I inhaled what??
December 19, 2006 5:33 AM   Subscribe

With all the news lately about carbon monoxide poisioning on the West Coast, I've laid in bed wondering about the carbon monoxide testers we have in our house. How do I know they REALLY work??

Is there a simple, safe way to test the detectors - other than hitting the 'test' button - to prove to myself that the things actually work? We have the type that plug into an outlet and have a battery backup.
posted by matty to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I believe the reason people are getting carbon monoxide poisoning is that they are using things like generators and charcoal grills indoors for heat. I'm not sure about other places, but everywhere I've lived on the East Coast, the only houses that have had CO monitors were the ones that had natural gas heat. So, it's entirely possible the people burning things inside their houses do not have CO monitors.

That being said, if you really want a rigorous test of your monoxide detector, you'd need to house it in a small box with some sort of CO meter. Then, just add CO to the box (hook it up to the exhaust pipe of your car, maybe), and make sure the detector goes off at the right saturation.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:48 AM on December 19, 2006

heh, you sound like my husband. Every time we move house he won't sleep for the first few nights for panicking about the boiler, and that the numerous CO detectors we have don't work.

I may suggest the car exhaust test to him.
posted by corvine at 5:59 AM on December 19, 2006

Somewhat related ... do wood stoves put out carbon monoxide? Would a CO tester be worthless (or a good idea) next to a wood stove?
posted by Alt F4 at 6:39 AM on December 19, 2006

Absolutely wood stoves are sources of carbon monoxide. A CO tester is a must for an indoor wood stove.

Google "wood stove carbon monoxide" for about a thousand hits, many from insurance companies who'd rather their policy holders stick around a bit longer.
posted by dreamsign at 7:13 AM on December 19, 2006

Mix finely divided zinc and calcium carbonate (chalk), then heat it with a propane torch. The reaction will produce carbon monoxide. (scrounged from wikipedia)

I'd recommend doing it outside.
posted by leapfrog at 7:13 AM on December 19, 2006

CO detectors should be replaced every 3-5 years, I think. There are two kinds, if I remember right, each monitoring the level differently. There should be directions for testing/replacement on the back of the unit.
posted by kc0dxh at 7:44 AM on December 19, 2006

The problem with your CO detector is that it is electric powered with battery fail-over. The CO detector gets so annoyed at losing electric power that the detector emits an annoying CHIRP at regular intervals.

Now imagine that the power is off for two and a half days, and you have this fucking thing CHIRPING at you constantly. Keep in mind, you're already pissed off because you have no power and can't shower because you're afraid your septic tank will overflow. Our CO detector was hidden in the basement where it could chirp with impunity without being annoying. This design flaw renders many CO detectors useless in an emergency situation.

We use our wood stove daily and we have never had a CO incident. It is, of course, properly ventilated to the outside and the stovepipe is relatively clean. We keep the CO detector down the hall from the wood stove (nearer to our bedroom, so that we don't die in our sleep).
posted by crazycanuck at 8:18 AM on December 19, 2006

crazycanuck: You could buy a battery-only CO detector and keep it upstairs as a backup. I bought one at Home Depot in Calgary for $10. It works just fine.

Aren't the vast majority of CO detectors battery-only? I've never seen one that plugs into the main power.
posted by watsondog at 8:40 AM on December 19, 2006

Keep the car running in the closed garage with the detector for 15 minutes? You probably don't want to be in the garage at the same time.
posted by JJ86 at 9:10 AM on December 19, 2006

Definitely do not do what JJ86 suggested. CO in your garage can leak undetected into the living quarters of your home. Also, high concentrations of CO can cause you to become unconscious within seconds. Faster than you can open the door and turn off the car.
posted by JackFlash at 10:20 AM on December 19, 2006

The manual for one I helped my parents set up suggested using incense or a lit cigarette to actually generate some CO. These should put out amounts within detectable ranges esp. if you light it under the detector. Have you checked the manual for suggestions like this? (Much safer than using your car!)
posted by advil at 10:54 AM on December 19, 2006

I'm in a new, never-been-lived-in-before home with a Toyo heater as the primary heat source so I've had the same concerns about my detector. I can't see how the silly test button can prove more than that some of the electronics work. I've considered buying a second detector (possibly different brand).

The manual for mine says "NEVER use vehicle exhaust! Exhaust may cause permanent damage and voids your warranty." It offers nothing else beyond pushing the button to make it beep.
posted by D.C. at 11:47 AM on December 19, 2006

Though I'm not answering your question directly, you should realize that safety devices such as these are tested stringently during manufacturing. The probability of one failing, if used correctly, is infinitessimal. If you really want to be sure, then use two of them. The probability of both failing together is even smaller.
posted by randomstriker at 12:04 PM on December 19, 2006

My family's detector has had a false alarm or two. I suppose you could reproduce those circumstances to test your detector.

1. Get large dog (this method has not been tested with other mammals).
2. Plug detector in standard wall outlet, low to the ground.
3. Have dog lie up against detector so it blocks the intake and all nearby airflow.
4. Wait until dog farts.

The alarm went off, which of course made the dog jump up, so when I came racing in, it wasn't obvious what had caused the alarm to go off. So, of course, I figured the house was full of CO -- and we had a full-scale evacuation.
posted by booksandlibretti at 12:58 PM on December 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

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