With the recent release of the BPI Healthy Home Evaluator (HHE) credential, we thought it would be timely to dig up an article from our archives on how these healthy home evaluations in addition to a home energy audit can make homeowners and their families safer and healthier in their homes. This article was originally posted in the March/April 2007 issue of Home Energy magazine and has been lightly edited to reflect information changes over time.
On a chilly morning in early November of 2006, Pete Foster arrived at the home of Hella Baer on Long Island, New York, to perform an energy audit on her home and to provide her with a list of recommended upgrades. When Foster entered Ms. Baer’s house, the level indicator on his CO detector immediately began to rise. It reached 18 ppm in the living room.
Foster is certified as a Building Analyst by the Building Performance Institute (BPI), and BPI standards state, “Diagnostic evaluations and inspections must be aborted if ambient CO concentrations greater than 35 ppm are recorded.”
Though CO levels at this point were not above 35 ppm, Foster was still concerned. Carbon monoxide can cause nausea, headaches and dizziness even at levels below 10 ppm.
A timely intervention
Foster was sent to Ms. Baer’s home through the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) Residential Energy Affordability Partnership low-income program (REAP). Rather than giving the customer the usual summary of his job duties, Foster inquired about her health. Ms. Baer said that she hadn’t been feeling well lately. Foster opened some windows to ventilate the home so that he could investigate the source of the elevated CO level.
He first checked to ensure that the furnace’s induced draft fan was working properly. Another potential source of elevated CO levels is a cracked heat exchanger in the furnace. The air that is pulled through the furnace does not come into direct contact with the flame unless the heat exchanger is cracked; in which case the by-products of combustion, including CO, can enter the duct system for delivery into the home. Foster found no problems with the furnace.
Foster then investigated the gas-fired water heater. He found that an enclosure had been built around the hot water tank. In order to reach the tank, he had to remove a panel, whereupon the ambient CO level rose rapidly up to and then above 50 ppm. He immediately put the panel back in place, evacuated the customer and himself, and called the local gas utility, asking them to shut off gas service until the problem could be corrected.
All combustion appliances require adequate oxygen to burn fuel efficiently. In this case, the burner for the gas-fired water heater was not receiving sufficient oxygen. Incomplete combustion was causing CO levels that were much higher than normal. In addition, the water heater tank enclosure was keeping the natural draft appliance from venting properly. CO was deposited into the living space rather than being vented to the outdoors.
Noting that Ms. Baer was looking quite ill, Foster promptly called the fire department, which dispatched an ambulance to take her to the hospital. There she was treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. Further testing done by the fire department showed that the oxygen level in Ms. Baer’s home was critically low.
The fire department told Foster that it was a good thing that he showed up when he did. Colder weather was expected that evening, and if Ms. Baer had tightened up the house a little bit more by not opening windows for ventilation, and if she had not gone in and out as much because of the cold, she could have died.
CO dangers are real
Not all CO stories have such a happy ending. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), there are over 400 deaths each year as a result of non-fire related carbon monoxide poisoning. Products that can produce deadly CO levels include generators and faulty, improperly-used or incorrectly-vented fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, stoves, water heaters and fireplaces.
Ms. Baer recommends that everyone install at least one CO detector in his or her home. She also recommends that consumers hire professionals who are trained and certified to use the equipment that can diagnose health and safety problems when they are working on a home. “I was not aware that anything was wrong,” she says, “and I thank Mr. Foster for saving my life.”