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  • Writer's pictureNikki James Zellner

Differences in carbon monoxide detection devices

Not all carbon monoxide detection devices are created equal. And it's important to understand how, why and where each one should be used.

Why? Because if you are using one that's inadequate for your space and calling it a day, you're putting health and lives at risk – for you, your family, or your occupants.

Carbon monoxide monitor or meter

A carbon monoxide monitor does just that: it monitors. It measures the amount of carbon monoxide (CO) in the vicinity of the device. It is often portable or handheld and can give you used for the detection of CO gas. The readings will go up or down, based on the proximity to the source of where the gas is accumulating. These are often used by first responders (as a single or multi-gas meter) and maintenance staff during issue, emergency or industrial safety response. They do not *alert* anyone or to anything – only measure. This is not the same as a natural gas meter or sniffer.

It is my hope that all maintenance staff and first responders will soon be required to carry a CO-gas monitor any time they are on school property, in particular when responding to medical emergencies where CO may not be suspected.

Carbon monoxide alarm

A carbon monoxide alarm is a single-unit, power-supplied device with audible alarm settings tied to the unit. Its power can be supplied by an electrical outlet, battery, or both. It may or may not have a digital display. All will have an expiration date and will need to be replaced based on manufacturer's recommendations.

Most residential CO "detectors" are actually CO alarms - only many in the general public use the terms interchangeably, causing more confusion. These alarms can also be used within commercial properties in rooms like churches, offices, classrooms or small commercial spaces where they are not required to be hardwired into a master system, but can still alert occupants in that space that there is an exposure occurring.

However, please note, carbon monoxide alarms will only alert when carbon monoxide accumulates to a certain level (these levels are based on manufacturer settings). If low levels of CO are starting to accumulate, a high-sensitivity alarm would alert far sooner than a low-sensitivity, standard alarm.

If you're truly interested in protecting the HEALTH (and not just the LIFE) of the occupants of your space, friends or family inside your home – and don't have the capability to install hardwired detection systems – you will need to invest in a low-level, high-sensitivity CO alarm. Yes, you will pay a little more, but your exposure to deadly carbon monoxide, should it occur, will be minimal and you would be alerted in a far more timely manner.

Most of the existing legislation throughout the US related to school-based detection falls in this category, using single-unit alarms as the minimum viable language. They are also able to skirt investing in full protection due to outdated code stating protection isn't required throughout the whole building, only in classrooms or vent points where certain fuel-fired systems exist.

I say outdated code – because most of the key organizations responsible for language related to carbon monoxide requirements are still using old language related to fuel-fired systems and appliances. Code language has not been updated in recent years to reflect the number of instances that have been tied to cleaning equipment, landscaping equipment, construction equipment, delivery vehicles on school properties. We're working on this, along with many others.

Carbon monoxide detectors within a detection system

Most of the commercial carbon monoxide detectors on the market are designed to be part of a commercial fire or business security system – drawing power from the system itself, hardwired and networked throughout the property.

These detectors are typically interlinked to a central control panel or dashboard with 24-hour hour monitoring capability. Many of these detectors also have battery backup, in case the property's electrical system fails.

These are the types of detection devices truly needed in larger commercial properties like schools – but are not yet required – where there may be issues of CO exposure happening at places throughout the building that may or may not be tied to fuel-fired system.

Due to the age of school buildings in the U.S. and the regularly occurring budget shortfalls, it is often quipped it's easier to incorporate detection systems into new construction than existing structures. This means our aging educational properties are at the highest risk of carbon monoxide exposure, often escaping requirements to have any detection on site in states where IFC and NFPA codes have not been adopted, or full-school-safety has not been passed legislatively.

Ways to prevent CO poisoning through detection devices:

  1. Make sure to always have a carbon monoxide monitor available for your maintenance/security teams that is active and kept on them at all times.

  2. If your school has the capability to, invest in a hardwired, integrated detection system for the highest protection of health and safety. Grants exist to secure funding for indoor air quality and children's safety. Research them and apply for them.

  3. If you're not able to invest in a hardwired detection system, use top-of-the-line, low-level/high-sensitivity plug in detectors with battery backups in EVERY CLASSROOM and office of your building, as well as hallways, gymnasiums, cafeterias, delivery zones and supply/maintenance areas. CO exposures can take place in all-electric system schools.


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