Property Management Blog

Carbon Monoxide - The Silent Killer

Steve Schultz - Friday, June 6, 2014
Property Management Blog

The following is an article from one of my NARPM® friends, Scott Abernathy, MPM®, RMP®.  Scott owns Reliant Realty, LLC in Murfreesboro, TN.  You can check him out at  I thought his piece on carbon monoxide was great, so I’m sharing it with you here.  I hope you enjoy it and take heed to Scott’s advice...

We recently lost a friend due to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. I have always heard about the dangers of excessive carbon monoxide in homes, but never really gave it a second thought. Now I realize how important it is to protect my residents and family from this hidden fatal danger.

Carbon monoxide is difficult to detect because it is odorless and tasteless. Most gas companies try to help by adding a “rotten egg” odor so our noses can detect a leak. However, most CO is produced by incomplete combustion of fuel. Natural gas, propane, gasoline, oil, kerosene, wood, charcoal and tobacco (one more reason to give up smoking) are the most common sources of carbon monoxide in our homes.

It seems a little strange that carbon monoxide would be so dangerous. After all, we are carbon-based beings and require oxygen to survive. Without getting too technical, red blood cells are attracted to carbon monoxide and vice versa so when a body breathes it in, the carbon monoxide molecules attach themselves to the red blood cells, blocking necessary oxygen from being absorbed in the body. Your heart and organs quickly begin to fail without oxygen.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Policy, unintentional carbon monoxide poisonings cause 15,000 emergency room visits and 500 deaths a year. Many other studies claim that these numbers are grossly underestimated due to unreported cases and misdiagnosis by medical professionals.

As you can see, this is a serious problem across the country. Currently, 12 states and a handful of municipalities require CO detectors be installed in many or all residential dwellings. However, even though CO detectors save lives, the Home Safety Council reports that less than one-third of American homes have them installed. Property managers have a responsibility to protect our residents and to use all reasonable efforts to enhance their safety. The second half of Article 4 of NARPM’s Code of Ethics states, “The Property Manager shall hold a high regard for the safety and health of those lawfully at a managed property.” So what should we do to protect our residents from this toxic danger?

First, install CO detectors in high-risk rental houses. Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur in any home, but the highest risk houses are those that use CO-producing fuels (natural gas, propane, etc.) to run day to day operations in the house such as heating, cooking or water heating. There are a handful of CO detector brands available, but Consumer Reports rated First Alert the highest by a large margin in their independent test.

Most of us already have smoke or fire detectors in our rental houses, so the easiest answer to this problem is to replace some or all of those with a combination smoke/fire/CO detector. However, this is not as easy as it seems. Consumer Reports states that one device cannot do it all, especially when it comes to smoke and fire. Some smoke detectors use ionization technology which is great for detecting a flaming fire such as burning paper. Other detectors use photoelectric technology to detect a smoldering fire such as a mattress. Then there are combinations of both of these technologies in smoke detectors. However, there currently is not a combination CO/smoke/fire detector that will detect carbon monoxide and use photoelectric technology and ionization technology. You must choose one or the other for fire detection when using a combination detector.

Maintenance and proper installation are critical.  You must strictly follow the installation instructions on the CO detector you choose. Consumer Reports suggest that CO detectors NOT be installed:

  • In kitchens or garages
  • Near a furnace or water heater
  • In breezy areas
  • In direct sunlight.

Our local fire marshal recommends placing CO detectors in hallways outside of bedrooms, in the living room and at least one on each floor.

Just like any other man-made item in this world, CO detectors do not last forever. They have a limited useful life so, check the manufacture date when purchasing so you do not get one too stale. CO detectors should be replaced about every five years. Before purchasing a CO detector, check to ensure they meet the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Standard 2034.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends installing CO detectors on every floor and within hearing range of every sleeping area. The EPA warns us not to let CO detectors lull us into a false sense of security. There have been questions about CO detectors effectiveness, especially in low-level poisonings and around high-risk groups such as children, the elderly and pregnant women. They should be considered a backup to proper use and maintenance of fuel-burning appliances.

Proper care and maintenance of your fuel-burning systems is imperative in the prevention of CO poisonings. Have your fuel systems inspected regularly, ensure appliances are adjusted properly, verify chimney flues are open when the fireplace is in use, see to it that interior fuel-burning appliances are in good condition, and keep portable generators outdoors and far from the home. Make sure your residents know, no matter how cold it is, never use a gas oven to heat a home.

Symptoms of low level CO poisoning include a mild headache and breathlessness. Continued exposure can result in flu-like symptoms including severe headaches, dizziness, lethargy, nausea, confusion, irritability and impaired judgment, memory and coordination.  CO poisoning is called the “silent killer” because people frequently decide to “sleep it off” and never wake up.

The EPA shares these ways to distinguish between the flu and CO poisoning:  

  • You feel better when you are away from your home (or location where you are getting the poisoning);
  • More than one person in your home is sick at the same time (the flu has a gestation period that usually prevents everyone in a household from getting sick simultaneously);
  • Family members who are most affected spend most of their time at home;
  • Symptoms occur or get worse shortly after turning on a fuel-burning device;
  • Indoor pets also appear ill;
  • And the flu may generate generalized aching, low-grade fever and swollen lymph nodes which you should not get with CO poisoning.

The EPA has developed an acronym, I CAN B, to help us remember CO safety:

Install CO alarms near sleeping areas.

Check heating systems and fuel-burning appliances annually.

Avoid the use of non-vented combustion appliances.

Never burn fuels indoors except in devices such as stoves or furnaces that are made for safe use.

Be attentive to possible symptoms of CO poisoning.

Battery-operated combination smoke/fire/CO detectors cost between $25 and $40 each. Wired-in combination smoke/fire/CO detectors cost $35 to $60 each.  Annual inspection costs vary with your location. However, none of this seems to be too much to ask of a landlord or homeowner to protect the health and safety of residents. Don’t let yourself, your family or your tenants become a CO poisoning statistic.