We fortunately had installed "smart" smoke/carbon monoxide alarms this summer after purchasing the house. And they worked as advertised. We were awoken by alarm and phone call, and were out of the house before the CO reached dangerous levels.
But not all carbon monoxide leaks get detected in time.
Yesterday, unfortunately, was not my first brush with the dangers of carbon monoxide. It was, however, my first where a carbon monoxide detector was present. And based on what happened to my parents and siblings in the past, I very much believe the detectors may have saved a couple of lives this weekend.
* * * *
Nearly 15 years ago, my father died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
He was spending a cold night at his and my mom’s small lake house in northern New York, a camp they seldom used during the winter months. This was the first time he was visiting the lake house and the propane fuel heater that winter. Unbeknownst to my father, the propane fuel company had not properly cleaned the heater months earlier.
Less than a week after my father's death, my immediate family gathered at that same lake house to plan my father’s funeral. Temperatures were below freezing, so we had the propane heater on high.
Because of an autopsy that had incorrectly determined my father died of a heart attack, we spent 4-5 hours unknowingly breathing in CO in a very confined space as we planned his wake and funeral. A few visitors popped in to say hi and express their condolences during that time which did provide occasional air flow when the door opened, but not much. By the time we were done, we all had headaches which we attributed to the stress of making such plans.
My brother and I then left to spend the night in town 20 minutes away. I remember having trouble focusing on the road as I drove. But it was late, I felt stressed out, and thought nothing more of it. My mother, sister and her boyfriend stayed behind to spend the night at the lake house.
I fell asleep quickly that night, but a couple of hours later I was awoken by a call.
It was my sister, who sounded confused and disoriented. She managed to tell me she couldn’t walk but had crawled into my mother’s room to see how she was feeling, but my mother was refusing to get out of bed. My sister's boyfriend was acting similar. “I don’t know if we all have food poisoning or maybe it’s carbon monoxide?” she said.
I told her to open any windows she could reach and the main door and called a family friend/doctor. He immediately told me to call 911. I did, then called my sister back and kept her on the phone until paramedics arrived.
The three spent a few hours at the hospital, and then were discharged. Probably a little prematurely given their high intake of carbon monoxide. But hey, we had my father’s wake to attend.
I can’t properly express to you how it feels to be standing at the front of a church for your father’s calling hours, and feeling grateful. Grateful that my brother and I were only mourning the loss of my father, and not that of my mother, sister and her boyfriend (now husband) who were all bravely standing next to us, receiving words of both sorrow for the passing of my father, and hugs for surviving the night. Besides a brief hour break between sessions, this went on for nearly 6 hours.
I haven’t thought about that week for some time. Until yesterday, when I was awoken by another early morning call of the same nature.
This time, it was my family’s smoke/carbon monoxide alarm system calling to alert me that CO had been detected in the house. Alarms were blaring in our home, too, but the call let me know immediately the culprit was carbon monoxide and not smoke. I opened the IRIS app on my phone and saw that the alarm detecting CO was in the bedroom of my daughter, Quinn.
I immediately turned off our thermostat, my wife called the fire department and put the girls and our dog in our car with warm blankets and jackets. Within seconds of entering the home, a fireman had his CO detector go off. Right outside the hallway of Quinn's room.
This wasn’t a case of dead batteries or a false alarm. We had a carbon monoxide leak. And I was experiencing déjà vu.
Turns out, the heat exchanger in our heating system had a hole in it. We bought the home this summer, but the heat had not been on for any prolonged period prior to Saturday morning. Specifically, between 3:30-5:00am. That’s when my eldest daughter awoke me to say the downstairs of the house was freezing cold. I had turned off the thermostat the previous afternoon when we were leaving for the remainder of the day, and had forgotten to turn it back on. So I went downstairs and did so. We all fell back asleep.
With the heating system working to catch up to a "normal" temperature, in less than two hours the CO level had climbed to 50 ppm. We weren’t scheduled to awake for the day for at least another two hours. What that might have resulted in we will never know.
My wife, Joanna, had suggested to me after buying the home this summer that we install “smart” alarms throughout the house that were equipped with both smoke and CO detection, and could be connected to our WiFi router to alert us to which area of the house to focus on (should we be on vacation, out on date night, etc.).
So I'm declaring today Carbon Monoxide Detector Sunday. Between Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, please carve out some time to go buy a CO detector for your home. And if you already have one, take a minute to test it.
It doesn’t have to be a “smart” alarm. Just get one. More than one depending on the size of your house. (This is what we have, but get what works best for you.)
We actually have SEVEN alarms, which I told Joanna (while I was setting each one up individually to our wifi) was maybe overdoing it relative to the size of our house. But after the past 24 hours, you’ll never hear me make that argument again.