Smoke Alarm and Carbon Monoxide Detector Basics

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Is fire an issue in the United States?
United States Fire Departments responded to an estimated 1.3 million fires each year. Approximately 3,000 Americans die each year and another 15,000 are injured.  Learn more.  

What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, toxic gas that has the molecular formula CO. Carbon monoxide (CO) is produced by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels - gas, oil, coal and wood used in boilers, engines, oil burners, natural gas and LP furnaces, water heaters, solid fuel appliances and open fires.

How does carbon monoxide accumulate?
CO accumulates due to improper burning of the fuel. This can be a result of poor installation, poor maintenance, improper ventilation, or failure/damage to an appliance. Having no smell, taste or color it has become increasingly important to have good ventilation, maintain all appliances regularly and to have reliable detector alarms installed in the home. CO detectors are extremely vital for alerting you to increasing levels of CO before effects are felt.

What are the effects of carbon monoxide?
Exposure to carbon monoxide can produce many health concerns. Affects of CO exposure can range from minor headaches, nausea and dizziness to convulsions and potentially, with extended exposure, even death. Carbon monoxide poisons enter the lungs through the normal breathing mechanism and displace oxygen from the bloodstream. Interruption of the normal supply of oxygen puts the functions of the heart, brain, and other vital functions of the body at risk. Persons suffering from heart or respiratory health problems, infants and small children, unborn children, expectant mothers and pets are most easily affected by CO poisoning and may be the first to show symptoms.

Are there any safe levels of carbon monoxide?
Here are the guidelines that we use as we are evaluating a home for carbon monoxide.

Concentration of Carbon Monoxide or CO in Air
  • 1-3 ppm: Amounts of carbon monoxide typical in our daily indoor environment.
  • 9 ppm: The maximum recommended concentration for short-term exposure in living areas.
  • 10-15 ppm: Common concentration observed with cigarette smoking in close, indoor quarters.
  • 50 ppm: The maximum allowable workplace exposure during any 8-hour period, according to federal law (OSHA).
  • 100 ppm or greater: Potentially lethal level of carbon monoxide.
Homeowners must leave their home immediately! It is not safe until repairs are made or the source is found and corrected.

What are CO detector laws that apply to homeowners?
In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle signed a bill that mandates that state residents put carbon monoxide detectors in their residences

Under the law, carbon monoxide detectors are required to be installed on all floors of single-family homes and two-unit residences. These detectors are already required in other kinds of housing.

Learn more about CO laws in Wisconsin.

How can I implement a home escape plan?

In your home, getting out quickly can mean the difference between life and death. Fire can spread rapidly throughout your home, leaving you very little time to escape safely. Your ability to get out not only depends on the advanced warning from a smoke alarm, but also on advanced planning. It is critical to have an escape plan that everyone in your family is familiar with and has practiced. Learn more about home escape plans.

What are common hazards found in the home?
Each of our homes has many hazards, some we may not even be aware of. Many of the hazards could cause fires, but many hazards are risks to health and safety in general. Learn more about common hazards found in our homes.

How can I stay safe in the kitchen?
Each year, cooking fires generally result in the highest number of injuries according to the United States Fire Administration. Cooking fires are the number one cause of home fires according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Most cooking equipment fires start with the ignition of common household items (e.g., food or grease, cabinets, wall coverings, paper or plastic bags, curtains, etc.). Learn more about kitchen safety.

What should I do if a fire starts?
Get out of the house and call 911 from a neighbor's house or from a cell phone.

What is the best type of smoke alarm to buy?
Residential smoke alarms are generally either photoelectric or ionization alarms. Both of these alarms are very good at providing early warning of smoke in your home.

Regardless of which smoke alarm you choose, if possible have them installed by a certified electrician, hard wired to your homes main electrical panel with battery back up. They should also be interconnected so that if one alarm is activated they all go into alarm mode throughout the home.

Learn more about the two types of alarms.

What is the law in Wisconsin for smoke alarms?
Smoke alarms provide early warning of a fire. They are inexpensive and easy to maintain. Test them monthly, change the batteries twice each year (when you change the clocks in the spring and fall), and replace them entirely after 10 years.

Learn more about smoke alarm requirements in Wisconsin.

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