increase in cold weather for two reasons. First, fuel-burning heating appliances are in use. Second, windows and doors are closed, reducing ventilation and concentrating indoor pollutants.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas produced by the incomplete combustion of any fuel - natural gas, oil, propane, gasoline, kerosene, charcoal, wood, etc. All fuel-burning appliances can produce it, including furnaces, water heaters, boilers, space heaters, clothes dryers, stoves, ovens, fireplaces and wood stoves. Automobiles and charcoal grills always produce carbon monoxide, making them particularly dangerous in enclosed spaces.

Illness and death can occur when the gas is inhaled, because it combines powerfully with hemoglobin in the blood, taking the place of oxygen needed to sustain life. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, dizziness, fatigue and nausea. These are also typical flu symptoms, so victims of carbon monoxide poisoning often don't realize they are in danger. More severe exposure causes vomiting, loss of consciousness, permanent neurological damage and death.

Taking precautions can protect you from CO poisoning.

Install at least one carbon monoxide detector in your house. Most houses do not have them - they are not legally required in most jurisdictions, even in new construction. Smoke detectors, while essential to alert you if there is a fire, will not detect the gas.

Consider obtaining a yearly inspection and maintenance policy on combustion appliances from a licensed technician or contractor.

Do not use your gas stove or oven to heat a room or to try to heat the house. Even a properly adjusted stove or oven burner will generate dangerous concentrations of carbon monoxide if oxygen in the room becomes depleted.

Never burn charcoal inside a house or in any confined space. Burning charcoal produces large amounts of carbon monoxide, whether the coals are black, red, gray or white.

Do not operate automobiles, generators or other gasoline-powered engines in confined spaces, such as garages or basements.

If you are mechanically sophisticated, check exhaust systems on combustion appliances for damaged vent pipes and blocked exhaust systems. This should include looking for any detached joints, or corrosion holes, in vent pipes between the furnace, boiler or water heater and the chimney flue.

If a gas-fired furnace, boiler or water heater has a draft diverter or draft hood (near where the vent pipe connects to it), close all windows and doors, temporarily turn up the thermostat or water temperature, and check the draft diverter or hood for potentially dangerous "spillage" of exhaust gases.

Draft diverters and draft hoods are designed to allow room air to go up the flue with the exhaust; exhaust should not spill into the room. Exhaust spillage is an indication that the chimney flue is blocked or that low air pressure in the house is preventing the flue from drawing properly.

Look at the color of the flames in gas burners in furnaces, boilers, water heaters, stoves and ovens. They should be blue, or blue with yellow at the tip of the flames. A yellow flame indicates incomplete primary combustion, which can cause elevated carbon monoxide production.

Inspector's Eye

Dean Uhler has been a home inspector for more than 12 years and is president of Baltimore-based Boswell Building Surveys Inc. Uhler is a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and is the treasurer of the Greater Baltimore Chapter of ASHI.

Questions, with name, address and daytime telephone number, about homes and home inspections can be faxed to 410-783-2517, e-mailed to real.estate@baltsun.com or mailed to Inspector's Eye, Second Floor, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278-0001.

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