Inaccurate carbon monoxide detectors cause false alarms

Lyndsay Petruny

The Kent Fire Department spends thousands of dollars on false carbon monoxide alarm runs each year. Several brands of carbon monoxide detectors have proven to be inaccurate over the last ten years. According to a study conducted by the Gas Research Institute, the financial costs of the alarms’ inaccurate performance are significant. False alarms are both disruptive to consumers and costly to responding fire departments. This cost is not imposed on the alarm manufacturers.

Each time the city’s fire department responds to a carbon monoxide call or any type of Emergency Medical Services call, it costs an estimated $1100.

Fire Chief Jim Williams said the cost fluctuates depending how long it takes to respond to the call and how many individuals are sent out. “Certainly, it’s expensive to go out, and it has an impact on our other calls,” Williams said. “But we have to have that balance of protecting our public, and that’s our job.”

The study also found that consumers place little trust in carbon monoxide alarms. More than 62 percent of consumers chose to ignore carbon monoxide alarms in their homes.

This may be due to false alarms occurring too many times. When this happens, some consumers turn off their alarms when they sound or disable them completely.

According to the Ohio Fire Marshal, an estimated nine percent of all calls are due to carbon monoxide detector activation with no carbon monoxide detected.

The Kent Fire Department responded to 36 carbon monoxide alarms last year. Fire Chief Jim Williams said that out of those 36 calls, carbon monoxide was actually detected in one-third of those calls. The other 24 calls were false alarms, which cost approximately $24,600.

Reasons for false alarms include faulty detectors, humidity in the air and substances in the air that cause fumes, such as kitty litter.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has alerted the public of several faulty carbon monoxide detectors. More than one million carbon monoxide detectors have been recalled from the market.

Detectors are recalled for various reasons, but many have been recalled because they stop functioning after a certain period of time. For example, GE Security, Inc. issued a recall of their ESL SafeAir 240-COE model produced between November 2000 and August 2002 because the detectors may stop detecting carbon monoxide one year after installation.

While no carbon monoxide is detected in two-thirds of calls made to the Kent Fire Department, the number of false alarms has greatly decreased in the last several years. Williams said the department responded to more than 250 carbon monoxide alarms in 2002. One quarter of those calls actually had carbon monoxide.

“I think detectors are more accurate as technology changes,” Williams said. “As we improve those things, we tend to see less false alarms.”

A study conducted by the National Fire Protection Association gives similar results.

In 2003, fire departments in the United States responded to 60,600 unintentional carbon monoxide detector activations in which carbon monoxide was not detected. While carbon monoxide was detected in 46 percent of calls, carbon monoxide was not found in 54 percent of detector activations.

Williams said he would rather err on the side of the public if there is a false activation.

“It also has to do with trying to educate people about what to do and what not to do,” Williams said. “As we have more opportunities to teach the public about carbon monoxide and detectors, we think we will see less false alarms. It takes time, and compared to five years ago, I think we’ve made big strides in the quality of detectors and their ability to reduce the number of false alarms.”

Read the Gas Research Institute’s study.

Check the recall list

Symptoms of CO poisoning<</p>

Tips for preventing CO poisoning

Contact Web reporter Lyndsay Petruny at [email protected].