By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/8/2007 12:48:57 PM ET 2007-01-08T17:48:57

It’s been about two weeks now since a huge windstorm blew through the Seattle area leaving more than a million homes and businesses without electricity. We didn’t have power at our house for eight days.

When the lights go out and you're shivering in the dark, you just want to get warm. All too often that means people do dangerous things. They set up the barbecue grill, camping stove or camping heater inside the house.

“That’s just a recipe for disaster,” says Patty Davis with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Charcoal grills and outdoor camping equipment are not intended to be used inside — even if you open a window — because of the carbon monoxide gas, or CO, they create. The results can be deadly.

We learned that painful lesson following the Seattle windstorm. Carbon monoxide gas killed seven people, including a family of four, and made hundreds of others sick.

An invisible killer
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 500 Americans die each year from unintentional CO poisoning. Because you can’t see it, smell it or taste it, you can be overcome by carbon monoxide without any warning. The symptoms – headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath — are often mistaken for the flu.

“You just assume you should rest and take it easy for a day or two,” says John Drengenberg, manager of consumer affair at Underwriters Laboratories. “The problem is if it continues, it gets worse and worse. You ultimately could go into a coma and die.”

Carbon monoxide is created any time any type of fuel — oil, natural gas, propane, kerosene, wood or charcoal — is burned. All of these non-electric appliances produce CO: furnaces, hot water heaters, stoves, space heaters, fireplaces, and wood stoves. A car idling in an attached garage creates CO that can seep into the house.

Winter is the peak season for carbon monoxide deaths. And they’re not all related to power outages.  A malfunctioning furnace can create harmful levels of CO in a very short time. That’s why it’s so important to have your heating system (including chimneys and vents) inspected each year.

Portable generators – a growing problem
A portable generator is now a convenient and affordable way to deal with a power outage. You can keep the house warm, the lights on, and the food in the refrigerator from going bad.

As generator sales have increased, so have deaths from their misuse. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 220 people died from generator-related CO poisonings between 2000 and 2005. More than a third of these tragedies occurred in 2005.

Many people don’t realize these generators are not made to be used inside the house or an attached garage. That’s because they give off so much carbon monoxide.

In fact, the safety commission crunched the numbers and found that one generator running indoors is equivalent to having hundreds of cars running in your home. “You would never do that,” CPSC’s Patty Davis says, “so don’t put a generator in your home.”

CO alarms can save your life
Most homes in the U.S. already have a smoke detector. Safety experts would like to see a CO alarm there, too. These devices constantly monitor the air and sound an alarm before a dangerous level of CO is reached.

A number of states, including New York, New Jersey, Alaska, Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island now require at least one CO alarm in every home. On New Years day Illinois joined that list.

You can get a good CO alarm for about $50. Your big decision is should you get an electric model or one that’s battery-powered.

The battery model may be more convenient to install. Just remember to change those batteries once a year. If you decide on a plug-in model, get one that has a battery-backup. You want it to keep working if the electricity goes out.

Where to install them
You need a CO alarm in the hallway outside the bedrooms in each separate sleeping area. You should also have one in any living area where the family spends a lot of time, such as a family room or basement. If your state requires CO monitors, check with the fire department. In Massachusetts the law says there must be one on every floor.

Your monitor will come with specific installation instructions. But here are some general guidelines:

  • Don’t put the alarm in the garage, furnace room, near a fireplace or in the kitchen.
  • Don’t put it near a window or door – where fresh air could cause a misleadingly low reading – or behind the drapes or furniture that could block the air flow.

Safety experts say it doesn’t matter if the alarm is high up on the wall or in a plug-in receptacle closer to the floor.

Top-rated models
In its September 2005 issue, Consumer Reports recommended three models that combine “high performance and value.”

  • American Sensors CO920: AC powered with battery backup, digital readout
  • KiddeNighthawk KN-COPP-B: Battery powered, named a CR Best Buy
  • KiddeNighthawk KN-COSM-B: Battery powered smoke and CO alarm combined

All of these models are UL listed. I wouldn’t buy an alarm that did not have the UL seal. No matter which model you get, be sure to test it at least once a month.

Remember, these safety alarms don't last forever. The sensors wear out, so you’ll need to get a new CO alarm every 5 years or so. You should be able to find the date your monitor was made on the back of the unit.

What to do if the alarm sounds
Don’t waste time opening windows or trying to find the source of the problem. If the alarm sounds, get out of the house immediately. Then call 911.

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