Carbon monoxide is one of the most notorious household pollutants. Known as a “silent killer,” carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas that can be lethal to humans. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 420 people in the United States die from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning each year. Over 100,000 people in the U.S. visit the emergency room due to accidental carbon monoxide exposure, and over 14,000 people require hospitalization following such visits.
Sources of carbon monoxide can include everyday household appliances like furnaces, stoves, dryers, or water heaters. And because carbon monoxide lacks typical signs of toxicity like odor or color, it often takes a professional to detect its leakage within the home. HVAC system maintenance is one of the best ways to identify potential carbon monoxide problems and to put safeguards in place to protect yourself and your family.
What Causes the Production of Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is the outcome of a partial or incomplete combustion of fuel. Any non-electric fuel source can produce carbon monoxide. Examples of such fuel sources include natural gas, wood, propane, or charcoal. When the carbon content in fuel fails to fully oxidize, its atoms form a triple bond with the oxygen in the surrounding air to produce toxic carbon monoxide. This process can happen even more rapidly in confined spaces with poor ventilation.
Why Is Carbon Monoxide Exposure Dangerous?
Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur when a person breathes in these harmful fumes and the toxic molecules subsequently begin to build up in the blood. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the inhaled carbon monoxide molecules can quickly replace the essential oxygen in red blood cells. Specifically, the structure of carbon monoxide adheres to hemoglobin quicker than oxygen can replenish itself in the blood. Hemoglobin is the protein responsible for distributing oxygen throughout the body. When a person inhales too much carbon monoxide, the blood absorbs these molecules and has no way to distribute oxygen to the rest of the body. This oxygen deprivation can damage important tissues and vital organs, eventually resulting in death.
Which Appliances Are Susceptible to Carbon Monoxide Leaks?
Many of the appliances associated with your HVAC system are susceptible to carbon monoxide leaks. Items that have been poorly maintained or that have damaged components can release toxic fumes. For example, cracked heat exchangers in gas furnaces can cause gas to seep out into the home instead of venting safely out of the household. Old or malfunctioning air conditioners and heaters can also cause carbon monoxide and other combustion byproducts to leak into the home. Gas grills and stove ranges are other common sources of carbon monoxide. Even backup gas generators can begin to leak if put to use after sitting dormant for extended periods of time. Other indoor items prone to carbon monoxide leaks can include the following:
- Household equipment or appliances that burn fuel like natural gas, coal, kerosene, paraffin, petroleum, propane, or wood
- Boilers, furnaces, or gas water heaters
- Natural gas or wood-burning stoves
- Charcoal smokers or grills
- Hibachi grills or clay ovens
- Portable heating devices or space heaters
- Fireplaces and chimneys
- Oil lamps or paraffin lanterns
- Portable gas generators
- Gas dryers or pressure washers
- Hookahs or vaporizing instruments
What Are the Signs of Carbon Monoxide Leaks?
For many homeowners, the scariest thing about carbon monoxide is that it is not obviously detectable. You can’t see, smell, or taste it like many other poisons. However, there are still a few signs to indicate that you should contact an HVAC professional right away:
- Brownish or yellowish stains around burners or appliances
- Heavy condensation or moisture dripping from appliances regardless of usage
- Stale or stuffy room air
- Soot buildup within the home
- Corroded burners or flue pipes
- Cracks or leaky seams on older furnaces and appliances
- No upward draft in chimney flue
- Damaged or discolored bricks near the top of the chimney
- Unexplained melting of wiring or controls
- Pilot light on appliances frequently blinks on and off
- Blue burner flame suddenly turns yellow
If you notice any of the signs, it is important to contact a professional HVAC company for an official inspection. An HVAC technician has the equipment necessary to determine whether there is carbon monoxide in the air. HVAC professionals also have the experience needed to perform visual inspections of your heating system and heat exchangers.
What Are Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
Prolonged carbon monoxide exposure is a medical emergency. A person who inhales too much of this gas at once can lose consciousness and eventually die from oxygen loss. Gradual leaks or emissions can cause telltale signs in humans or pets. Some of these dangerous symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include the following:
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, confusion, or disorientation
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
- Drowsiness or fatigue
- Muscle weakness
- Unexplained flu-like symptoms
- Fainting spells
- Muscle spasms
- Rapid or abnormal heartbeat
- Impaired judgment
- Memory loss
Not all symptoms are noticeable before it is too late. For instance, people who are asleep or who have been drinking alcohol can lose consciousness before anyone recognizes the signs. Individuals who are elderly or suffer from chronic illnesses can also mistake the symptoms for other ailments. It is essential to have an HVAC expert perform preventative maintenance long before this poison has a chance to harm you or your family.
What Are HVAC Maintenance and Safety Tips to Help Prevent Carbon Monoxide Leaks?
One of the primary ways to prevent carbon monoxide leaks is to schedule regular HVAC maintenance. An HVAC professional can check large appliances as well as your furnace, fireplace, or chimney to correct small issues before they escalate into greater problems. Trained technicians have the knowledge to check items like your full heating system along with any other gas, oil, or coal-burning tools throughout the home. HVAC companies can also perform advanced tasks like vent cleaning, heat exchanger inspection, and carbon monoxide detector installation.
Clogged vents or chimney flues can cause carbon monoxide buildup. One of the purposes of your home or furnace ventilation system is to move combustion gas out of the building. Unfortunately, clogged vents block ventilation lines and render them unable to perform their job. Clogs can result from years of dust and debris or even outside contaminants like birds or rodents. Having your vents cleaned can remove any foul pollutants, keeping all passageways clear for the removal of exhaust from your home.
Heat Exchanger Inspection
One of the most common causes of carbon monoxide leaks is a defective heat exchanger. The purpose of a heat exchanger is to transfer heat from a fuel source to a working fluid. When this transfer process works properly, the heat exchanger also helps vent out the poisonous gas resulting from heat combustion. Over time, however, the heat exchanger can crack or corrode. Unfortunately, the average person would never know that this has occurred since appliances can still appear to work just fine. An HVAC inspection can identify and repair heat exchanger issues before they have a chance to cause serious harm.
Carbon Monoxide Detector Maintenance
An HVAC inspection is also crucial for carbon monoxide detector installation and maintenance. Foremost, an HVAC technician can install a battery-operated carbon monoxide alarm on each level of your house. Experts typically place the alarm above the most susceptible gas-burning appliances like furnaces, gas stoves, or water heaters. A major benefit of a battery-operated CO alarm is that it will continue to work even if there is a power outage. Some alarm models also include a digital readout. This type of readout keeps occupants informed of changes to carbon monoxide levels in the air in addition to sounding the alarm if the concentration has become too high. If you notice any problems with your detector, a technician can also clean it or fix the sensor component to prevent any detection failures.
Contact Us Today
HVAC system maintenance is an indispensable step in preventing carbon monoxide poisoning and leaks. Healthy Home Heating & Air provides essential HVAC services to homes in Charlotte and the surrounding areas. We offer vent and duct cleaning, heating and cooling tune-ups, and even a full 27-point inspection multiple times a year. Never lose sleep over potential carbon monoxide issues. Contact Healthy Home Heating & Air today to schedule HVAC maintenance for your home.