Columns and Letters

Column: Heating hazards: A wake-up call on carbon monoxide

February 7, 2024

-by Bonnie MacIsaac
    The weather this past weekend had me thinking of winter’s past. Back in the early ’80s, I lived Northern Alberta. Extreme cold weather was a given each winter. I had two boys at the time. It was our first winter in that house. We were snuggled in one very cold winter's day. Their dad was at work. That afternoon, like most, we sat on the sofa and I started to read a couple of storybooks to them. I don't recall anything other than waking up and realizing we had all fallen asleep. And, I had the most pounding headache! Something was not right! I shook the boys, and they woke up, they too said their heads hurt. I opened the doors and let the cold fresh air blow in.
    We had two natural gas heaters and both seemed to be working fine when I checked them. I just couldn't understand what was going on. The stove and water heater, too, were natural gas and were working fine. I kept going back to the heaters. I checked pipes. I checked everything I could see and nothing. I sniffed and detected a different but almost subtle difference from one heater to the other. Again, the pipes. Nothing! I even used water and soap to see if there was a leak anywhere, I wasn't seeing any. I turned everything off. Then I opened bottom of the chimney. I was trying to see if the flue was in need of cleaning; hadn't thought about that after moving in. And as I tried to shine the flashlight it seemed that something was blocking the light a bit up from the opening. Sure enough a brick was lodged in the chimney and that one heater was being partially obstructed. And, to this day I am so thankful and grateful that I woke up in time for my boys and I. We got checked out and there were no lasting effects. It was so scary!
    I have watched several news reports from across the country this week concerning close calls with carbon monoxide poisoning. In less than a month there have been so many stories worldwide. I really do believe that people often underestimate the danger associated with carbon monoxide poisoning.
    I recall  a story I reported on back in 2019, a Montreal doctor, Dr. David Kaiser warned drivers about leaving their vehicle running while cleaning snow off it. Kaiser who works for Public Health stated it can be fatal! The tailpipe must be cleared off snow first before the vehicle is turned on. Kaiser stressed that it can take as little as a minute for carbon monoxide levels to reach dangerous levels!
    How many times have we walked out and started the vehicle before clearing off snow? How many times have we put children in the car, buckled them in while we brushed the snow off the vehicle? Did you clear the tail pipe first?
    A good time for a few reminders to make dealing with the cold weather safer for you, your family. I have a feeling we have lots more wintery conditions to weather! While a rumbling furnace may be music to our frostbitten ears, it’s important to respect the silent threat our heat sources may pose. Because so many of us heat our homes with carbon-based fuels such as wood, oil, propane, or natural gas; we need to be aware that our heat sources carry the potential for carbon monoxide leaks. Other possible risk sources include charcoal grills, diesel generators, kerosene lamps and heaters and any other appliance that operates on combustion. If these appliances aren’t properly vented and maintained, a buildup of carbon monoxide may result.
    Carbon monoxide (CO) is a tasteless, colourless, and odourless poisonous gas often referred to as “the silent killer.” It is produced when fuels such as natural gas, oil, wood, propane, and kerosene don’t get enough air to burn up completely. Damaged or blocked venting inside heating systems, as well as inadequate air flow can allow CO to build up inside the home.
    CO continues to be a considerable safety issue in Canada. Each year, in this country, there are thousands of calls related to carbon monoxide received by emergency responders. When the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA) examined these incidents it identified human factors as the leading cause. This clearly indicates that taking safety precautions could help reduce the number and/or severity of CO incidents. The best way to ensure that you and your family are not exposed to the dangers of CO is to eliminate it at the source. Make maintenance of your fuel burning appliances, equipment, and venting systems an absolute priority.
    In the absence of CO alarms, the only way to know if carbon monoxide is present is if the physical symptoms of CO poisoning become apparent. But by then it might be too late to avoid injury. Know the symptoms of CO poisoning. They are similar to the flu – nausea, headache, burning eyes, confusion, and drowsiness – except there is no fever. If they appear, get everyone, including pets, outside to fresh air immediately and call 911.
    Proper maintenance of fuel-burning appliances, such as furnaces, and their venting systems is your best defence against the dangers of carbon monoxide in your home. Your second line of defence is the installation of certified CO alarms. They will warn you of rising levels of carbon monoxide giving you and your family the time to escape the hazard and correct the problem.
    Reduce your risk. Never:
– Allow a car to idle in a garage, even with the garage door open;
– Run a gas-powered generator in an enclosed space;
– Use a charcoal grill indoors;
– Neglect maintenance on appliances that run on gas, oil, wood, or propane – and always ensure their venting systems are in good working order.
    Since CO alarms do not detect fire or smoke and smoke alarms do not detect CO, your home needs both CO and smoke alarms. Install them on every level of your home or cottage in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions. Units that combine the function of both CO and smoke alarms into one are available. Once installed, remember to test your alarms once a month by pushing the test button on the unit.
    Test the batteries! No CO or smoke alarm can work if the batteries are dead. Batteries need to be replaced once every year. Make it a habit to change the batteries every fall when you change your clocks.
    Like most things, CO and smoke alarms wear out with age. They have to be replaced in order to ensure maximum effectiveness and safety for your family. Check the manufacturer’s instructions for information on when yours should be replaced.
    Annual inspections are a must. In Canada, we depend on our heating systems to keep us safe and warm when the thermometer plunges and the snow flies. It not only makes sense to check and maintain your furnace, it is vitally important. Heating systems that consume fuel such as gas, oil, or wood need to be inspected and maintained annually. It’s the only way to ensure efficient and safe operation.
    While you can and should change filters and check for leaks, the only person qualified to inspect your natural gas, propane, or oil furnace is a certified heating technician.
    TSSA offers these maintenance tips: Avoid “fly-by-nighters” – especially people who show up at your door offering special deals.
– Ask a friend or your fuel supplier for recommendations.
– Obtain at least three written estimates that include the type of work being done, who will do the work as well as start and completion dates.
– Determine whether repairs are covered by a warranty.
– Furnace inspections are your responsibility. If you don’t arrange it, it won’t get done! Don’t forget! Have your furnace inspected annually. Stay warm!
    Speaking of carbon monoxide...During power outages many people are charging their cell phones in their vehicles and getting warm at the same time. Be smart about it, especially during a snowstorm.
    Always ensure the tailpipe of your vehicle is clear from snow or any other obstruction if you are in a running vehicle. Same goes for if you are stuck in a snow bank or in your driveway with your vehicle. Never have it running if the tailpipe is covered in snow.































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