Carbon Monoxide: A Cautionary Tale
Editor’s Note: Do not rely on a combo smoke detector/CO detector. Smoke rises, but carbon monoxide stays low to the ground. Instead have a stand-alone carbon monoxide detector that can be plugged into a wall and is low to the ground. This is one that fire department often recommend.
I had a scary thing happen St. Patrick’s Day night. One of my sons said he smelled gas in the house while sitting in the office in the basement on the computer, which is next to the furnace room. My kids Dad, happened to be coming by and smelled it some too, so he turned the emergency gas switch off, then went around the house opening windows.
The boys and I gathered clothes for a few days, grabbed our laptops, the dog, and I ran around grabbing photos from years ago that I don’t have digital copies of. A few bins of photos, VHS tapes of my kids when they were little, mementos, kids’ scrapbooks— stuff that can’t be replaced. All within 10 minutes. It was a mad dash. I had no idea what would happen. We packed the car and drove to stay with my parents that night, knowing gas was off, electric was off, and windows were open, but not knowing how long we may be out of the house.
I called the gas company (National Grid customer service sucks by the way and it took them over 3 hours to get here). Once they got here, they tested everything coming into the house—turns out no gas leak, except when lighting my gas stove (a Viking that has never worked right) that clicks for about 30 seconds before lighting, so there’s a slight smell of gas from that. He then went to the furnace room. No gas leak there either, but the carbon monoxide reading was 290 parts per million, then went up to 700! At 700 we would be nauseous and dizzy within the hour, and after two hours of exposure we would be unconscious. It was nighttime, so we would have gone to sleep not realizing the silent danger lurking in the basement.
I have been feeling “off” since March 1st, even had a doctor’s appointment on the 4th. Nothing wrong. No strep, no Covid— maybe something viral they said. Prescribed an antibiotic. Still felt odd almost three weeks later.
Turns out that false alarm of a gas smell detected levels of carbon monoxide emissions that would have had us unconscious in two hours had we stayed the night. Turns out, I did not have CO detectors in my house. I had replaced smoke detectors some years back and *thought* it was a combo fire/carbon monoxide detector, but it was just a smoke detector. Carbon monoxide has no odor. We would not have woken up the next morning.
After determining the issue and getting a plumber to fix the leak, I was told by my doctor to go to the ER to check for blood poisoning. It was almost 17 hours later, and we still tested positive for CO poison in the blood. I now realize this is what was making me feel sick for a few weeks (dizzy, headaches, etc.). Luckily, we didn’t need oxygen therapy at the hospital— just breath the fresh air to get it out of our system, but we definitely had CO poisoning.
I have since purchased several carbon monoxide detectors, new smoke detectors and am grateful to be alive. Truly. It wasn’t our time.
By the grace of God, that smell of gas was what alerted us to something that would have been far more dangerous. And the gas turned out to be nothing. Please check your batteries on your smoke detectors and purchase carbon monoxide detectors if you don’t already have them. We could have been one of those tragedies. I hope my mistake of not having the proper detection system in place helps someone stay safe. God bless.
Here are some important tips from the CDC:
How can I prevent CO poisoning in my home?
- Install a battery-operated or battery back-up CO detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. Place your detector where it will wake you up if it alarms, such as outside your bedroom. Consider buying a detector with a digital readout. This detector can tell you the highest level of CO concentration in your home in addition to alarming. Replace your CO detector every five years.
- Have your heating system, water heater, and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
- Do not use portable flameless chemical heaters indoors.
- If you smell an odor from your gas refrigerator have an expert service it. An odor from your gas refrigerator can mean it could be leaking CO.
- When you buy gas equipment, buy only equipment carrying the seal of a national testing agency, such as Underwriters’ Laboratories.
- Make sure your gas appliances are vented properly. Horizontal vent pipes for appliances, such as a water heater, should go up slightly as they go toward outdoors, as shown below. This prevents CO from leaking if the joints or pipes aren’t fitted tightly.
- Have your chimney checked or cleaned every year. Chimneys can be blocked by debris. This can cause CO to build up inside your home or cabin
- Never patch a vent pipe with tape, gum, or somethin