What is Carbon Monoxide?

January 20th, 2009 | Filed under: Carbon Monoxide | No Comments »

Carbon Monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in America, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). 1,500 people die annually due to accidental carbon monoxide exposure, and additional 10,000 seek medical attention. (Medical experts agree that it’s difficult to estimate the total number of carbon monoxide incidents because the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning resemble so many other common ailments.)

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless toxic gas produced during incomplete combustion of fuel - Natural Gas, Oil, Coal, Wood, Kerosene, etc.

During normal combustion, each atom of carbon in the burning fuel joins with two atoms of oxygen - forming a harmless gas called carbon dioxide. When there is a lack of oxygen to ensure complete combustion of the fuel, each atom of carbon links up with only one atom of oxygen - forming carbon monoxide gas.

What is the danger to me?

Carbon monoxide inhibits the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. In out lungs, CO quickly passes into our bloodstream and attaches itself to hemoglobin (oxygen carrying pigment in red blood cells). Hemoglobin readily accepts carbon monoxide - even over the life giving oxygen atoms (as much as 200 times as readily as oxygen) forming a toxic compound known as carboxyhemoglobin (COHb).

By replacing oxygen with carbon monoxide in our blood, our bodies poison themselves by cutting off the needed oxygen to our organs and cells, causing various amounts of damage - depending on exposure.

Low levels of carbon monoxide poisoning (with COHb levels of 10%) result in symptoms commonly mistaken for common flu and cold symptoms - shortness of breath on mild exertion, mild headaches, nausea.

With higher levels of poisoning (COHb levels of 30%) the symptoms become more severe - dizziness, mental confusion, severe headaches, nausea, fainting on mild exertion.

At high levels (CHOb of 50% or more) there may be unconsciouses and death.

How does CO enter the home?

Carbon monoxide can escape from any fuel-burning appliance, furnace, water heater, fireplace, woodstove, or space heater.

Most newer homes are built very air-tight, thus cutting down on the supply of fresh air to your furnace - and creating an oxygen starved flame. Tight closing replacement windows and doors, as well as additional insulation can cause similar problems in older homes.

Carbon monoxide can spill from vent connections in poorly maintained or blocked chimneys. If the flue liner is cracked or deteriorated, CO can seep through the liner and into the house - slowly creeping up to dangerous levels. If a nest or other materials restrict or block the flue, CO will mostly spill back into the house.

Improperly sized flues connected to new high-efficiency furnaces and water heaters can also contribute to CO spillage. (Many new furnaces and water heaters are installed using the existing chimneys which may be the wrong size to allow the furnace to vent properly.)

Warming up vehicles in an attached garage, even with the garage door opened, can allow concentrated amounts of CO to enter your home through the car port door or near-by windows.

What to do in a CO emergency.

If you are suffering from chronic flu-like symptoms, see your doctor and ask him if it could be a low-level CO poisoning.

If you have a CO detector, and it alarms, open windows and ventilate your home w/ fresh air, have your heating system checked by a professional.

If your alarm sounds and you are feeling drowsy or dizzy, leave the house and call 911 from your neighbors home. You may need medical attention for CO poisoning.


Burning Firewood More Efficiently

January 19th, 2009 | Filed under: Chimneys, Fire Safety, Fireplaces & Woodstoves | 3 Comments »

Since 1988 new woodstoves have had to meet federal regulations regarding efficiency and pollution production - resulting in “EPA Approved” stoves that use a variety of methods to lower emissions and increase efficiency. These stoves use advanced design, catalytic combustors, and re-burners to “burn-off” the smoke produced by the initial combustion of wood.

Smoke is wasted fuel from a wood fire - in fact a cleanly burning EPA Approved woodstove operating correctly will give off little more than a transparent vapor cloud - with no real amount of smoke escaping the stove. That’s because the smoke itself is burned within the stove - resulting in better efficiency and greater heat output from the same amount of wood.

The BEST method to increase your woodburning efficiency is to get rid of your old, smokey insert or freestanding woodstove, and properly install one of these newer stoves.

Besides a re-vamp on your appliance, there are a few other things you can do to produce hotter fires, which produce less creosote and smoke, and burn more cleanly with greater heat output.

The single most important factor is the dryness of your firewood. Seasoned firewood contains much less water than “green” firewood - so the fire doesn’t waste it’s energy steaming off the water content, and more heat is available for complete combustion of the smoke. (See FeN #003 about firewood seasoning tips.) Seasoned firewood is easier to start, and will help keep the stove temperatures hot - to lessen the amount of smoke released up the connector pipe.

Another important part of efficient woodburning is to allow plenty of combustion air to enter the stove. Become familiar with the air inlets on your stove - this is usually the best area of the stove to ignite the kindling when first starting your fire. Once the fire is started, give it plenty of air for 15 to 30 minutes - allowing the stove and wood to heat-up and a bed of coals to start forming.

For hot “flash-fires” - intended to give off lower heat levels over several hours - load your stove in a small stack, loose criss-cross fashion, leaving plenty of space for air to flow into and around the stack. You want to get the fire hot and bright. Cut back on the air inlets as the fire progresses - but never enough to smolder the flames. When you have a hot bed of glowing coals, cut the air back enough to keep them hot and radiating heat. Repeat this process as needed to keep the house at the temperature you feel is comfortable.

For extended heating, and when you want to maximize heat output - start your fire like you would the flash fire - and when you get down to a hot bed of coals, load plenty of wood on the sides and on top of the bed of coals, concentrating the heat in a “pocket” of fresh firewood. This will sustain the fire and maximize heat output. Add wood around and over the “pocket” as needed to keep the heat concentrated.

To get a longer-lasting fires - burn your wood from the top-down. This is an ancient method of woodburning in Europe and is “catching on” here in the States. Basically you build your fire up-side down, with the split log base, working progressively smaller sections of firewood in a criss-cross manner to the top where you put you kindling. The only problem is that it’s less common to find the finely split wood needed for the center section of the stack - in America we just cut and split into large sections. Some experienced woodburners are finding the top-down method of burning is much more efficient, with long-lasting burns - a 18 inch stack can burn hot up to 4 hours without needing to be refueled.

Following these simple tips can help increase the efficiency of your woodstove or fireplace, decrease emissions, and warm you longer.


Maintaining Clearance All Winter Long

January 19th, 2009 | Filed under: Chimneys, Fire Safety, Fireplaces & Woodstoves | No Comments »

If you heat with wood, hopefully you have already had the system  cleaned and have been using it for a while. It’s easy to get comfortable with the fireplace or woodstove - it almost becomes a friend on those cold winter mornings when it’s cold enough to make you wonder why you want to get out of bed.

It’s possible to become too comfortable - and it only takes one mistake to create a hazardous situation.

One of the most common is the lack of safe clearances around your fireplace or woodstove. Over the weeks, wooden chairs and furniture may work there way closer to the heat source - during use or cleaning.

It’s also possible that newspaper and even fire wood might get stacked too close to the stove or fireplace - or decorative wooden brooms or wreaths are hung around the hearth.

What about that Christmas tree drying out over there - is it too close to the hearth? It will literally explode into flames if it’s too close! Keep it away from the hearth if your going to use the wood burner.

It’s also important not to get all of that wrapping paper in or near the fireplace - it’s a disaster waiting to happen - and you shouldn’t burn the printed paper on purpose - it may give off toxins in the smoke.

The NFPA 211* recommends at least 36 inches of clearance from the front and sides of fireplaces and woodstoves to combustible materials.

Make sure that normal clearance to combustibles is maintained with the installation as well as to objects in the room. I would recommend that the tree be located even farther away - so that if it was knocked over or fell directly toward the heat source it would still be well over 36 inches away.

If you have a furnace in a storage area or utility room - it’s equally important to keep all combustibles well clear of the furnace and it’s vent pipe.

By maintaining clearances, and with regular servicing, you should enjoy many warm winter days near the hearth.

* SOURCE : National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), An American National Standard, ANSI/NFPA 211 August 14, 1992 ; Table 8-6(a) Standard Clearances for Solid Fuel-Burning Appliances


Chimney Sweeping and Folklore

January 19th, 2009 | Filed under: Chimneys, Fire Safety | No Comments »

Chimney sweeping is not a very well known nor well understood profession. Americans are generally unaware sweeps really exist. Most Americans who know of sweeps associate chimney sweeping with19th Century England and the most famous of all the sweeps - “Bert”, Mary Poppins’ friend who danced and sang on the rooftops of London.

But chimney sweeping in America is an important industry. There are literally millions of aging and delapidated chimneys across our country, and nobody knows those chimneys better then the people who service and repair them every day.

Lets start at the beginning - with the first sweeps…

17th Century London had a problem with houses catching fire and entire sections of town going up in flames. London’s residents burned wood year round to cook and heat, and had several chimneys on every home.

No one had their chimneys cleaned - no one knew they should.

Soon they discovered the association between dirty chimneys and the proliferation of house fires, and so began the role of the chimney sweep.

In London they used small boys and girls to climb the insides of the chimneys and use their bodies and brushes to knock down the soot and creosote which fueled the chimney fires. They free-climbed up inside of the dangerous chimneys without the help of ladders or ropes, and spent much of their days in the cold darkness breathing the dust and fumes from the soot and creosote.

These climbing boys and girls were very poor, often wearing rags and eating scraps. They answered to a man called a Sweep Master, who work them hard and gave no rewards.

The Irish, on the other hand, had their own ideas of how a chimney should be cleaned. They would tie a goose by the legs and lower it down the chimney. As the bird flapped furiously with its large wings it would knock loose the soot and creosote from the chimney.This practice helped save children from the task, and popularized the saying “The blacker the bird the cleaner the flue!”.

In early America the same problem of chimney fires existed and the early construction materials of mud and wood chimneys allowed the fires to spread even more quickly.

Sweeps were very hard to come by in Colonial America. Chimney sweeps had very low social standing in Europe and the settlers wanted a new start and do better for themselves so no one swept America’s chimneys.

Eventually towns had to offer special contracts and monopolies for sweeps, or use slave children to do the necessary work.

In the early 20th Century, with the advent of oil and gas heating and cooking, the chimney sweeping profession fell by the waist side in America. People no longer used their fireplaces for cooking and heating, instead relying on imported fuels.

That all changed during the energy crisis of the 1970’s. Americans looked to alternatives for heating their homes to help sever their reliance on foreign fuels. They turned back to our own naturally restorable resource of wood for fireplaces, woodstoves, and woodheaters.

With the resurgence of wood burning came the resurgence of chimney sweeping - except chimney sweeping had gone through many changes and has become a safe and profitable profession.

With the use of modern vacuums, equipment, safety devices and products, todays sweeps no longer expose themselves to the dangerous creosote. Powerful vacuums keep the home completely soot and dust free!

And as chimney sweeps cleaned America’s chimneys, they began to see what poor shape many chimneys were in. This led to very modern repair and restoration techniques, space-age materials for relining older and unsafe chimneys, and the advent of a yearly service program to maintain and keep safe the chimneys of those customers who realize the importance of sweeping.

Todays gas burning appliances have specific venting requirements whichare rarely met upon installation and the chimney sweep industry hasonce again taken up the slack and developed high-tech relining materials to properly match todays high efficiency furnace with their outdated chimneys.

Chimney sweeps remain a relied upon member of the community in Americaand Europe. Unlike in America, yearly chimney cleaning and inspectionsare often required by European law. In America it is “buyer-beware”,and the responsibility is left to the homeowner.


Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Danger Increases as Record Low Temps Decend Over America

January 16th, 2009 | Filed under: Carbon Monoxide, Chimneys, Fireplaces & Woodstoves, Furnaces, Installed Systems, Poisoning | Tags: , , | No Comments »

America’s suffering a deep freeze this weekend - and the risk of carbon monoxide related poisoning climbs as people try to stay warm. Much of America is unprepared for such low temperatures, with rarely-used and poorly maintained heating systems, chimneys clogged with debris or birds nests, or dead batteries in their carbon monoxide detectors. Others will try dangerous methods to stay warm, methods like using auxiliary heaters indoors.

According to JAMA, carbon monoxide is the leading cause of poisoning deaths in America. Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless, and cannot be detected by people without the use of carbon monoxide detectors.

Carbon monoxide is a by-product of combustion, present whenever fuel is burned. It is produced by common household appliances such as gas or oil furnaces, clothes dryers, water heaters, ovens and ranges. A charcoal grill operating in an enclosed area, a fire burning in a fireplace or a car running in an attached garage also produce carbon monoxide.

How Does Carbon Monoxide Poison?

CO combines with hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying agent in the red blood cells. When oxygen is robbed from the brain and other organs, death can result. In addition, up to 40 percent of survivors of severe CO poisoning develop memory impairment and other serious illnesses.

Many cases of reported carbon monoxide poisoning indicate that victims are aware they are not well but become so disoriented that they are unable to save themselves.

But what do you do and who to you call when your carbon monoxide detector goes into alarm? The manufacturer of First Alert®, the leading brand of carbon monoxide detectors, recommends the following:

If the alarm goes off, turn off appliances, or other sources of combustion at once. Immediately get fresh air into the premises by opening doors and windows. Call a qualified technician and have the problem fixed before restarting appliances. If anyone is experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning: headaches, dizziness, vomiting, call the fire department and immediately move to a location that has fresh air. Do a head count to be sure all persons are accounted for. Do not re-enter the premises until it has been aired out and the problem corrected.

This weekend stay safe, err on the side of caution. Carbon Monoxide Detectors are available at most hardware stores and retailers like WalMart, Target, Home Depot, Lowes, Ace Hardware, etc. They generally cost between $20 to $40 each - the more expensive ones have a digital readout to give you a real-time and highest-recorded PPM reading.


Preventing Slips and Falls in the Home

January 10th, 2009 | Filed under: Family Safety, Senior Safety, Slip-and-Fall | No Comments »

Each year unintentional falls caused or led to thousands of deaths. All age groups are vulnerable, but older adults are most at risk. In fact, 80% of those receiving fatal injury are over the age of 65. Falls continue to be the major reason for injury-related death, injury and hospital admission for older adults.

Follow these tips to prevent slips and falls in your home:

» Keep the floor clear. Reduce clutter and safely tuck telephone and electrical cords out of walkways.

» Keep the floor clean. Clean up grease, water and other liquids immediately. Do not wax floors.

» Use non-skid throw rugs to reduce your chance of slipping on linoleum.

» Install handrails in stairways. Have grab bars in the bathroom (by toilets and in tub/shower.)

» Make sure living areas are well lit. We can all trip and fall in the dark.

» Be aware that climbing and reaching high places will increase your chance of a fall. Use a sturdy step stool with hand rails when these tasks are necessary.

» Follow medication dosages closely. Using medication incorrectly may lead to dizziness, weakness and other side effects. These can all lead to a dangerous fall.