When properly maintained, these alarms will protect your family from carbon monoxide poisoning.

A carbon monoxide detector is a device used to monitor the amount of carbon monoxide (CO) in your home. In excess, this colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas can lead to tragedy—it is fatal in high doses. Keeping your family safe is as easy as installing detectors in your home, which can often be done with just a screwdriver and a few minutes of your time. Ahead, how to care for these life-saving alarms long-term.

What is a CO detector?

This device's main function is to track carbon monoxide in a given area and issue an alert if levels become high, says Mark Dawson, the COO of Mister Sparky and One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning. "Carbon monoxide detectors are similar to smoke detectors in their function," he says. "Some models are not specific to carbon monoxide, but monitor for multiple gases including carbon monoxide." Every homeowner with a fuel-burning appliance, heater, or fireplace should have these alarms installed in their houses, he says. "There should be at least one detector on each level of the home, plus detectors in sleeping areas," he adds.

How often should you replace your monitor?

Because these types of monitors run constantly in the background, you should change their batteries twice per year, says Dawson (schedule these swaps with Daylight Saving Time so you remember). "For the detector itself? Most will last around five to seven years before you need a replacement," he says. Whether you are replacing your model or installing one for the first time, pay close attention to their final location. "Be sure to place the detector at least 15 feet away from fuel-burning appliances. Put them high on the wall or on the ceiling, as carbon monoxide is a light gas and tends to rise," notes Dawson.

carbon monoxide alarm on bed frame
Credit: Kameleon007 / Getty Images

How can you maintain these devices between changes?

According to Dawson, these alarms' maintenance schedules should be a top priority. "One of the most important things you can do is to clean and test your carbon monoxide detector monthly," he says, "especially if you are heating your house with natural gas or other combustible fuels." Use a carbon monoxide test kit—it actually includes a canister of CO gas—which can be found wherever CO detectors are sold. And while "batteries should be changed twice per year (verses smoke detectors, which are normally changed yearly)," notes Dawson, swap them out sooner if your monitor begins making beeping noises or a new light becomes illuminated. This may be a sign that it's time to check your battery. "Unfortunately, you cannot see or smell carbon monoxide, so your detector is the most reliable form of monitoring," affirms Dawson.

What are the risks of improper maintenance?

If you are not replacing your detector and its batteries often enough, you run the risk of unknowingly being exposed to dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide in your home. "High levels of CO can overwhelm your body in mere minutes and result in CO poisoning," Dawson says, noting that this can lead to "serious tissue damage and even death, so ignoring the risk and not equipping your home is very dangerous." In addition to keeping your carbon monoxide alarms clean and cared for, Dawson says you should perform regular check-ups on any HVAC devices, as well. "The best way to prevent carbon monoxide and other gas leaks is to have your HVAC system inspected and maintained every year," he says. "Small problems, like hairline cracks in your heat exchanger, can be found and repaired before they grow into major problems, which could result in gas leaks." Staying on top of these small tasks, he concludes, can save your wallet and your life in the long run.


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