Houston Heating, Cooling, and Electrical

How Can Heater Maintenance Protect Against Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

Poorly installed or maintained gas heaters may leak carbon monoxide, as the odorless and colorless gas is released during combustion. With regular HVAC inspections and properly installed detectors, homeowners can protect their family against carbon monoxide poisoning.

How does a heater leak carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is exhausted whenever fuel is burned, and this includes charcoal, wood, propane, gasoline and kerosene. That means anything that uses fuel also produces a small amount of carbon monoxide, including gas appliances, the water heater and the even fireplace. That includes the home’s heater, but as long as the heater is in good condition, it safely vents this carbon monoxide through the flue.

If the heater is leaking carbon monoxide, it’s usually due to one of two reasons.

  1. There’s a problem with the venting – When a heater runs like it should, it contains the carbon monoxide and vents it through the top of the building. With time, leaks may develop in this venting, allowing some of the contained carbon monoxide to seep out through the cracks. This can also occur if your heater wasn’t installed by an experienced professional, as mistakes during the installation process can result in poorly fitted vents.
  2. There’s a problem with the heat exchanger – The furnace’s heat exchanger is responsible for doing the actual heating, so it is exposed to cycles of heating and cooling. This causes the metal in and around the exchanger to expand and contract. Though a heater is designed to handle this thermal expansion and contraction, it can still produce stress cracks over time, possibly resulting in carbon monoxide leaking.

Both of these issues can be detected during a professional inspection, which is why it’s important to schedule regular maintenance. Experienced technicians have equipment specifically for examining heaters for cracks, and a technician knows where to look for potential carbon monoxide leaks. Having a professional check your heater is the best layer of defense against the gas.

What else can a homeowner do to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning?

Professional maintenance will keep the heater in tip top shape, and if it’s time to replace the heater for safety reasons, an experienced technician will let a homeowner know. In addition to scheduling maintenance, though, a homeowner can protect their family from carbon monoxide by doing the following:

1. Set up carbon monoxide detectors – Carbon monoxide is impossible to smell or see, so it’s almost impossible to sense before it becomes a life-threatening concern. That’s why carbon monoxide detectors are critical to ensuring safety. To ensure early detection, it’s best to install at least one on every floor, because you don’t want the leak spreading between floors before it is noticed. Install the detector several feet off the floor, as the gas is usually caught up in warmer gases that rise. There should be a detector near every bedroom as a family will need to respond as soon as carbon monoxide is detected. Finally, place detectors near and inside a garage, if it’s attached. Carbon monoxide that leaks into the garage will quickly access other parts of the house, so catch it at the source.

Although you’ll want to keep a detector close to the heater, installing carbon monoxide sensors too close to fuel-burning appliances or near sources of moving air can affect the detector’s performance. Check the manufacturer guidelines and consult with an HVAC expert if there are any concerns.

2. Replace air filters regularly – There are many reasons to switch out air filters with regularity. A soiled air filter won’t perform as well, resulting in worsening air quality, and airflow problems can ruin cooling or heating performance. An old and soiled air filter can also make carbon monoxide leaks more likely, as reduced air flow will make it tougher to vent the gas outside. If there are leaks somewhere in the heater, a soiled air filter may make the situation worse.

3. Know the early signs of carbon monoxide poisoning – Early detection is absolutely essential as carbon monoxide is often called the silent killer. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be acute or develop over time. Symptoms include headache, dizziness, weakness, breathing difficulties, nausea, mental changes and blurred vision. As these symptoms can point to a lot of conditions, many people mistake carbon monoxide poisoning for the flu or other seasonal illnesses. If these symptoms emerge suddenly, get to fresh air and do not return until the home is inspected. Children, older adults and unborn babies are all at a higher risk of complications due to carbon monoxide exposure, so take extra precautions accordingly.

As long as your heater is regularly inspected and maintained, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is rare. Maintenance is important for new HVAC systems, too, because problems can be caused by poor installation. An experienced HVAC technician can spot issues with the system, often long before they become a threat to the home’s occupants.

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