Every winter season, several Coloradoans are killed in their homes by carbon monoxide poisoning. Scores more experience sickness or injury. Frequently, the cause is traced back to a faulty gas burning appliance such as a furnace or water heater.

Recently, I was conducting a training session about planned maintenance procedures at a wholesale supply house. I was training a group of field service technicians about how to perform a complete and thorough “furnace tune up”. At one point of the session, I was talking about testing for carbon monoxide. I mentioned how HVAC technicians are really in the position to save lives by detecting and preventing dangerous carbon monoxide leaks.

After the session was over, one of the students told me this story. It is so poignant for this time of year that I decided to share it with you all.

The technician, we’ll call him “Jim”, was dispatched to an elderly woman’s home for her annual “furnace check up”. As Jim introduced himself to his client, she began to tell him a little bit about herself. He learned that she was 83 years old and that her health had taken a turn for the worse. Doctors really couldn’t tell what was wrong with her and she was taking twelve pills per day.

She looked weak, she had no energy, and her skin had a grey tinge. She felt that she was dying and she wasn’t able to leave her home. It was Jim’s practice to routinely test for carbon monoxide during his planned maintenance calls. During his inspection, he noticed ambient carbon monoxide levels rise to about 9 ppm (parts per million). Further inspection revealed five cracks in the heat exchanger of the gas fired forced air furnace.

Jim knew that long term exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can cause mysterious health problems and ailments that are difficult for health care providers to diagnose. He also knew that elderly people are more at risk for these types of ailments.

Jim explained the situation to his customer, and together, they called her doctor. Jim explained to the doctor about the carbon monoxide levels he had measured in her home. The doctor immediately called an ambulance and the woman was taken to the hospital. After a few tests, it was discovered that the woman was suffering from chronic carbon monoxide poisoning.

Jim replaced the furnace and installed carbon monoxide alarms in the home. Later that year, in the spring, Jim visited the same woman’s home for her annual air conditioner check up. He said that it was as if someone had turned on a switch. The elderly woman had vigor about her accompanied by a healthy glow. She said that she was down to only three pills per day and that two of them were vitamin supplements. She was once again able to tend to her flowers and yard.

She thanked Jim for saving her life. She was certain that if it weren’t for him that she would have died. I believe that to be true.

For those of you out there in the field, please make sure that you are testing for carbon monoxide on every call. Make sure you are equipped with a professional quality carbon monoxide analyzer and that it is properly calibrated and in good working order.

If you do not have a carbon monoxide tester on your truck, here are three choices that I routinely recommend: The TPI model 707, The UEI model CO95, and the Bacharach Monoxor Plus. All three of these are professional quality and suitable for high temperature applications such as measuring in the supply air plenum, or in the flue.

Smaller instruments (I call them “shirt pocket testers”) such as the Bacharach Snifit 50, the UEI CO 71, the Testo 317, and the Fluke CO220 are great for measuring levels of CO in the ambient air. They are not, however, suitable for measuring inside ducts or flues.

Lastly, combustion analyzers are available at affordable prices and all of them will measure carbon monoxide in ambient air and in flues.

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