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What Causes Carbon Monoxide Leaks?

Young woman with a headache sitting at desk and holding hand in her hands.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can be a frightening risk to anyone who uses an appliance that causes or uses combustion as part of its operation. Unlike many risks, which are less frightening when you understand them, CO poisoning is still pretty scary when you know more about it! Heavy exposure to carbon monoxide will disorient you, leaving you unable to recognize what’s happening until it’s too late to take appropriate action, even if your CO monitor does end up going off eventually.

This makes it vitally important that you first understand what problems can cause carbon monoxide leaks or buildup so you can know how to protect yourself and others against it.

Common Causes of CO Buildup

There are many common ways carbon monoxide can build up, but they all share a common root source: combustion occurring in an enclosed space. Here are the specific causes you’ll want to look out for:

Operating unvented appliances for long periods of time

Very brief use of a gas space heater or the like in an enclosed area is unlikely to hurt you, even if you don’t have ventilation. But if you plan to use them for an extended amount of time at all, you need circulation or a vent to bring in clean air. (In general, we think it’s better to be safe than sorry — if you can arrange ventilation, you should do so.)

A heating system that’s out of adjustment or damaged

Poorly maintained furnaces can be an insidious source of carbon monoxide poisoning — just another reason you should have your system checked before every heating season.

Backdrafts caused by pressure imbalances near the heating appliance

It’s easy to assume that because an appliance has ventilation available to it, your problems are completely solved, but this is dangerous thinking. If the pressure imbalance doesn’t favor the air pushing out through the ventilation, it will not go anywhere. This can happen because of poorly designed HVAC systems.

Leaving a vehicle idling in an attached garage

Your vehicle’s internal combustion engine puts out plenty of carbon monoxide as it runs, the same as any combusting appliance inside your home. If it’s in an attached garage, that carbon monoxide can find its way inside and accumulate. The same goes for unventilated heating in your garage. A few minutes to heat up your car is one thing; leaving it going for hours is another entirely.

Running a gasoline-powered generator in a basement or attached garage

Another similar threat to your well-being is running gasoline-powered generators in an enclosed space attached to your home. Many homeowners don’t even realize how dangerous running a gas-powered generator inside might be — and since such generators are often used in a time of stress and distraction, the threat can go unnoticed even longer.

A blocked flue

Ventilation and flues need to be clear to work appropriately, and chimneys are a big culprit for undetected blockages. If you’ve not used your chimney in a while, you must make sure the flue is completely clear and ready to vent carbon monoxide and ash out of your home.

Snow accumulation or other debris blocking exhaust vents

Your furnace has its own ventilation system, which exhausts outside of your home, but this ventilation isn’t foolproof. Homeowners have ended up in trouble from the accumulation of snow blocking these vents at exactly the time when they’re running their furnaces the most. Know where your vents are and pay attention to what’s happening to them; a buildup of snow, leaves, etc., could be hazardous.

What You Can Do to Stay Safe

Outside of keeping your appliances in good working order via regular maintenance and always having ventilation in place when you’re combusting fuel, the most important thing you can do for avoiding CO mishaps is to have your detectors placed wisely and keep them in good working order.

Test your CO monitors regularly, keep them plugged in or with fresh batteries, and make sure you have them in the places that matter most. The biggest danger from CO comes when you’re sleeping and can’t notice the problem, so make sure your bedrooms are protected.

Carbon monoxide leaks can be scary, but you have all the tools necessary to stay safe! Just be mindful of combustion and airflow, and you’ll be fine. If you’d like a professional assessment, call the team at SOS Xtreme Comfort for a tune-up and maintenance check.

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