The morning was chilly, definitely fall in the air. I turned on the furnace. It seemed to take a while but the house warmed up. Just as I noticed my nose was no longer cold, a contractor doing repairs on the exterior reported with some alarm the smell of gas around the furnace exhaust. I turned off the heat. Two days later the scene repeated itself. The previous residents could not recall any problem with the furnace, or ever having it checked.
I called a local heating company.
The tech walked in the door, sniffed the air, and immediately pulled out his hand-held CO - carbon monoxide - monitor. His eyebrows went up. He ordered all the windows and doors opened. Then he went outside to get a reading at the exhaust vent. He left the area when the reading got to 260 - more than 10x the standard.
What you don’t know can hurt you
Would this explain my headache that won’t go away, I asked. Yes. And dizziness, drowsiness or a lightheaded sort of flu-like feeling - early signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. That’s what kills a person who sits too long in a car in the garage with the motor running.
Turns out the furnace heat exchangers - whatever those are - had cracked, probably years earlier causing the furnace to leak moisture and over heat. It had been deteriorating, gradually producing less and less heat with more and more gas.
I’d never thought about the furnace beyond the thermostat. I took for granted that it protected my health by providing heat in the winter. It never occurred to me that it could be health hazard.
Use information and services in ways that enhance health.
That’s the definition of health literacy. With many households switching to affordable gas heating and appliances, keeping healthy requires new awareness. Here’s information I learned about maintaining gas appliances that you, and families you serve, can use to protect and enhance health this winter.
1. Get a CO monitor. If you have any gas appliances get a monitor. Building codes now squire them in new construction. If you have a gas furnace put one in each bedroom. I got a model that’s guaranteed for 10 years for $23 at WallMart. It plugs in to any outlet. The alarm sounds if the CO level reaches 70 ppm -parts per million - the point when most people start to feel symptoms. For a little more money you can get a monitor that shows the ppm . For a bit less, there are battery powered monitors, but you have to monitor the battery.
If the alarm sounds, get to fresh air and call 911.
2. Have the furnace checked annually- a great way to mark Health Literacy Month each October. The local heating company charges $109 to check the system including the ducts. The new furnace I bought cost $4500. If the furnace had been checked annually for the last 20 year that would have cost a total of $2180.
3. Change the filter every six months. My local heating company provides free filters and will change them at no charge 2x a year. Does yours?
4. If you smell gas, do not ignore it. Turn off the appliance. Open doors and windows. Call for service to the appliance. Do not wait for the alarm to sound.
5. Useful numbers. CO level at the furnace’s exterior exhaust should be < 24ppm (parts per million). The level in front of a gas fireplace should be < 9ppm. My fireplace tested at 30ppm. It is off. It will be serviced tomorrow.