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Carbon Monoxide Detector Going Off? Here's What to Do Next

May 31, 2022|

Carbon monoxide detectors are extremely important tools. They can save your life by telling you when dangerous levels of toxic gas are in your environment. But you might have questions about what to do when your carbon monoxide detector goes off.

It’s important to have a plan to keep you and your family safe. You likely already have an action plan in the event your smoke detector goes off; having a plan in case your carbon monoxide detector senses unsafe chemicals in your air is just as important.

This guide reviews what to do if your carbon monoxide detector ever goes off. We’ll explain what carbon monoxide (CO) is and some of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. We’ll also give you an overview of how your CO detector works to detect carbon monoxide in your environment.

Carbon monoxide detector attached to the ceiling.

What to do when your carbon monoxide detector goes off

First things first: Leave your house immediately if your CO detectors go off.

There’s always the possibility that your device could be giving a false warning, but you don’t want to take any chances. When it comes to CO, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

Here’s what to do when your CO alarm goes off:

  1. Leave the building with any family members and pets and seek fresh air immediately.
  2. Dial 911 right away to let emergency responders know your CO alarm has been activated.
  3. Don’t re-enter the home, even after the alarm stops going off. Open doors and windows may allow the CO in your home to dissipate, but you don’t know if the machine that triggered the alarm has stopped producing carbon monoxide. CO could build up again once you’re inside.
  4. Wait until emergency workers have identified the cause of the carbon monoxide and have told you it’s safe before going back inside your home.

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What is carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas produced when burning carbon-based fuel. Stoves, water heaters, fireplaces, vehicles, and a variety of other appliances and machines can create CO.

Carbon monoxide is known as the “silent killer” because it’s virtually impossible for humans to detect it without the aid of a device. Even though CO gas is both odorless and colorless, it can be extremely dangerous (and even lethal) to those who are exposed to it. Small amounts of the toxic gas can cause health issues and even death over a relatively short period.

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure?

Breathing in carbon monoxide prevents your blood from carrying enough oxygen to your cells. It can be hard to determine when you’ve been exposed to high levels of CO gas because the effects of CO can be similar to flu-like symptoms.

Below are some symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Headaches, dizziness, or lightheadedness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Blurry vision
  • Diminished muscle control
  • Chest tightening or elevated heart rate
  • Extreme sleepiness, possibly to the point that you lose consciousness
  • Disorientation or confusion

Where does carbon monoxide come from?

Whenever carbon-based fuels like natural gas burn, they release carbon monoxide as a byproduct of incomplete combustion. Some fuels, like wood or propane, are considered low-carbon fuels because they emit lower levels of carbon monoxide into the air than natural gas.

CO gas is measured in parts per million (ppm). Different types of machines produce different amounts of carbon monoxide. For example, starting your car can create CO levels of around 80,000 ppm for the first few minutes your engine is running.

To put that number in perspective, The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) claims that air levels with just 400 ppm can cause severe headaches and sickness in as little as an hour.

So, why don’t you get sick whenever you turn on your car? Because you start your car outside, and the harmful molecules have room to disperse. As a side note, never start your car in an enclosed space (like your garage with the door closed).

The appliances in your home burn fuel inside, where the CO gas has less room to dissipate. Things like gas ranges, boilers, water heaters, and stoves can all cause harmful buildup of CO in your home.

That’s why there are rules for how much CO your appliances can emit. For example, stoves aren’t allowed to produce more than 800 ppm of CO. However, most stoves are designed to release below 50 ppm.

Appliances that have been left on too long or haven’t been properly installed for ventilation by a qualified technician can continuously release small amounts of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere until it reaches dangerous levels.

Carbon monoxide-producing appliances include:

  • Furnaces
  • Dryers
  • Gas ranges (stoves)
  • Wood burning stoves (lower amounts than natural gas stoves)
  • Ovens
  • Cars and trucks
  • Grills
  • Space heaters
  • Cigarettes or other tobacco smoke
A pot on a gas stove.

How carbon monoxide detectors work

Your carbon monoxide detector can sense when CO in your home reaches dangerous levels. An alarm sounds whenever it senses high levels of the toxic gas. If you hear your carbon monoxide detector beeping, that’s your cue to get out of the house right away.

The speed at which your CO alarm can detect carbon monoxide depends on how much harmful gas is present. For example, if there’s less than 70 ppm of CO in your home, it might take your CO detector around an hour to sound the alarm. If CO levels in your home are above 400 ppm, you might hear an alarm in less than five minutes.

CO detectors can be battery-powered (like the Vivint CO Detector) or connected to your electrical system. A silicon microchip surrounded by hard plastic is inside every carbon monoxide detector. The microchip shoots an electrical signal to a carbon monoxide sensor in a detection chamber.

The sensor’s job is to measure CO levels in an area. When the sensor detects high levels of CO, it activates the alarm.

Generally, your detector will have a test button. Your detector may also have a power indicator light that tells you when the device needs new batteries. Your detector may also make a chirping noise when it needs new batteries. Some models even have LCD screens that tell you the amount of CO gas in the atmosphere.

It’s important to test your detector once a month and always replace batteries (or the entire CO alarm unit) as needed. Carbon monoxide detectors should be replaced after around five to seven years.

Because carbon monoxide rises, you should place CO detectors at least 5 feet above the ground or on your ceiling. You should also make sure your detectors are at least 20 feet away from your kitchen so they don’t produce false alarms.

CO detectors should also be placed away from fireplaces and any other appliances that use fire.

Carbon monoxide detector FAQs

Understanding how carbon monoxide detectors work is important to the safety of everyone in your home. We’ve answered some commonly asked questions about CO detectors below.

Why is my carbon monoxide detector going off for no reason?

There are several reasons you might get a false alarm from your CO detector.

  • Your CO detector needs to be replaced. Detectors can malfunction near the end of their life span.
  • Your system detects a carbon monoxide leak from one of your neighbor’s appliances.
  • Your shower isn’t properly ventilated and steam is causing false alarms.
  • You’re using a lead-acid battery charger. Lead-acid batteries are commonly used in vehicles like boats and campers.
  • You have the wrong type of CO monitor. For example, enclosed campers need specially designed CO detectors.
  • Someone’s smoking tobacco in your home.

Do carbon monoxide detectors give false alarms?

CO detectors can give off false alarms, especially if they’re not handled properly. Here are some tips to reduce the number of false alarms your detector sets off.

  • Test your detector every month.
  • Change the batteries in your detector regularly (at least every six months).
  • Clean your detector with a soft vacuum brush and compressed air every month. Don’t use water or cleaning chemicals on your device.
  • Install your detectors away from kitchens, fireplaces, and fire-producing appliances.
  • Replace your detectors at least once every five to seven years or immediately if they get contaminated with heavy dirt or grime.

Should I worry if my carbon monoxide alarm goes off?

For your own safety, always assume that your CO alarm is working properly when it sounds an alarm. You and your loved ones and pets should immediately exit your home if your alarm goes off. Carbon monoxide exposure can be extremely dangerous and even lethal.

Discover how Vivint can keep your home safe and secure

CO detectors should be a vital part of your home security system. Fortunately, Vivint offers peace of mind with our smart carbon monoxide detector.

Our CO Detector offers quick detection by using electrochemical sensors to identify carbon monoxide right away. It also integrates with the rest of your smart home to turn on the HVAC system to stimulate airflow, unlock any doors for a quick exit, and disable sensor alarms to improve ventilation.

The Vivint CO Detector syncs with any existing wired CO detectors to alert our monitoring service if an alarm is triggered.

Contact us at 855.822.1220 to speak with one of our experts who can help you find the right safety alarms for your home and needs today.

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