Raising Awareness About Carbon Monoxide

January 22, 2003
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December 25, 2002, Oxnard, Calif. — Faulty heating devices in an Oxnard home sent 10 people, including a newborn baby, to the hospital Tuesday with carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. The oldest to be treated was 35 and the youngest was a two-day-old boy, said Oxnard Fire Department Capt. John Cecena.

Cecena cited two sources of the odorless gas. One was a poorly ventilated water heater. It was in the garage, which had been illegally converted into living quarters and had a few beds in it.

Another source … was a clogged filter in the home’s central heating unit, Cecena said. A plastic bag was blocking the filter where fresh air should flow, said Oxnard Fire Department Capt. Kevin Schroepfer. That unit was in the attic, which had also been illegally converted for living and had a couple of beds.

“When they woke up [Tuesday morning], their (carbon monoxide) monitor was beeping like crazy,” said Dr. Thomas Millington, director of St. John’s Hospital’s hyperbaric chamber unit. “It may well have been what woke them up. With a lot of exposure, some people don’t wake up.” (Source: Ventura County Star.)

December 25, 2002, Juarez, Mexico — Five Juarez residents, including a couple and their six-year-old child, died on Christmas Day from carbon monoxide poisoning, the byproduct of faulty space heaters and poor ventilation.

Authorities said the deaths occurred despite efforts to educate the public each year about the dangers of the deadly gas. A spokesperson for the El Paso Times said it was unlikely that the home had any CO detectors.

“Police and firefighters do their best to warn the public, but we still get these needless tragedies every winter,” said Claudia Banuelos, spokesperson for the Juarez Police Department.

According to the Juarez City Civil Protection Department, 16 people have died from CO poisoning this season. (Source: El Paso Times.)

Two stories, one with a happy ending and the other with a tragic ending. Both stories underscore the importance of having an effective CO detector. Despite efforts by the general media and police and fire departments to promote CO poisoning awareness, the tragedies continue.

While the problem of getting the message to the general public remains, there may be ways for people in the HVACR trade to support efforts to not only raise the awareness level, but to ensure that CO detector requirements become part of a uniform building code.

The question is: What can HVACR tradespeople do to educate themselves and their customers on the dangers of CO poisoning?

Education And Training

Timmie McElwain, president of Gas Appliance Service, Training and Consulting, Riverside, R.I., is an expert on CO testing and detection. McElwain offers insights on what HVACR contractors can do to raise their own levels of awareness.

“Contractors need to attend classes and seminars on CO,” he said. “It is very important to be able to know all the dangers associated with all levels of CO concentration. They need training on equipment used for CO testing. It is also very important to make sure that not only do they understand the dangers and the importance of testing environments, but what to do to correct problems.

“Every contractor should be installing low-level CO detectors as part of the installation of new equipment. They should also be offering them to their customers on service and maintenance calls.

“Every call to the customer’s home should have testing done on every piece of equipment that burns fossil fuels. This will determine a safe environment for their customer. They should also make the customer aware of the fact that this testing is important and will save lives.

“The contractor needs to take a few minutes on every call to discuss safety and proper operation of the equipment. They should instruct the customer on what maintenance is required to keep equipment operating properly. They should have a good, simple-to-understand pamphlet on CO dangers to leave with every customer — and the equipment needs to be tested a minimum of once a year.

“It should be a requirement that testing of all gas and oil equipment be done on every call to the customer’s home,” McElwain continued. “We have electronic handheld testers today that make testing fairly simple. The test equipment is somewhat expensive, but the way to look at it from the contractors’ perspective is that if testing is done and problems are discovered, it generates business on the repair or replacement side. The cost of the tester gets absorbed into the increased sales generated.

“Another problem,” he said, “is that most installers are not trained on combustion or combustion testing. Even though the equipment installation instructions and the National Fuel Gas Code call for certain start-up procedures to be followed, they are not. Training is a must; afterward, experience is gained by working with a qualified tech who knows combustion and testing.

“The procedures needed to properly adjust and repair equipment for safe operation need to be emphasized,” he concluded. “Training in that area needs to be by professional, highly competent, and qualified trainers.”

Tech’s Perspective

Glenn Harrison, a service tech for Althoff Industries Inc., Crystal Lake, Ill., stated, “Contractors need to educate themselves before they can even think about educating their customers. Get to any and all seminars that can be found dealing with CO. Then teach the customer.

“The one thing I tell my customers,” he said, “is that if it burns [has a flame], it can produce CO. I just did this for a customer that has an all-electric condo, and also has a fireplace that they use regularly and hadn’t even thought about having a CO detector until I said, ‘If it makes a flame, it can produce CO.’”

Rick Mandel of R&M Plumbing & Heating, Baltimore, offered this advice: “Any time we work on a gas- or oil-fired unit, we should test it. I think it’s a good idea to also offer to test the other equipment in the house.

“We also need to be alert to the CO issue even when we aren’t on the job,” he continued. “I stopped by a neighbor’s house and she had just turned on her oven — an older model that had been there through several owners. I could smell the aldehydes when I walked in the front door. I told her I’d be back in five minutes, went and got my Testo. It registered 2,000 parts per million (ppm)! And yes, the flame was blue. The high CO resulted from an impingement problem.

“This CO story has a happy ending. After straightening out the stove [readings came down to 60 ppm], I checked the boiler and water heater — 15 and 3 ppm, respectively. I have a really grateful neighbor. I shudder to think what could have happened if I’d been there to work on the steam system, and hadn’t offered to check the stove for CO.”

Which Detectors Are Most Effective?

If education is the first step, the next logical step is to install CO detectors that are reliable and effective. Finding the right one can be confusing for the average home or building owner.

Finding a requirement for CO detectors in all new residential construction is even harder. The inclusion of a CO detector requirement in ASHRAE 62.2P has bounced back and forth several times. It is scheduled for discussion at a special session of the ASHRAE Winter Meeting, following information that new, reliable devices are now available.

The question remains: What are the most reliable detectors based on the most acceptable testing standards and applications?

Mosaic Industries Inc., Newark, Calif., prepared an evaluation of residential CO alarms for the Gas Research Institute in June 2002.

According to principal investigator Paul Clifford, “This study was aimed at assessing the performance of newly purchased, commercially available CO alarms certified to the most recent revision of the Underwriters Laboratories Standard for their performance, UL 2034.”

The results were that some of the 10 brands tested under the revised standard either complied with the specifications for sensitivity to CO, others “missed the mark” on one or another benchmark standards, and some brands “performed poorly.”

Clifford said that among the significant failings were the following:

  • False alarms;

  • Failure to alarm;

  • Poor sensitivity at low humidity;

  • Inaccurate digital displays; and

  • Poor response to varying CO levels.

    “These tests reveal that a significant portion of some widely installed alarm brands did not alarm in CO poisoning incidents with potentially lethal consequences,” Clifford’s evaluation reported. “In particular, they did not adequately protect at low relative humidity, or for the CO profiles of likely poisoning scenarios.”

    McElwain added that the first CO detectors alarmed at a lower level than over-the-counter models do today.

    “The problem was that poorly trained responders were answering the call on alarms sounding,” he said. “Because there were no significant ill effects on the persons at the alarm site, these calls were labeled as nuisance calls. When I worked for the gas company, we typically answered as many as 10 to 15 of these calls a day. The gas company gave these the same coverage as they did gas leaks.

    “This presented an increased workload and the general consensus of opinion back then was to ignore the alarms. Back then we did not even have test equipment on every truck and no testing was done. That was not unusual and is still a problem today. The fire departments also found them to be nuisance calls.

    “The pressure was put on by fire departments and other agencies to change the standard. The standard has been changed several times to the present standard UL 2034, which has somewhat eliminated these repeated calls. The problem is that the present standard can allow upwards to 10% CO in the blood. The present standard allows, if not life-threatening injury to persons, at least damage to the good health of persons.”

    Manufacturers’ Responsibility?

    One contractor thinks manufacturers have to take responsibility for CO leakage and detection.

    “I showed up at a new customer’s house to look at a plumbing problem,” said David G. Francis of David G. Francis Plumbing & Heating, Norwich, N.Y.

    “The lady of the house is on kidney dialysis for 12 hours a day. In the course of looking at her plumbing problem, I ventured into the basement. Once I was in the basement, I got a strong odor of something not burning properly.

    “When I finished the search for the plumbing problem, I began to search for CO. As soon as I walked in the door with the tester, I pulled a 12 ppm. Once I got in the basement I pulled an 89 ppm.

    “The furnace model has a known problem with the heat exchangers. I found out about the problem by chance. In the past six months, every furnace I have found within the date code has had a compromised heat exchanger.

    “The supplier I deal with has over 30 branches and has sold many furnaces in the date code with the problem, but only has a few heat exchangers in stock. I cannot talk with the manufacturer as they have built a wall around themselves. All calls must go through a tech at the supplier’s.

    “I did have the homeowner move out of the house and call her doctor. I think this time it was a matter of luck.”

    McElwain said manufacturers all need to be on the same page. “A dialog with equipment manufacturers is needed,” he said.

    “They simply follow standards and are so concerned about liability and litigation that they will not discuss the changes that are needed to get us all speaking the same language. If we are confused, then customers can get varied opinions and that confuses them.”

    For updates on CO poisoning stories, visit www.carbonmonoxidekills.org.uk/carbon_monoxide_inthenews.htm.

    Sidebar: New York Proposes CO Detector Requirement

    ALBANY, N.Y. — New York’s state legislators have proposed an amendment to its Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code that would require carbon monoxide (CO) detectors in all new homes, as well as existing homes, before they may be sold.

    The code amendment would require at least one operating CO detector per unit in one- and two-family houses, condominiums, and cooperatives.

    The amendment was proposed on Dec. 31, 2002. It is subject to a 45-day comment period at the New York Department of State. It is scheduled to take effect during summer 2003. The state’s Fire Prevention and Building Code Council is expected to adopt the provision in March, to be followed by a 90-day waiting period before it goes into effect.

    — John R. Hall

    Publication date: 01/27/2003

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