A thankful couple: Quick action by fire department, CO detector prevent potential poisoning

One Bemidji couple is thankful for a quick response from the Bemidji Fire department and the warning they received from a carbon monoxide detector. On Wednesday, Gloria and Vernon Gary of Bemidji returned home to find their CO detector "buzzing l...

One Bemidji couple is thankful for a quick response from the Bemidji Fire department and the warning they received from a carbon monoxide detector.

On Wednesday, Gloria and Vernon Gary of Bemidji returned home to find their CO detector "buzzing like crazy," Gloria Gary said.

The Garys later learned from an analysis performed by Minnesota Energy Resources that the levels of CO in their home were potentially fatal.

The culprit, according to Gary, was an idling car in the garage.

Though the garage door was open, the wind was apparently blowing from a direction that forced CO into the house through the service door, Gary said.


She said she and her husband both had headaches and felt nauseated after being evacuated from the home.

"There was no odor or anything," Gary said. "We didn't realize the urgency."

Gary wished to thank the fire department for its quick response and kindness at the scene and urged people to purchase a CO detector.

Calls to the fire department for CO aren't uncommon this time of year, firefighter Kelly Skime said.

"Most of them are false alarms," Skime said, explaining that CO detectors should be replaced at least every five years.

"The majority of detectors have a fairly short lifespan," Skime explained as reason for many false alarms.

However, avoiding CO poisoning at home is more about prevention than it is about detection.

"A lot of people call when it's too late," Skime said. "If it's truly a CO call, something has gone wrong."


In addition to maintaining a quality CO detector with battery backup, Minnesota Energy Resources recommends an annual check-up of heating systems and equipment by a reputable heating and cooling technician.

Several telltale signs that fuel burning appliances are producing CO are soot by heat registers and excessive moisture on windows, according to Greg Walters, senior external relations manager for Minnesota Energy Resources.

People should also be aware of the symptoms of CO poisoning, Walters said.

Carbon monoxide attaches quickly to blood, but it dissipates slowly, Walters explained. People who experience flu-like symptoms while at home and feel better when away from the house for a length of time should consider having their fuel burning appliances inspected.

But the best measure, according to Walters, is to make sure to have an annual furnace inspection before the heating season.

"If you're not doing it annually, at a bare minimum it should be done every other year," Walters said.

In January 2008, all new homes in Minnesota will be required to have CO detectors within 10 feet of every bedroom, according to Walters. In August 2008, all existing homes in Minnesota will be under the same requirements.

Even the highest quality CO detectors need to be replaced every five years, according to Walters.


"When you buy a new one, take a marker and write the date on it," Walters suggested. "When it gets to be five years old, just replace it."

The busy season

Recent frigid temperatures have area heating and ventilating businesses hustling.

Higgins Heating in Bemidji has received anywhere from 20 to 40 calls a day during the extended cold spell, according to owner Charlie Ward.

On roughly 10 percent of those calls, Ward said furnaces are not venting properly, which can lead to CO inside a home.

Ward reiterated that annual inspections are important, especially for older furnaces.

"The older it is, the more dangerous it is," Ward said, noting that more modern furnaces with sealed combustion chambers will likely lead to fewer instances of CO buildup in homes in the future.

A few considerations


Studies conducted by Center Point Energy show no matter how tightly a house is sealed, running a vehicle in an attached garage, even with the door open, will lead to CO in the house, according to Walters.

"The amount of CO a car puts out is tremendous," Walters said. "If you're going to warm up your car, back it out of the garage."

When the weather gets cold, people also look to creative ways to stay warm, according to Walters.

Using any un-vented, fuel-fired heat source indoors is not only prohibited by the Minnesota Mechanical Code, but it can result in the CO contamination and the buildup of carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde and other combustion-related contaminants.

Any improperly vented fuel-burning equipment using wood, coal, gasoline, oil, propane, kerosene or natural gas can produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.

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