While the Cape picks up snow, it seldom hangs around. Years ago, we picked up a stretch of moderate snow that came in bunches and never left during an uncharacteristic 2 – 3 week stretch of weather that poked it’s head above freezing with about as much frequency as lobster meat selling for under $50 per pound. About two days into the campaign with drifts that would leave me with the thighs of a Russian ballerina, I picked up a portable CO detector based exclusively on the chance that drifts may clog a gas vent creating a backup of CO inside the home. With nary a literal peep as season’s end, the unit ended up in my glovebox. The following year, right around Thanksgiving on a bright snowless day, it occurred to me that blocked vents aside, systems are running routinely and unless a home was recently sold, chances are they didn’t have tamper proof smoke and CO detectors. I fished the unit out of the back of the glovebox, powered it up, snapped it on and upon entering the first house on the route, I heard the first chirp and felt the first vibration since I pulled it out of its packaging. Taking a look, it was reading 20 or 20 PPM [parts per million].
0.5 – 5 is typical for homes without gas stoves such as the one I was in. Writing it off as flawed or an anomaly, I made my way to the basement as I’d done hundreds of times when the unit jumped to 45. Entering the mechanical room, it then jumped to 160. Home detectors will react to within an hour to an hour and a half at 100 ppm and will respond in approximately a half hour when exposed to 200 ppm and half the time, 15 minutes, when exposed to 200ppm. No more, no less curious as this point, I decided to see what happened on the next couple of stops to rule out a defect. At the very next stop, having never before occurred to me in the countless times I ran this sequence, I was struck by the fact that not only did the unit stay silent but the equipment and fuel source in house 2 were identical to the one I just left down to the brand and manufacture date. After an hour of subsequent checks with various systems and fuels sources and zero reaction from the portable detector, I doubled back to the first stop and the readings in each location matched the initial walk through. Having pitched the situation to Jim McDonnell of McDonnell Mechanical, he claimed he was in the area and would pop in and get back to me. About two hours later a very serious and almost stern Jim first asked if anyone was scheduled to visit however remote the possibility before telling me to stay out of the house until he gave me the OK. He had taken a reading at the core of the system that was topping out at almost 400 ppm. The issue was resolved and while I’m typically in and out of homes minimizing exposure, I wear it routinely if for no other reason than to pay it forward should it ever chirp. I can certainly speak to the fact that it surely is odorless and humbly suggest that the next time the batteries in the TV remote fail, poach replacements from anything other than smoke and CO detectors.
Potential symptoms after one hour of exposure:
0 – 9 ppm CO No health risk; normal levels
10 – 29 ppm CO Long term exposure may lead to nausea and headache
30 – 35 ppm CO Flu like symptoms develop, particularly among the young and elderly
36 – 99 ppm CO Flu like symptoms for all leading to nausea, headache, fatigue, drowsiness, vomiting
100+ ppm CO Severe symptoms, confusion, intense headache; ultimately brain damage, coma and/or death particularly at levels of 300 ppm and beyond