Sometimes HVAC/R technicians have an opportunity to do more than make people comfortable, we can save lives. More people are sickened or killed by carbon monoxide poisoning than any other type of poison. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that each year more than 500 people in the United States accidentally die from carbon monoxide. An estimated 10,000 people in the U.S. are treated for CO poisoning in hospital emergency rooms annually. It is believed that many more people suffering CO poisoning are misdiagnosed, or never seek medical care. This is because the symptoms of CO poisoning are very similar to influenza symptoms. One big difference is that influenza causes a fever and CO poisoning does not.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that is highly poisonous. It is formed by the incomplete combustion of carbon based fuels, like natural gas, oil, coal, or wood. Incomplete combustion can be caused by lack of oxygen, improper mixing of the fuel and oxygen, or too low a combustion temperature. A correctly adjusted gas or fuel oil flame should produce very low levels of CO. Ideally a correctly adjusted gas or oil flame should produce no CO, but realistically, most produce at least trace amounts. Solid fuels almost always produce large amounts of CO, that is why charcoal comes with a warning that it is not to be used inside. Even people that should know better sometimes overlook the obvious. A friend of mine was conserving heat during a cold winter power outage by using his charcoal grill inside. His daughter became very ill and had to be rushed to the hospital where they correctly diagnosed her condition. This story ended well, she recovered and is doing well. Unfortunately there are many stories about CO that do not end well.
HVAC/R technicians are in a position to help. We can make sure all combustion appliances in the home are burning correctly, insure there is enough combustion air for proper combustion and venting, and finally by making sure the vent system is adequate and working correctly. For gas and oil furnaces also remember to inspect the heat exchanger for leaks. The heat exchanger separates the combustion products from the air circulating in the home. Although a defective or cracked heat exchanger can contribute to CO poisoning, more obvious problems are frequently to blame. Stopped vents, loose or leaky vents, and lack of combustion air are common causes of CO. While every technician should learn to look for conditions that can lead to problems, testing is required to verify that a system is operating at safe levels of CO and that there is no CO in the house. Every technician should have an accurate CO tester. Household alarms are not a substitute. While every house with gas or oil appliances certainly should have CO alarms, they are not a replacement for an accurate tool for diagnosis. I highly recommend a seminar done by Bob Dwyer for COSA (Carbon Monoxide Safety Organization) Make sure and take advantage of the opportunity if you have a chance to attend one of his CO Safety Seminars.
There are many units in Fundamentals of HVAC/R to help explain how to achieve safe, efficient combustion for gas and oil furnaces, including
- Unit 37 Gas Fired Heating Systems
- Unit 38 Warm Air Furnaces
- Unit 40 Gas Furnace Installation, Startup, Checkout, and Operation
- Unit 41 Troubleshooting Gas Furnaces
- Unit 42 Oil Fired Heating Systems
- Unit 43 Oil Furnace and Boiler Service
- Unit 44 Residential Oil Heating Installation
- Unit 45 Troubleshooting Oil Heating Systems
There are many good web sites for more research on carbon monoxide poisoning.
A few are listed below.