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Carbon Monoxide detector connected to a North American power outlet

A carbon monoxide detector or CO detector is a device that detects the presence of the carbon monoxide (CO) gas in order to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. CO is a colorless and odorless compound produced by incomplete combustion. It is often referred to as the "silent killer" because it is virtually undetectable without using detection technology.[1] Elevated levels of CO can be dangerous to humans depending on the amount present and length of exposure. Smaller concentrations can be harmful over longer periods of time while increasing concentrations require diminishing exposure times to be harmful.[2]

CO detectors are designed to measure CO levels over time and sound an alarm before dangerous levels of CO accumulate in an environment, giving people adequate warning to safely ventilate the area or evacuate. Some system-connected detectors also alert a monitoring service that can dispatch emergency services if necessary.

While CO detectors do not serve as smoke detectors and vice versa, dual smoke/CO detectors are also sold. Smoke detectors detect the smoke generated by flaming or smoldering fires, whereas CO detectors go into alarm and warn people about dangerous CO buildup caused, for example, by a malfunctioning fuel-burning device. In the home, some common sources of CO include open flames, space heaters, water heaters, blocked chimneys or running a car inside a garage.[3]

Contents

Installation

The devices, which retail for $20-$60USD and are widely available, can either be battery-operated or AC powered (with or without a battery backup). Battery lifetimes have been increasing as the technology has developed and certain battery powered devices now advertise a battery lifetime of over 6 years. All CO detectors have "test" buttons like smoke detectors.

CO detectors can be placed near the ceiling or near the floor because CO is very close to the same density as air[4][5].

Since CO is colorless, tasteless and odorless (unlike smoke from a fire), detection in a home environment is impossible without such a warning device. It is a highly toxic inhalant and attracts to the hemoglobin(in the blood stream) 200x faster than oxygen, producing inadequate amounts of oxygen traveling through the body. In North America, some state, provincial and municipal governments have statutes requiring installation of CO detectors in construction - among them, the U.S. states of Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and West Virginia, as well as New York City and the Canadian province of Ontario.[6]

When carbon monoxide detectors were introduced into the market, they had a limited lifespan of 2 years. However technology developments have increased this and many now advertise up to 7 years. [7] Newer models are designed to signal a need to be replaced after that time-span although there are many instances of detectors operating far beyond this point.

According to the 2005 edition of the carbon monoxide guidelines, NFPA 720 [8], published by the National Fire Protection Association, sections 5.1.1.1 and 5.1.1.2, all CO detectors “shall be centrally located outside of each separate sleeping area in the immediate vicinity of the bedrooms,” and each detector “shall be located on the wall, ceiling or other location as specified in the installation instructions that accompany the unit.”

Installation locations vary by manufacturer. Manufacturers’ recommendations differ to a certain degree based on research conducted with each one’s specific detector. Therefore, make sure to read the provided installation manual for each detector before installing.

CO detectors are available as stand-alone models or system-connected, monitored devices[9]. System-connected detectors, which can be wired to either a security or fire panel, are monitored by a central station. In case the residence is empty, the residents are sleeping or occupants are already suffering from the effects of CO, the central station can be alerted to the high concentrations of CO gas and can send the proper authorities to investigate.

The gas sensors in CO alarms have a limited and indeterminable life span, typically two to five years. The test button on a CO alarm only tests the battery and circuitry not the sensor. CO alarms should be tested with an external source of calibrated test gas, as recommended by the latest version of NFPA 720. Alarms over five years old should be replaced but they should be checked on installation and at least annually during the manufacturers warranty period.

Sensors

Early designs were basically a white pad which would fade to a brownish or blackish colour if carbon monoxide were present. Such chemical detectors are cheap and widely available, but only give a visual warning of a problem. As carbon monoxide related deaths increased during the 1990s, audible alarms became standard.

The alarm points on carbon monoxide detectors are not a simple alarm level (as in smoke detectors) but are a concentration-time function. At lower concentrations (eg 100 parts per million) the detector will not sound an alarm for many tens of minutes. At 400 parts per million (PPM), the alarm will sound within a few minutes. This concentration-time function is intended to mimic the uptake of carbon monoxide in the body while also preventing false alarms due to relatively common sources of carbon monoxide such as cigarette smoke.

There are four types of sensors available and they vary in cost, accuracy and speed of response.[10] The latter three types include sensor elements that typically last up to 10 years. At least one CO detector is available which includes a battery and sensor in a replaceable module. Most CO detectors do not have replaceable sensors.

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Opto-Chemical

The detector consists of a pad of a coloured chemical which changes colour upon reaction with carbon monoxide. They only provide a qualitative warning of the gas however. The main advantage of these detectors is that they are the lowest cost but are also offer the lowest level of protection.

Biomimetic

A biomimetic (chem-optical or gel cell) sensor works with a form of synthetic hemoglobin which darkens in the presence of CO, and lightens without it. This can either be seen directly or connected to a light sensor and alarm. Battery lifespan usually lasts 2-3 years. Device lasts on the average of about 10 years. These products were the first to enter the mass market but have now largely fallen out of favour.

Electrochemical

This is a type of fuel cell that instead of being designed to produce power, is designed to produce a current that is precisely related to the amount of the target gas (in this case carbon monoxide) in the atmosphere. Measurement of the current gives a measure of the concentration of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. Essentially the electrochemical cell consists of a container, 2 electrodes, connection wires and an electrolyte - typically sulphuric acid. Carbon monoxide is oxidised at one electrode to carbon dioxide whilst oxygen is consumed at the other electrode. For carbon monoxide detection, the electrochemical cell has advantages over other technologies in that it has a highly accurate and linear output to carbon monoxide concentration, requires minimal power as it is operated at room temperature, and has a long lifetime (typically commercial available cells now have lifetimes of 5 years or greater). Until recently, the cost of these cells and concerns about their long term reliability had limited uptake of this technology in the marketplace, although these concerns are now largely overcome. This technology is now the dominant technology in USA and Europe.

Semiconductor

Thin wires of the semiconductor tin dioxide on an insulating ceramic base provide a sensor monitored by an integrated circuit. This sensing element needs to be heated to approximately 400 deg C in order to operate. Oxygen increases resistance of the tin dioxide, but carbon monoxide reduces resistance therefore by measurement of the resistance of the sensing element means a monitor can be made to trigger an alarm. The power demands of this sensor means that these devices can only be mains powered although a pulsed sensor is now available that has a limited lifetime (months) as a battery powered detector. Device usually lasts on the average of 5-10 years. This technology has traditionally found high utility in Japan and the far east with some market penetration in USA. However the superior performance of electrochemical cell technology is beginning to displace this technology

Digital

Although all home detectors use an audible alarm signal as the primary indicator, some versions also offer a digital readout of the CO concentration, in parts per million. Typically, they can display both the current reading and a peak reading from memory of the highest level measured over a period of time. These advanced models cost somewhat more but are otherwise similar to the basic models.

The digital models offer the advantage of being able to observe levels that are below the alarm threshold, learn about levels that may have occurred during an absence, and assess the degree of hazard if the alarm sounds. They may also aid emergency responders in evaluating the level of past or ongoing exposure or danger.

Wireless

Wireless home safety solutions are available that link carbon monoxide detectors to vibrating pillow pads, strobes or a remote warning handset. This allows those with impediments such as hard of hearing, partially sighted, heavy sleepers or the infirm the precious minutes to wake up and get out in the event of carbon monoxide in their property.

Legislation

House builders in Colorado will be required to install carbon monoxide detectors in new homes in a bill signed into law in March 2009 by the state legislature.

House Bill 1091 requires installation of the detectors in new and resold homes near bedrooms as well as rented apartments and homes. It takes effect from July 1, 2009. The legislation was introduced after the death of Denver investment banker Parker Lofgren and his family. Lofgren, 39; his wife Caroline, 42; and their children, Owen, 10, and Sophie, 8, were found dead in a multimillion-dollar home near Aspen, Colorado on Nov. 27, 2008, victims of carbon-monoxide poisoning.

In New York State, Amanda's Law,” (A6093A/C.367) requires one- and two-family residences which have fuel burning appliances to have at least one carbon monoxide alarm installed on the lowest story having a sleeping area, effective February 22, 2010. Although homes built before Jan. 1, 2008 will be allowed to have battery-powered alarms, homes built after that date will need to have hard-wired alarms. In addition, New York State contractors will have to install a carbon monoxide detector when replacing a fuel burning water heater or furnace if the home is without an alarm. The law is named for Amanda Hansen, a teenager who died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective boiler while at a sleepover at a friend's house.[11]

Manufacturers

References

  1. ^ Underwriters Laboratories, Protect Your Family from the ‘Silent Killer', http://www.ul.com/global/eng/pages/offerings/perspectives/consumer/stories/carbonmonoxide/, retrieved 2009-09-24 
  2. ^ NFPA 720: Standard for the Installation of Household Carbon Monoxide (CO) Warning Equipment, 2005 Edition, Annex B Dangers of Carbon Monoxide, B.1 Carbon Monoxide, Table B.1 Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Exposure Based on Concentration
  3. ^ U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Carbon Monoxide Detectors Can Save Lives (CPSC Document #5010), http://www.cpsc.gov/CPSCPUB/PUBS/5010.html, retrieved 2007-07-29 
  4. ^ Metropolitan Utilities District, Carbon monoxide detectors, http://www.mudomaha.com/naturalgas/COdetect.html, retrieved 2007-07-29 
  5. ^ CO Alert, Placement of Carbon Monoxide Detectors Important, http://homesafe.com/coalert/detect.php, retrieved 2009-01-11 
  6. ^ http://www.ncsl.org/programs/environ/envHealth/carbonmonostats07.htm, retrieved on 2009-01-28
  7. ^ http://www.kidde.com/utcfs/Templates/Pages/Template-66/0,8070,pageId%3D4641%26siteId%3D384,00.html, retrieved on 2010-03-14
  8. ^ NFPA 720: Standard for the Installation of Household Carbon Monoxide (CO) Warning Equipment, 2005 Edition
  9. ^ "Top 5 Things to Know About CO," LifeSafety magazine, Fall 2006
  10. ^ Guide to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, http://www.carbon-monoxide-poisoning.com/silent-killer.html, retrieved 2007-07-29 
  11. ^ "Welcome Page". New York State Office of Fire Prevention & Control. http://www.dos.state.ny.us/fire/firewww.html. Retrieved 2010-03-18. 

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