Ask the Expert

What to know about CO

Q: We have CO detectors in our home to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning, but we’ve been hearing that many homeowners are not installing or maintaining them properly and, as a result, are not protected. What do we need to know?

The first thing everyone needs to know is that carbon monoxide (CO) is colorless, odorless and is going to be present whenever we burn anything. The gas is known as the “silent killer," leading to Alaskan deaths and poisonings. Alaska has had some of the highest rates of CO-related deaths in the nation. Alaskans depend heavily on combustion heating fuels (wood, fuel oil and natural gas) and that increases the risk of exposure to carbon monoxide. Homes that are built “as tight as possible” may also lack proper ventilation.

So, first of all, residents should reduce the amount of carbon monoxide produced in the home. Make sure that wood stoves and boilers are properly installed, correctly running and annually tuned up or maintained. Check the vents on combustion devices to see that they are secure, and make sure the exhaust pipe does not have any obstructions. Using range hood fans, especially if you have a natural gas or propane stove, is essential. And if you have an attached garage to your home, do not warm your car up in your garage.

To ensure that you know when a problem or leak arises, you need a good carbon monoxide detector, which you maintain well and replace every five to seven years. There are various kinds of detectors. Some merely alert you after the carbon monoxide has reached a particular concentration and some that will show digital readings in real time so that you can see the carbon monoxide concentration. Either is fine, depending on your preference, but you want to be sure to have a fresh battery in each one, and make sure the outlets are working for those alarms that you plug in. Place a single unit in each bedroom and family area. You can also purchase dual smoke/carbon monoxide detectors that will help you save time with checking and replacing batteries each year.

In short, take carbon monoxide seriously whenever there is combustion in your home, and have an up-to-date alarm with fresh batteries in the parts of your home where you spend the most time.

Art Nash is an Assistant Professor at the UAF School of Natural Resources and Extension. He currently teaches and provides technical assistance/outreach to residents statewide in the areas of Energy, Healthy Homes and Emergency Preparedness and Recovery.