Because Boston is one area where supplemental home heating is required, Bostonians face an increased risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning in Boston homes in the colder months. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, and is a by-product of combustion. In small amounts, CO can cause nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, drowsiness, vision changes, headaches and cognitive impairment. In large amounts, CO inhalation can cause unconsciousness and death within minutes. Moderate CO exposure can cause unconsciousness and death over a longer period of time.
Common sources of CO can include the home’s furnace or other heating plant equipment, clothes dryers, hot water heaters, fireplaces, propane and kerosene heaters, generators and other small machines that use combustion engines, and automobile exhaust. Carbon monoxide is usually vented out of the home through a chimney or other exhaust port. A malfunction or blockage in the exhaust system, an improperly vented machine, or a malfunction in the heat exchanger of a furnace can create a dangerous situation where CO is introduced into the home’s air.
Because CO is colorless, odorless and tasteless, it isn’t possible to detect without mechanical assistance. One of the first symptoms of CO poisoning is confusion. By the time confusion is exhibited, a potential victim may no longer be able to recognize that there is a problem.
To avoid circumstances where CO can be introduced into your home, follow these tips.
Boston Standard Plumbing highly recommends the use of carbon monoxide detectors in your Boston home. Place a CO detector at every level of your Boston home, including the basement, and within 10 feet of all sleeping areas. Do not install a CO detector immediately above or beside a fuel-burning appliance or device. A small amount of CO emission is normal when these devices ignite. This small CO emission does not pose a health hazard and will dissipate into the surrounding air. Prolonged CO emission, however, such as that which occurs when a defective device is operating is a serious problem that requires immediate attention.
CO weighs about the same as normal, breathable air, but since CO is the product of incomplete combustion, dangerous CO may be concentrated in the warm air rising from the defective heat source. Therefore, CO detectors should be placed high on the wall or in stairwells, like smoke detectors. They should also be placed in or near attached garages.
Do not use gasoline-, kerosene-, or propane-powered heaters inside your home under any circumstances. A combustion engine produces noxious exhaust and must be vented to the outside in all cases. If your furnace fails, do not attempt to supplement your heat with a fuel-powered heater. These devices are meant for outdoor use only. Likewise, do not operate automobiles, gasoline powered engines or generators, snow throwers or lawn mowers inside the enclosed garage of your home even for short periods of time. The exhaust from these devices should always be vented to the outside. If you need to start one of these devices, open the main garage door to ensure that fresh air is entering the garage space.
Have your furnace and other heating equipment checked annually prior to the beginning of the heating season by a trained heating and cooling professional. Heat exchangers in gas-furnaces should be checked carefully for cracks or other damage. Defective heat exchangers should be replaced immediately and before the furnace is turned on. Please note that the heat exchangers in high-efficiency furnaces have a much shorter lifespan than these devices do in older, less efficient models. If you own a high efficiency furnace, you will need to replace your heat exchanger more frequently.
If your CO monitor indicates that there is a problem, turn off all combustion appliances (furnace, HWH, stove, etc) and immediately open the windows of your home. Exit the home if possible into fresh air. If anyone in the home shows symptoms of CO poisoning, call 911 immediately. Emergency medical personnel should assess all persons in the affected space, even those not showing symptoms of CO poisoning. Once the home has been aired out, contact a trained heating professional, like those at Boston Standard Plumbing, to determine the source of the CO and repair the defect.
If you are heating your home with an alternate heat source because you lack the resources to pay your utility bills in the winter, we urge you to contact the utilities directly to see if you qualify for home heating assistance. Social service agencies in the Boston area may also be able to provide home heating assistance.