How to test for carbon monoxide?


Kettle on open fire causing carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas. That’s why most people won’t notice it when it starts to accumulate in rooms or buildings.  Carbon monoxide poisoning can affect everyone, but is particularly dangerous to babies, and young children, women who are pregnant and their unborn babies, people suffering from respiratory diseases like asthma, and anyone suffering from chronic heart disease. 

Anyone affected by severe carbon monoxide poisoning will initially feel extreme sleepiness and will move up to more severe symptoms such as loss of consciousness and death. It might be a painless way to die, but the sad truth is it is completely unnecessary. 

If people had a greater aware of the risks associated with carbon monoxide poisoning, or better still, fitted carbon monoxide detectors in homes and workplaces where equipment is used to produce energy through combustion, then thousands of lives could be saved worldwide.

If a carbon monoxide detector is installed in a home, it will start to detect potentially poisonous gases as soon as any heating systems start to produce too much carbon monoxide. What’s more, an alarm will sound as soon as the deadly gas levels become dangerous. If the alarm does sound, the heating source should be switched off, windows and doors should be opened, and you should then leave the building and call for professional help.  

How do you test for carbon monoxide?

The simplest way is, of course, to fit a carbon monoxide detector. However, if you haven’t yet got round to doing so, there are still ways in which you can check for potential carbon monoxide leaks. The most common signs of CO build-up are:

  • irregular flames, or weak and inconsistent yellow or orange flame on your gas appliances. Flames should ideally be strong and a crisp blue colour.
  • Stale and stuffy air in a room which smells like burning or tobacco smoke
  • dark, sooty brownish-yellow staining on or around gas appliances
  • the lack of a backdraft in a chimney flue
  • solid fuel burning appliances that burn slower than normal
  • pilot lights that frequently blow out, and
  • increased condensation inside windows close to where the appliance is installed.

If you notice any of these signs in your property, then switch off any heating sources if safe to do so, open all windows and doors, leave the building, and call for professional help.  

What should you do and who should you call if suspect that there’s a carbon monoxide build-up in your property?

  • stop using appliances immediately and switch them off if safe to do so.
  • open all doors and windows to ventilate the property and get air circulating.
  • evacuate the property straight away and don’t return until it has been checked and given the all-clear.
  • call the HVAC company
  • get immediate help from a health professional – fresh air alone won’t treat CO exposure 

How do you test for carbon monoxide presence in the home or office?

Most professionals, the fire department and HVAC technicians test for carbon monoxide using an electronic portable toxic multi-gas monitor. This device differs from home carbon monoxide detectors in that it can be calibrated to detect trace carbon monoxide gas from nearly zero parts per million (ppm) and at increments as small as 1 ppm. In addition to testing for carbon monoxide, most private contractors and public health officials will also test for other harmful pollutants, like mould, allergens, radon, and formaldehyde.

The easiest way to test carbon monoxide levels inside your home is by using one of the best carbon monoxide detectors. Many new building developments fit these devices as standard now.

Obviously, these devices are not as accurate or sensitive as commercially available electronic portable toxic multi-gas monitors as they typically measure only down to 30 ppm. However, they are valuable none the less.

The purpose of a carbon monoxide gas detector is to act as the last layer of protection and give an early warning of a carbon monoxide leak to protect individuals from carbon monoxide poisoning in habitable areas in the home like bedrooms, living rooms and hallways. 

Signs to look out for with low-level co poisoning

  • tension-type headache
  • dizziness, nausea, vomiting, tiredness and confusion, stomach pain
  • shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
  • symptoms like food poisoning and flu. However, unlike flu, you don’t get a high temperature.
  • symptoms get worse with prolonged exposure

Signs of prolonged high-level carbon monoxide exposure/poisoning

  • loss of balance, vision, and memory and, loss of consciousness.
  • ataxia – loss of physical co-ordination caused by underlying damage to the brain and nervous system
  • breathlessness and tachycardia
  • muscle weakness
  • vision problems
  • chest pain caused by angina or a heart attack
  • seizures
  • serious symptoms such as loss of consciousness – with very high levels, death may occur within minutes

Precautions to ensure you and your family are well protected from carbon monoxide poisoning

  • get anything that burns fuel checked annually by a qualified professional
  • get your hvac systems and any heating system checked by a qualified technician
  • ensure chimneys and flues are swept at least once a year by a qualified engineer
  • ensure you have carbon monoxide detectors installed properly in all appropriate rooms and that they are serviced and cleaned regularly.
  • Check the batteries condition/levels in your carbon monoxide detectors regularly
  • never leave cars or petrol-fuelled lawnmowers, generators or barbeques running in an enclosed space like a garage, particularly if these outbuildings are attached to the house.
  • check your car exhaust for leaks every year and make sure the exhaust isn’t blocked before starting the engine, for example after heavy snow fall.
  • Builders should be particularly careful too as many of their tools and equipment potentially generate carbon monoxide and can be very dangerous if operated in confined places.
  • Have an escape plan updated in case the CO alarm goes off. Carbon monoxide is lighter than air, so it rises. When the alarm goes off, crouch and stay low to the ground while making your way out of the building.
  • Inspect your ventilation systems. Carbon monoxide poisoning happens when there’s a build-up of the toxic gas in an area. Making sure that all the areas in your building are well ventilated and there is good air flow. This will drastically reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

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