Posts Tagged ‘carbon monoxide poisoning’

When in Rome….perform combustion safety testing!

October 11, 2013

Heating season is approaching for some parts of the country and while this stove doesn’t heat the place, the College of Cardinals that gathered in the Sistine Chapel last winter, used a stove system that has evolved over many years, and needed some fine tuning to work right.   The_Sistine_Chapel_(5967688938)

Jon Vara, in The Journal of Light Construction wrote, that since at least 1903, ballots from the papal voting have been burned in this system of ductwork and combustion equipment to announce their decision on a new pope.

Many things have been tried to ensure the color of the smoke is correct, but just as important if not more so, is the trouble of getting the smoke to go the right way.  Even in the latest installation from 2005, the stove back-drafted.

Our advisors might pay special attention to how equipment works in your home.  They also pay special attention to how the home and heating equipment interact too.  I’d say they would have to bring a few more (ok, many more) blower doors to test the tightness of such a big place like the Sistine Chapel, but combustion testing is the same big or small.

Smoke needs to leave the house (or chapel) and other gasses should go with it.  Carbon Monoxide is the silent killer we are most often concerned about.  Holy Smokes, no matter what kind of stove furnace or boiler, or building for that matter, we should all be concerned with combustion safety whether you live in Rome, Georgia, or Rome, Pennsylvania or Rome, Ohio, or Rome, Maryland or Rome, New York, or Rome, Oregon… you get the idea.

Thanks,

Jason

photo from Wikicommons

 

Carbon Monoxide: Be Afraid, Take Action!

April 17, 2013

We’ve posted about CO in the past.  It comes up in the news too often, and it is something we should all be concerned about.   A case in Aspen, Colorado is moving to trial following the death of a family due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The Aspen Daily News reported that According to the lawsuit, the boiler’s exhaust piping was disconnected, because it had been “neither properly primed, glued or sealed and was not securely attached, supported or braced in any way.”  They also found that the vent to pull fresh air in was not connected to the outside so it only recirculated CO in the home.

This seems like gross negligence, and the reason why installers need to be certified, as well as why codes are in place.   Even with this, systems fail when they are not maintained.

  • Install a CO monitor and check it annually much like a smoke detector.
  • Have your combustion appliances checked regularly.
  • Regular HVAC service calls are important.
  • Even better have a BPI certified auditor assess your home.  It is part of a very thorough inspection of not only water heaters, furnaces and boilers, but also gas ovens and fireplaces, some things HVAC technicians may not normally inspect.

 

Thanks,

Jason

A Bad Idea: Unvented gas fireplace

December 20, 2011

If you read no further, know this:  unvented fireplaces are a bad idea.

We’ve had a few responses regarding Carbon Monoxide lately, and for good reasons: it’s a concern we should pay close attention to.  As we button up our homes and keep warm for the holidays, some of us look to inexpensive solutions and quick fixes such as unvented gas fireplaces.

My personal experience so far suggests burning a fire inside just doesn’t seem like a good idea (don’t ask, just trust me on this one).

Up north in igloos, the Inuit used small oil lamps called Kudliks and vented them with smoke holes in those igloos.  Further south in a region many of us call home now, the Lakota used Tipis, and also showing great intelligence, had a smoke hole at the top.   Overseas, centuries ago, Romans built tubes in walls to draw smoke out of bakeries and what we now know of as a chimney may have started in northern Europe in the 12th century. So what happened?  Are we smarter now than all of our ancestors or have we failed to learn something, and as they say History is repeating itself?

Some manufacturers of vent-free appliances claim they burn so cleanly that they don’t need to be vented.  I have a hard time believing this since there will always be combustion by-products namely Carbon Monoxide and water.  I’ll discuss the CO side in a minute—CO kills.  But water is an issue for every one of these units, burning correctly or incorrectly.

Vent-free appliances can produce about a gallon of water in the house for every 100,000 BTU’s.  Leave one on for 4 hours, and you’re well beyond the moisture you’ll put in the air from a couple of showers and cooking a pot of spaghetti.  That’s why you’ll often see condensation on your windows or sense a clammy feeling in the air.  This humidity, if left unchecked can lead to other issues such as mold or rot.  Sure you can address the moisture by providing whole-house ventilation something we regularly recommend, but you will be paying a penalty over ventilating your home because you didn’t want to ventilate your fireplace.  You shouldn’t use your house as a chimney—that’s what flues are for!

Water is a serious problem—but it’s not the worst of it. Without regular service the stove produces more CO, and my science books suggest incomplete combustion creates more by-products.

The effects of CO can be overt or subtle but either way long lasting.   We pay attention to dangerous high level exposure, but even low level exposure over time can be debilitating.  From the American Lung Association:

Breathing CO at low levels regularly may cause permanent mental or physical problems. At very high levels, it causes loss of consciousness and death.1

Approximately 450 people die each year from CO exposure related to fuel-burning, residential appliances. Thousands more became ill or sought medical attention.2 CO poisoning is estimated to cause more than 50,000 emergency room visits in the United States each year.1

The EPA suggests never heating your home with a gas oven.  Short term exposure might be ok but long term exposure is not, like when you are heating your home all day long.   For those without kitchen range hoods, or those who fail to turn them on, a stove is essentially an unvented gas heater, so why do we use unvented fireplaces?

Apparently there are safety features.  Some manufacturers’ fine print indicates you should open a window every time you use the appliance!  Who does that?  And if you’re supposed to open a window, it can’t be an unvented appliance.  I’m guessing the lawyers have paid attention to the potential liability from combustion gases and perhaps related moisture problems.  Other fine print from a vent free manufacturers retail site suggests that the Oxygen Depletion Safety Pilot device shuts off the gas before dangerous levels of CO can be formed, but says nothing about using a CO detector as a back-up. It also does not address long term low level exposure.

Since you can’t see or smell carbon monoxide, but high levels can kill you in minutes, it makes sense to have a CO detector.

Here is what an average off the shelf CO meter will do:

In accordance with UL 2034, the CO sensor will not alarm to levels of CO below 30 ppm and will alarm in the following time range when exposed to the corresponding levels of CO. 70 ppm CO concentration 60 240 minutes 150 ppm CO concentration 10 50 minutes 400 ppm CO concentration 4 15 minutes.

It won’t sound below 30ppm.

This link has a long list of letters from folks that have been harmed from high and low levels of exposure. Some when finding CO levels in their home, complained to the fireplace manufacturers who suggested the meters they had bought were too sensitive!  The last thing I want is a device that does its job too well.

It is wrong that our national code allows unvented gas fireplaces when we know they can be harmful. They should never be installed.  The consumer advocacy group, Consumer Reports justifiably suggests caution with these appliances and they also say that there is “No national standard that compels contractors to consider air quality when they install an unvented fireplace; the National Fuel Gas Code and many local codes call only for the fireplace to be sized so that sufficient air is available for combustion.” But this is not entirely true, as accredited contractors with the Building Performance Institute we can’t perform improvements on a home until an existing unvented heater is removed.  Why?  It’s not considered safe and the risks aren’t worth it.

Unvented gas fireplaces are a potentially deadly example of penny wise and pound foolish.  Let’s pay respect to those who figured this out a long time ago and keep ourselves and our families safe through the heating season.  If you have one, get rid of it.  If you’re thinking of adding an unvented appliance, please don’t.

Thanks and stay safe,

Jason.

 photo used under creative commons liscense from http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikeandkasia/3260232561/
1. Weaver LK. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning. 2009. New England Journal of Medicine 360: 1217-1225.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nonfatal, Unintentional, Non-Fire-Related Carbon Monoxide Exposures—United States, 2004-2006.
2. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Review 57:33 (August 2, 2008). Accessed October 20, 2009 

Gas leaks and Carbon Monoxide Problems in CA

July 23, 2009

This is a bit disconcerting, folks.  In 14 of the last 18 homes we’ve visited on home assessments in California, we’ve found either significant gas leaks, carbon monoxide or combustion issues or all of the above.   In New York, it’s more like 20-25% of the time.  Either way, this is serious stuff.  Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas produced by incomplete combustion of fuels like gas, oil, and wood—and it can kill you.  At lower doses, CO can worsen heart conditions, and cause fatigue, headache, weakness, confusion, disorientation, nausea, and dizziness.  

Have a qualified technician inspect your fuel-burning appliances and chimneys to make sure they are operating and venting correctly.  And install a CO alarm.  We are required to install a UL listed alarm, and I have several in my own home.  As an additional level of protection, I also have a CO Experts monitor which provides readings at a much lower level.

NOTE:  ANYONE WHOSE CO ALARM IS GOING OFF SHOULD IMMEDIATELY GET OUT OF THE HOUSE, CALL 911, and seek help from a professional to locate and fix the source of the problem.

Don’t wait for an alarm to go off, though.  Check out the National Safety Council’s general recommendations.   As mentioned, all homeowners should get at least an annual check-up on their heating and hot-water system to make sure they are operating properly.  And anytime you make changes to your home, from building an addition, to adding air-conditioning, to changing your windows, you should have an expert make sure that all equipment is operating and venting properly.

Regarding the gas leaks, the big risk there is fire or explosion.  While you’re getting your appliances serviced, ask to have your gas lines checked, too.

Safety is more important than energy-efficiency–and that’s why we begin and end every project with safety testing.

Be safe!
Mike


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