You know that saying, Don’t judge a book by its cover? That certainly applies to what may be the best protection against carbon monoxide poisoning you can buy. The CO Experts carbon monoxide monitor doesn’t have a flashy website or marketing program. It doesn’t even have the approval from Underwriters Laboratories (UL) that so many products crave. And there’s a good reason for that. [Update: The website has been improved greatly since I first wrote this article in 2012.]
The CO Experts monitor is a low-level monitor that tells you what’s going on with the carbon monoxide levels in your home in real time. It cannot get listed by UL because UL has decided that only high levels matter. Here’s a quote from the UL standard, as given on the CO Experts website:
Carbon monoxide alarms covered by this standard are not intended to alarm when exposed to long term, low level carbon monoxide exposures or slightly higher short term transient carbon monoxide exposures, possibly caused by air pollution and/or properly installed/maintained fuel-fired appliances and fireplaces. See Table 38.1, Part B, False alarm resistance specifications.
Is a low level of carbon monoxide safe?
But does that mean low levels of carbon monoxide are safe? Not according to George Kerr, the brains—and the passion—behind CO Experts. He cites numerous studies showing that low levels of CO are harmful. In fact, problems show up even at really low levels. A UCLA study found that CO levels above 5 parts per million (ppm) was associated with pregnant women having underweight babies with smaller heads.
The existence of such studies probably helps to explain the disclaimers that companies making UL listed CO alarms put on their products. Here’s the warning from the Kidde-Nighthawk Model #KN-COPP-3, as given in the user manual I downloaded from the Kidde website:
You should take extra precautions to protect high risk persons from CO exposure because they may experience ill effects from carbon monoxide at levels that would not ordinarily affect a healthy adult. Are there any infants or small children in the home? Be sure to check them for signs of possible CO poisoning because they might have trouble explaining their symptoms. Infants and children are more susceptible to CO poisoning than a healthy adult.
Pregnant women should be aware that their unborn fetus could be harmed by exposure to carbon monoxide, even when the mother suffers no ill effect herself. Any pregnant woman who suspects she may have been exposed to carbon monoxide should immediately contact her physician.
Is there anyone in the household who is elderly, or who has anemia, heart disease or respiratory problems, emphysema or chronic bronchitis? These individuals are at higher risk for CO poisoning and for health problems from exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide.
Basically, the problem with UL listed alarms is that they’re meant to offer protection to healthy adults during very high levels of CO in a home’s air. So how much CO does a UL listed alarm allow you to breathe? Here’s what UL standard 2034 allows:
- 30 ppm for up to 30 days
- 70 ppm for up to 4 hours
- 150 ppm for up to 50 minutes
- 400 ppm for up to 15 minutes
If you think about what those numbers mean, it’s actually worse than it looks. For example, as Kerr points out on the CO Experts site, a UL listed CO alarm would allow you to breathe air with 358 ppm for 45 minutes—with NO alarm at all. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have more protection than that.
The CO Experts low level CO monitor starts giving you warnings when the CO levels it detects are above 6 ppm. As the CO levels rise, the warnings go from visual to auditory and increase in frequency. The highest level of alarm occurs when it reaches 70 ppm, when it gives you a series of beeps every 6 seconds.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
Back to that old aphorism I opened the article with, there are two reasons you might rush to judgment about the CO Experts monitor. I’ve already mentioned one: No UL listing. I hope I’ve convinced you already that that’s not a valid reason. The problem isn’t that this low level monitor isn’t UL listed. The problem is with the requirements for the UL listing.
The second may already be apparent to you if you clicked any of the links above: The CO Experts website is a complete mess. George Kerr is knowledgeable and passionate, and if you spend any time talking with him about this issue, you’ll be convinced that you and everyone you know needs a low level CO monitor. I met him in 2005 at the Affordable Comfort conference (now called the Building Performance Association conference). The problem is that Kerr is also an engineer, and his website shows that. It’s full of great information presented poorly. It’s one of those ’90s websites that somehow has survived 12 years into the new millenium.
Don’t be put off by the website appearance, though. This CO monitor is the real deal. Pretty much everyone I know in the home performance industry swears by these CO monitors. If you want to breathe easy, get yourself one today.
2021 Update: George Kerr died a few years ago and the website is much more approachable now. And the CO Experts low level carbon monoxide monitor lives on. You can buy it at TruTech Tools.*
Click the image to buy the CO Experts low level monitor at TruTech Tools*
* This is a TruTech Tools affiliate link. You pay the same price you would pay normally, but Energy Vanguard makes a small commission if you buy after using the link.