Handyman: Know what to do when detector alarm sounds

Glenn Haege
Special to The Detroit News

During the recent cold snap when temperatures fell into the single digits, a member of my staff got an early morning call from his mother. It seemed her carbon monoxide detector was going off. Now while it turned out that is was due to a detector long past its prime, it got me thinking about what people need to do whenever they have a sudden alarm like that around the home this time of year.

According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, cpsc.gov, about 170 people in the United States die every year from carbon monoxide produced by malfunctioning furnaces, ranges, water heaters, room heaters, portable generators and fireplaces. Of course, winter is the deadliest season for carbon monoxide in the home because we close everything up and use gas appliances more often. That’s why it is important to have a good CO detector in your home.

But what should you do when that detector alarm goes off? While some detectors may malfunction and go off when there isn’t any CO in the air, Consumers Energy (consumersenergy.com) spokesperson Debra Dodd said it is wise not to take a chance.

“When the alarm on the CO detector goes off, we recommend that our customers leave the area immediately and call the local fire department to check the home,” she said. “We will also come out to check the person’s home for free if they have one of our CO detectors, or will come out for a $60 fee during regular business hours if it is non-Consumers Energy detector.”

Lt. Larry Gauthier in the Fire Prevention Division for the Farmington Hills Fire Department (ci.farmington-hills.mi.us) agrees that any time an alarm sounds for a CO or smoke detector it is best for residents to evacuate the home immediately and call 911 but he asks that people don’t open windows to air out the home if it is a CO detector.

“We would rather they don’t open windows because we have sensors that check the levels of carbon monoxide in the home, and opening up the windows will interfere with us getting a true reading,” he said.

Obviously, Gauthier said some common sense is in order when it comes to alarms, especially if the smoke alarm is going off because someone is cooking in the kitchen.

“If people have a problem with a smoke detector going off because of cooking, they should get one with a hush feature that we like to call the ‘bad cook’ feature,” he said. This feature silences the alarm for several minutes while the cooking smoke or steam from a shower dissipates.

Gauthier said that people also need to maintain their detectors regularly to ensure they work properly, which helps eliminate the number of false alarms.

“People should check and clean their detectors monthly to make sure they work properly, and should change the batteries every six months,” he said. “Detectors also need to be replaced after 10 years, and I recommend getting ones with the 10-year lithium battery.”

In addition to having both a CO detector and smoke detectors, it is a good idea to also monitor the potential for explosive or combustible gas leaks in the home. It seems like every year we hear about an explosion in someone’s home due to a gas leak from a stove or furnace gas line. The good news is many carbon monoxide detectors also detect explosive gas fumes. Kidde, kidde.com, and First Alert, firstalert.com, are two manufacturers of smoke detectors and carbon monoxide/explosive gas detectors. They also offer combination smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

One reason people may get a lot of false alarms from the CO detector is if they place it next to a furnace vent, because Lt. Gauthier said it will pick up even the smallest level of carbon monoxide that furnaces commonly put out and isn’t harmful.

“It is best to place it in a common area and to make sure they also have a smoke detector in every sleeping room, in common areas and on every floor,” he said.

If you do all that, it should help eliminate the false alarms you would get from a malfunctioning detector. That also means if the alarm goes off in your new, well maintained detector, take it seriously, get out of the house and call the fire department.

If you would like to suggest a question for this column, email askglenn@masterhandyman.com. If you want to talk to Glenn Haege, call his “Handyman Show” on WJR-AM (760) at (866) ASK GLENN, (866) 275-4536 between noon and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. “The Handyman Show” can be heard on more than 130 radio stations.