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Carbon Monoxide – Are You Safe?

Few of us truly fear or fully respect carbon monoxide. We should because it can kill us in as little as 5 minutes. It’s incredibly powerful, but invisible. It has no odor and can quietly creep into our rooms. It kills infants and small animals first. Sadly, their deaths may be the first warning sign you see.

Nebraska has the 5th most carbon monoxide deaths in the United States. You have been or are being exposed to various levels of carbon monoxide on a regular basis. Did you notice that exhaust from the car nearby? That’s diluted carbon monoxide. Try to avoid it by keeping safe distances. If it’s inside a garage, the exposure level is very high and dangerous. All levels of carbon monoxide affect the body.

A common place for carbon monoxide exposure besides your home is in a restaurant. Their powerful kitchen hoods over their stoves and large dishwashers can cause a backdraft of carbon monoxide from their large commercial water heaters, heating equipment, and any other fossil fuel burning equipment in the building.

Restaurant exhaust fans are supposed to be air balanced, but too often the outside makeup air is intentionally blocked off when the weather gets cold. Next time you open a door to a restaurant note whether that door is hard to pull, which would indicate they have backdraft issues and potentially high levels of carbon monoxide.

Speaking of exhaust fans over restaurant stoves, how about all those new gas stoves in homes like they promote on HGTV? How many have an exhaust fan capable of removing the same amount of flue gases as the high output of that stove? Not many. Resulting carbon monoxide levels can be high.

Carbon monoxide exposures may produce “just” a headache or any one of the fifty symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. The other 49 symptoms include variations of headaches, weakness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, shortness of breath, blurred vision, confusion, loss of consciousness, and the list goes on until the final symptom which of course is death.

If you are not feeling well, consider the potential cause could be carbon monoxide poisoning. Be suspicious if you feel better shortly after you leave your home or business and worse again when you return.

Two of the most common producers of carbon monoxide are fossil fuel burning furnaces and water heaters. Yes, water heaters too! All fossil fuel equipment needs annual maintenance. Well-tuned equipment produces less carbon monoxide and runs much more efficiently. Just like a car!

Another solution to reduce carbon monoxide risks is installing high efficiency furnaces and water heaters that require sealed plastic flue discharge pipes. They have minimal risk of backdraft of carbon monoxide.

It's easy to ignore maintenance on fossil fuel heating systems because they seldom fail. Realize all mechanical equipment heat exchangers will fail in time and carbon monoxide will enter your living space. Annual service helps identify failed heat exchangers.

Homes are more airtight than ever and that puts us at a higher risk. Simply opening a window or door under the right atmospheric conditions can cause a backdraft of carbon monoxide. Multi-story homes are especially susceptible.

Carbon monoxide detectors are more important than a gas gauge on your car since running out of gasoline will not kill you, but high levels of carbon monoxide levels will. When a carbon monoxide detector goes into alarm, trust it and believe there really is a problem. Leave the building.

It’s very important to have fossil fuel equipment installed properly. City of Lincoln building codes require inspections of all newly installed fossil fuel equipment by their trained inspectors that are silent heroes. They save lives. Thanks!

If there is no inspection sticker on your water heater or furnace, get nervous! Odds are it was not inspected and needs to be. Call the City of Lincoln HVAC Codes department at 402-441-7508. That equipment may have been installed illegally. The person that installed the equipment without a city inspection may be criminally liable if there is a problem.

If that equipment causes a catastrophe, do you have insurance to cover damages or loss of life? Odds are you may not. Will you have legal liabilities? It’s wise to avoid these issues in the first place.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is my least favorite subject to write about, but the most important. As a master plumber and master HVAC contractor I take it personally when there are carbon monoxide deaths. Please be safe!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!