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Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors

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By John Morse

Just like those annoying smoke detectors that go off from cooking smoke, we get tired of all those malfunctioning carbon monoxide detectors.  If you look at the statistics you will find that false alarms are much more common than a real activation of a smoke or carbon monoxide detector. All those dinner time false alarms make us wonder if the detectors are really doing their job.

There are a lot of things that can activate a smoke detector.  It can be a spider, steam, cooking smoke, or even someone spraying air freshener.  When smoke detectors are standalone units, residents usually can realize the smoking bacon on the stove caused that detector to go off.

These units can be reset easily by blowing in them, or by taking the battery out until the smoke clears.  As long as that battery gets put back in that is no problem.  In newer systems where the detectors are all linked together resetting the system is a lot harder. It seems like contractors install these systems and don’t tell anyone how to reset them.

Commercial systems have annunciator panels, but these systems have all the complication of a commercial system without a simple way to get them reset.  If you have one of these systems make sure you get some instruction on resetting it, when we arrive on the scene the resident has often found the problem but doesn’t know how to get the system back into normal operation.

Carbon monoxide detectors are designed to absorb CO in the same way as a human body.  As the sensor in the detector is exposed to carbon monoxide it becomes saturated and eventually will activate.  Just like your body takes a while to rid itself of carbon monoxide so does that sensor in the detector, once it has become saturated it is best to replace it.  Carbon monoxide detectors also have the option of replacing the sensor instead of the whole detector.

Fumes from paint or varnish do nasty things to carbon monoxide detectors.  Sensors absorb the fumes and cause it to activate and eventually it ends up in the garbage.  Newer houses in cold climates are faced with a different problem.  Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are installed with the wiring inside of conduit.  When the conduit runs through an attic the outside of the conduit gets cold.  Inside the conduit is warm air, that combination creates condensation inside the conduit.  That moisture travels down the conduit into the detectors.  When you pop off that detector and find moisture on the top of it you will have found the reason for activation. Feel those wires and see if they are wet.

Carbon monoxide detectors have a built in sensor that will activate much like a low battery alarm to tell you the detector has exceeded its useful life.  You can find a date stamped on the detector or on a sticker to let you know the age of the detector.

Every day there are people saved by these detectors.  It might be the smoke from a basement fire that alerts a family and gets them outside, or it may be a cracked vent pipe on a water heater that activates the carbon monoxide detector.  Next time you go on a false alarm don’t complain, just search the internet and you will see why we need these detectors.  Make sure you have your detectors working while you thinking about it.

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