CO Detection Helps Keep Building Occupants Healthy

Carbon monoxide stands tall among the many potential causes of death found in a building structure. There are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of CO poisoning as well as ways to detect this invisible killer.

Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is one of the most dangerous toxic gases encountered in society today. In fact, hundreds of people are killed and seriously injured each year because of CO in the workplace and the home. Learning about CO, its various sources, its effect on the body and how CO detectors function will help you most effectively protect those who look to you for their safety and well being.

Building Practices Increase Risk

CO is virtually undetectable by the human nose or naked eye. Its presence is often the result of unburned fuel during the combustion process. The most common fuel sources include natural gas; oil; kerosene; liquefied petroleum (LP gas); coal; and wood.

Just about any device that burns these fuel types can generate CO. Examples include residential furnaces; gasoline engines, such as portable generators; charcoal grills; gas hot water heaters (nonelectric); gas heaters with an open flame; portable butane devices, such as camp stoves and portable camping heaters; and others.

The problem is compounded by modern construction practices that foster the buildup of CO over a period of time. Homes, dormitories and other structures are built tighter, for example, not only to reduce air drafts but also to minimize the transfer of heat into and out of the structure. Of course, the latter involves monetary savings to owners. For this reason, local communities have adopted building codes that demand tighter construction practices.

The various building trades also aggressively fire stop. Plumbers are directed to install fire stopping where water pipes penetrate wood plates and studs. Electricians are likewise directed to install fire stops where electrical wires pass through wood studs as well as inside junction boxes in any openings or unused cable holes in the boxes themselves. This fire stopping seals up structures and thereby increases the likelihood of CO poisoning.

Prolonged exposure to CO can lead to mental impairment or death. Although humans cannot easily detect CO, there are symptoms: headache; shortness of breath; dizziness; fatigue; and nausea.

It is important for all stakeholders to understand this information so they are able to educate the occupants of these structures on the inherent CO risk. In some cases, brochures can be used to spread the word, especially when working in multiple-family apartment buildings, dormitories and other types of multidwelling structures. Above everything else, all stakeholders should see to it that CO detectors are installed where required.

Reducing CO-Related Illness, Death

There are several ways life safety and health authorities are fighting the accidental CO exposure problem. One of those methods is public awareness.Several years ago, CO detection became a major topic of discussion nationally by the media. CO detector manufacturers as well joined in the effort by advertising their CO wares and developing new ones. And yet, an overwhelming majority of U.S. buildings remain without CO detectors.

Local governments are working to increase the number of residential-related structures equipped with the devices by initiating laws that require the installation of self-contained CO detectors. Several years ago, for example, Chicago passed a law requiring the use of CO detectors in certain residential applications. Businesses, university officials and homeowners alike have responded to the call by taking better care of heating systems and other sources of CO. Preventive maintenance is by far the most effective means of dealing with the CO problem. Many stakeholders have taken a proactive posture, purchasing CO detectors for every bedroom as well as each floor of their living area.

Meters Help Curb CO Problems

Corporate America has also taken measures to curb CO casualties by purchasing CO meters that enable maintenance staff to track down possible sources of CO. Most fire departments are also likely to have a CO meter. Most of them are willing to make house calls when someone phones in a possible CO problem.In addition, it is commonplace to include CO detection systems in closed parking garages. Automobiles are a major source of CO, so this arrangement has undoubtedly saved lives and deterred hundreds of injuries.

Detection in the Home: An Easy Sell

Since people spend so much time in their living areas, the residential structure is probably one of the most vulnerable places CO can exist. Not only that, CO does the most harm when people are asleep. After the sun sets, the temperature drops and the heating source is the most active. If a furnace is pumping CO into a living space, a person could easily fall victim to its deadly effects.

In response to this threat, many people install a single-station CO detector, which should be considered the beginning point of protection. Of course, the best type of CO detector is part of an overall electronic detection system, capable of notifying security personnel or a central monitoring station so help can be immediately sought.

Where a fire and/or burglar alarm system is already installed on the premises, sometimes single-station models equipped with a relay output can be incorporated into the system. This is possible where the alarm panel has a spare programmable input circuit to accommodate them. Another alternative is to use a system-type CO detector that provides integrated control through a centralized control panel.

Manufacturers recognizing a new and ready market have engineered a variety of combination smoke-CO detectors. These devices are commonly incorporated in a single housing where they provide the better of two worlds.

Al Colombo has spent more than 30 years in various capacities of the electronic security industry. He can be reached at (330) 867-4401 or

For the complete version of our special fire/life-safety section, please refer to the May/June 2006 issue of Campus Safety Magazine.

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