How Do Carbon Monoxide Detectors Work?

Carbon monoxide is a killer, plain and simple. You can’t see it, smell it or taste, but it can silently creep into your home and threaten your family’s health without you having the slightest idea… until it’s too late. That’s the bad news.

The good news, however, is that carbon monoxide poisoning is entirely preventable. Here’s what you need to know about carbon monoxide detectors and how you can use them to keep your family safe from this silent killer.

What is carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is an invisible, poisonous, odorless gas that’s produced when carbon burns with insufficient air. It can be found indoors and outdoors, but it’s particularly dangerous in contained spaces. When we inhale it, it depletes the oxygen from our body’s red blood cells and replaces it with carbon monoxide, resulting in sickness and even death.

Why do we have to worry about carbon dioxide in our homes?

Many home appliances and systems operate by burning fuels, including gasoline, oil, charcoal, propane, natural gas and wood. When they run properly and are used as intended, they’re not a threat to our health. But, problems can occur when they malfunction or when they’re operated in areas that aren’t properly ventilated, causing indoor levels of carbon monoxide to rise to dangerous levels.

Common causes of carbon monoxide poisoning include things such as chimneys that are blocked, misused space heaters, portable generators used inside and cars left running in a garage.

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Each year, more than 400 people die from co poisoning in the United States, and more than 50,000 seek emergency medical help because of it. In fact, carbon monoxide is the most common non-drug cause of poisoning in this country.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may initially seem similar to the flu, just without a fever. As the body absorbs more carbon monoxide, serious symptoms including the following may occur:

  • Headache
  • Blurry vision
  • Confusion
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of muscle control
  • Vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Death

If you or anyone in your home suspects carbon monoxide poisoning, it’s important that you seek emergency medical attention immediately.

How do carbon monoxide detectors work?

Because it’s invisible, odorless and tasteless, carbon monoxide is often referred to as the “silent killer.” That’s why CO detectors are so important—they can detect what our human senses cannot. When the level of carbon monoxide nears dangerous levels, a carbon monoxide detector’s sensor will trigger an alarm.

Types of carbon monoxide sensors

Carbon monoxide detectors use several different types of technology to trigger an alarm including:

  • Biomimetic sensors—gel changes color when it senses high levels of carbon monoxide.
  • Metal oxide semiconductors—a silica chip detects co levels
  • Electrochemical sensors—a chemical solution detects changes in the electrical currents which are spurred by carbon monoxide.

What should you look for in a carbon monoxide detector?

Average cost of a carbon monoxide detector

Carbon monoxide detectors are a relatively low-cost investment for your family’s safety and prices vary depending on the style and features. Basic battery-operated models start around $12 and go up to about $50. Models that combine a smoke detector and a CO alarm in one unit range between $40-80, with some models (particularly those for hearing impaired people that also flash lights with an alarm) reaching $100 and more.

Battery operated vs plug-in carbon monoxide detectors

Battery-operated CO detectors are typically installed once and left there indefinitely. Plug-in carbon monoxide detectors, on the other hand, plug into any electrical outlet and allow you to move them from room to room or take them with you if you move. Plug-in carbon monoxide detectors should also have a battery backups so they still work if you should lose power.

The right way to install carbon monoxide detectors

The number of carbon monoxide detectors you need to protect your family depends on the size and layout of your house, just like with smoke alarms. In general, it’s recommended that you install at least one on each level of your home and near every sleeping area. For some homes, that may mean one detector is sufficient, while others will need several. Make sure they’re installed at least 15 feet from fuel-burning appliances and that they don’t get covered by any other items.

Once you’ve installed a carbon monoxide alarm, it’s important that you change the batteries regularly. Making it a habit, such as doing it twice a year when Daylight Savings Time changes, is a good way to make sure you don’t forget. They should also be dusted regularly.

What to do if your carbon monoxide alarm goes off

If your carbon monoxide alarm sounds, it’s imperative that you act quickly and take the following steps:

  • Get your family outside into fresh air immediately.
  • Evaluate everyone for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and call 911 if anyone demonstrates any of them.
  • Call your local fire department to come check your house.
  • If no carbon monoxide is detected, check the batteries in your detectors and test the detectors themselves. Replace and reset as necessary.

The bottom line: Carbon monoxide detectors are a must-have for every house

While it’s frightening to think of how easily carbon monoxide can creep into your home and harm your family, carbon monoxide detectors can seriously reduce or eliminate the risk. If you don’t already have carbon monoxide detectors properly installed in your home, there’s no time to waste. Take installing them off your to-do list and do it immediately – you’ll sleep better knowing you’ve just increased your home safety.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Officer Banta.

Officer James Banta

Officer Banta is the official SecurityNerd home security and safety expert. A member of the Biloxi Police Department for over 24 years, Officer Banta reviews all articles before lending his stamp of approval. Click here for more information on Officer Banta and the rest of our team.