Carbon monoxide is sometimes known as the “silent killer” – a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that can easily be deadly. It’s created by fuels not burning completely – wood, natural gas, propane, coal, you name it, it can create carbon monoxide. That means your water heater, clothes dryer, oven, range or fireplace can all be a source of dangerous carbon monoxide. When you breathe it in, it takes the same role as oxygen, meaning you get less oxygen to breathe, which can lead to suffocation. CO poisoning can often be confused for other common ailments – it takes a detector to make sure that there aren’t even non-lethal, yet harmful, doses of CO in the air. Suffice it to say, carbon monoxide detectors are an important way to keep you safe.
But if carbon monoxide is so hard to spot, how do carbon monoxide detectors work? Obviously, all of them detect carbon monoxide in one way or another and, once triggered, they’ll trigger your alarm system. Not all work in the same way, however – there are three major types of detector, each working on a different principle.
Biomimetic Sensors have a gel inside which reacts to carbon monoxide. Like your natural hemoglobin, this gel binds to carbon monoxide and darkens in color. When it darkens enough, a photodiode picks that up and triggers the alarm. These are generally the most reliable sensors, but is also the most expensive; large facilities like hospitals and hotels will generally use these because the cost of a false alarm in terms of disruption to their business is very high.
Metal Oxide Semiconductors have a silica chip inside. When oxygen is present, it has a very high electrical resistance. Carbon monoxide, however, lowers that electrical resistance, which is picked up by the circuitry inside and triggers the alarm. It requires a lot of power, which is its major drawback, but it’s a reliable sensor.
Electrochemical Sensors are the most common type of carbon monoxide detector, thanks to their accuracy, minimal power requirements and long lifetime. With their cost coming down in the past few years, they’ve become more and more popular. Electrodes immersed in a chemical solution sense changes in electrical currents when they come into contact with carbon dioxide, which is produced when it’s exposed to carbon monoxide.
No matter what type of detector you get, your response is the same – getting outside for fresh air and checking for any flu-like symptoms that could be a sign of carbon monoxide poisoning. If you have these symptoms, you need to call emergency services. If possible, opening all the doors and windows to your home before leaving is helpful, as it will help dilute the amount of carbon monoxide in the air. If possible, do not re-enter your home until the alarm has stopped sounding or the authorities have deemed it safe to enter. This is where a monitoring system comes in handy – even if you’re not home, the proper authorities can be contacted to help take the proper steps in an emergency, helping to prevent a small problem from becoming a major disaster.
If you don’t have a CO detector – or if your CO detector has reached the end of its life span, beeping to indicate that it’s time to replace the alarm – don’t just remove the batteries. Get a carbon monoxide detector to help protect you, your family, or your business.