When The Alarm Sounds

I worked the past 20-plus years for a natural gas utility (I’m the technical trainer for the service group) that responds to over 1,000 CO calls each year. We don’t charge for this service as I write this. The cost of the response is in the rate base and everyone who gets a bill from us pays a penny or two a year for this.

The local fire department, also paid for by everyone’s taxes, tells callers to call us when the CO detector alarms, as long as no one is showing symptoms [of CO poisoning].

So, the part of the CO detector question I’d like you to think about is if people do get CO detectors, what do they do if the detector does alarm? Utilities are getting out of the CO response business in droves; and contractors don’t like utilities doing service work, but how does one analyze a CO problem if you don’t know how the utilization equipment works?

Fire departments don’t want the CO alarm calls, so where should they go? Most gas utilities think CO is a public health issue. The vast majority of CO deaths, other than fires, are from automobiles. Do we call Exxon or BP Amoco when their fuel causes CO poisoning? CO deaths increase if you have an attached or tuck-under garage. The car kills often (as a suicide) far more than furnaces do.

Should somebody pay somebody to come out and investigate if his or her CO alarm goes off? How about poor people or renters — who pays, who responds? There are 40,000 students at the university in my city; many of them rent marginal housing. I tell every parent to give these kids a CO detector; they can take it with them as they move around.

For a column idea, please consider what to do once the CO detector goes off. Everybody wants a quick response from someone who knows and from someone who cares, but most people don’t think they should pay for this house call. It’s the old saying, ”Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.”

Dale Watterson, Senior Training Specialist, Madison Gas and Electric, Madison, WI

A Happy Ending

I can understand why John R. Hall would be mad as hell about CO poisoning deaths, [“I’m Mad As Hell Over CO Poisoning Deaths,” March 25] and I’m sure he is getting a lot of input on this issue. Here’s more …

I once heard someone explain why he was impassioned about CO testing. He and a colleague were visiting homes in a low-income neighborhood to advise the owners that grant funds were available for things like insulating, weather stripping and, when necessary, equipment upgrades.

When they knocked on one door and explained why they were there, the response they got from the young lady who answered was that she wasn’t interested since it wasn’t her home. She explained that she was only there to care for her ill mother, and she anticipated that she would be selling the house soon after her mother passed on.

While they were there standing on the porch talking to the young lady, the CO sensing device they were carrying showed a high level of CO being emitted from the home. They convinced the young lady to let them in so they could check further, and they found that the heat exchanger in the furnace was the culprit.

Since there was funding available, the furnace was replaced. In a short time frame, Mom, who had previously been on oxygen constantly and was unable to sit up, sat up and announced that she was hungry. A short time later, she decided that she wanted to get out of bed, and was able to do so with some assistance. As time went by, she no longer needed assistance.

When our now-impassioned hvac professional made a return visit some time later to see the Mom whose daughter had been “waiting for her to pass on,” he found her in the backyard, enjoying her garden and her dog.

This is just one of the stories I tell in our furnace training workshops to make the point about CO testing and the responsibility that we as technicians need to accept when servicing fossil fuel-burning equipment.

I wouldn’t say that it makes any of our workshop attendees mad as hell, but it certainly does open their eyes and wake them up about the issue of CO testing.

Jim Johnson, Technical Training Associates, Sahuarita, AZ

Publication date: 05/20/2002