Stillwater Fire District
|Stillwater Fire District - Arvin Hart Fire Company|
Photos compliments of Bob Eastman owner of Ground Aerial photo services 2013
Carbon Monoxide Detectors
I have something that’s driving me nuts, so let me get on my soap box. Carbon Monoxide detectors or alarms have a limited life, they do not last forever. But the purchasing public has been left uninformed. Carbon monoxide detectors sound an alarm when they sense a certain amount of carbon monoxide in the air over time.
Different types of detectors are triggered by one of three types of sensors;
· Biomimetic sensor: A gel mimicking human hemoglobin changes color when it absorbs carbon monoxide and this color change triggers the alarm.
· Metal oxide semiconductor: When the silica chip's circuitry detects carbon monoxide, it lowers the electrical resistance, and this change triggers the alarm.
· Electrochemical sensor: Electrodes immersed in a chemical solution sense changes in electrical currents when they come into contact with carbon monoxide, and this change triggers the alarm.
Once the alarm sounds, the carbon monoxide detector must be placed in a carbon monoxide-free environment to reset itself. That is the reason why you are instructed to take the detector outside in free air to reset the unit or it may go into alarm again. Unfortunately the first problem is that most purchasers do not read the instruction manual thoroughly, which is in very small print. Most instruction manuals will explain the dangers of carbon monoxide (CO), they will explain where to best mount detectors, what the alarms mean and vaguely mention that all detectors have a limited life. In researching detectors the longest life sensors available today may last as long as ten years for a premium unit. The AVERAGE life of a carbon monoxide detector is five to seven years. It’s the sensors that have a limited life. Even the gas detectors that the fire department uses that cost thousands of dollars need to have their sensors replaced periodically. That’s why there is a requirement that fire department gas detection units require sensor replacement based on a failure rate determined by frequent, manufacturer’s recommended, calibration.
An excerpt from one of the carbon monoxide manufacturer’s states: “CO alarms have limitations. Like any other electronic device, CO alarms are not fool-proof. CO alarms have a limited operational life. You must test your CO alarm weekly, because it could fail to operate at any time. If your CO alarm fails to test properly, or if its self-diagnostic test reveals a malfunction, immediately have the unit replaced. This alarm will not monitor CO levels while in an error condition.” This would hardly get your attention; “CO alarms have a limited operational life” means they wear out and when they wear out they fail into alarm. When they fail into alarm, the homeowner has no clue what is wrong and calls the fire department thinking they have a CO condition in the house. Naturally this occurs at 2:30 in the morning so now the family gets ushered out of the house and into the family car at 2:30am, the fire department comes thinking they have a CO condition. Although we don’t come lights and sirens if there is no reported illness, fire department protocols dictate that we don full protective clothing and self contained breathing apparatus just in case it’s an actual CO condition and make entry into the structure to take readings with our more sophisticated gas detectors. In nine out of ten responses we find no readings, take down the CO detector, turn it over and discover the detector is more than 7 years old. Oh by the way, the manufacture date is stamped on the back of the detector in small font. After so many calls it’s like crying wolf, although the potential exists and we have encountered actual dangerously high CO concentrations due to defective heating equipment though most calls are false alarms due to outdated sensors. We can never assume that there is no CO; each call has to be treated as the real deal. The problem is after going to so many of these false calls many volunteers no longer bother to respond to the calls anymore, resulting in short staffing. It’s not right that the fire service is providing education for carbon monoxide detectors, one detector at a time. In addition, the State of New York has passed legislation requiring CO detectors in all commercial occupancies, especially restaurants as a result of an unfortunate incident in Suffolk County which caused the death of one restaurant employee and the sickening of 30 others including the responding paramedics. The issue in this instance was a malfunctioning water heater flue pipe in the basement of the establishment. Perhaps localities should commit more resources to code enforcement. The first problem is that all of the carbon monoxide manufacturer’s state that their detectors are for “residential use” so the question will be, what’s approved for “commercial use” especially in restaurants where there is the possibility of the presence of grease laden vapors. We’ll wait for the next chapter to be written, but you can bet the fire departments will be responding to more CO detector calls, potentially many of them false.
Now, what can we do to help solve this problem? There needs to be clear language by the manufacturer’s that carbon monoxide detectors have an expiration date, not a definitive date but they can certainly provide expectation of obsolescence within a range. The expiration date range could be printed on the front of the detector instead of a manufacture date on the back in small font. There needs to be a concerted effort by the manufacturers, the fire service organizations and the media to educate people that CO detectors do not have an infinite life span. Purchaser’s need to be educated and as a result we can cut down on the number of false alarms which has resulted in a profound complacency within the fire service. We have to stop educating the public one CO call at a time.
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