CO awareness: What to do?

July 19, 2000
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In what has become almost a seasonal tradition, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is urging consumers to have a professional inspection of all fuel-burning appliances, including furnaces, stoves, fireplaces, gas water heaters, and space heaters.

These appliances burn fuels — typically gas, both natural and liquefied petroleum, kerosene, oil, coal, and wood. Under certain conditions, these appliances can produce potentially deadly CO.

The general media announcement is typically followed by some coverage in local news outlets. However, most consumers are slow to react until they hear an almost inevitable report that someone died from CO asphyxiation.

It may be furnace inspection time, but how comfortable are contractors with providing CO information to their clients?

They should know, but ...

“I would like to think customers are aware of the risk,” said Donald Brennan, president of Brennan’s Heating & Cooling, Woodbridge, VA.

To be on the safe side, though, his company offers The Silent Enemy, printed materials on CO from the local gas company.

“We send literature to our customer base, describing our fall inspections and what we can do,” he said. “We tell them why we go through these inspections and what they include when we go into customers’ homes.”

Once customers understand the importance of regular maintenance, having a service contract “makes it easier on homeowners.” Brennan’s offers a range of service/maintenance contracts, including spring and fall system inspections. It has several thousand active service contracts.

“They understand car maintenance, but it’s natural that they forget about the furnace and air conditioner,” said Brennan. “To them, the furnace is something hanging on the wall that they adjust the temperature up or down.”

Brennan seems mystified by other contractors who do not bother educating their customers on the costs of proper system care.

“There are too many consumers out there looking for a ‘good deal.’ Then they get a coupon from a company that’s not doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” he said, adding that these consumers often wind up having their furnace serviced by “someone with a Class C license who’s about as qualified as a doorknob.”

Brennan’s offers free second opinions when consumers are told by other companies that they have a cracked heat exchanger.

Brennan added that there are many excellent contractors out there who have fine mechanical skills, but they don’t seem to know how to communicate that to customers.

“You paid good dollars for your knowledge,” he said.

“Why not share it?”

Don't scare them

Like Brennan, Mike Corrion, C&C Heating and Air Conditioning, Roseville, MI, tries to educate customers on the importance of regular maintenance. However, this manager said he’s afraid that customers may perceive direct mail about CO from a contractor as a scare tactic.

Instead, Corrion’s company sends direct mail to its customer base that describes the importance of annual system maintenance. The mail also offers discount coupons and special offers, such as a 15-point check-up.

As for residential service contracts, C&C doesn’t have “nearly as many as we’d like,” said Corrion. Commercial service contracts have been a much easier sell, he said, mainly because landlords frequently include regular maintenance in their lease agreements.

Like Brennan, Corrion said that his company does not see an increase in calls after general media announcements of the dangers of CO. It is his belief that most customers are already aware of these dangers unless “they’ve been on Mars.”

The contractor does keep CO information from the Air Conditioning Contractors of America available in its showroom that customers are free to take. But Corrion doesn’t want to be perceived as being a scare-monger.

“I’d just rather see them getting regular maintenance.”

Sidebar: CO facts at a glance

According to Ann Brown, chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), CO poisoning associated with the use of fuel-burning appliances kills more than 200 people each year and sends more than 10,000 to hospital emergency rooms for treatment.

The commission recommends a yearly, professional inspection that includes:

  •  Checking chimneys, flues, and vents for leakage and blockage by creosote and debris;

  •  Checking for black stains on the outside of the chimney or flue caused by leakage through cracks or holes (as these stains can mean that pollutants are leaking into the house);

  •  Having all vents to furnaces, water heaters, boilers, and other fuel-burning appliances checked to make sure they are not loose or disconnected;

  •  Getting appliances inspected for adequate ventilation (A supply of fresh air is important to help carry pollutants up the chimney, stovepipe, or flue, and is necessary for the complete combustion of any fuel.);

  •  Having at least one CO alarm that meets the requirements of the most recent Underwriters Laboratories (UL) 2034 standard or International Approval Services 6-96 standard.

CPSC stated that it recently completed work with UL to improve the CO alarm standard to increase the reliability of alarms and reduce the potential for nuisance alarming.

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