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HVAC Safety Tips: Don’t Let Carbon Monoxide Sneak Up On You

HVAC and carbon monoxide safety tips

A carbon monoxide leak can mean disaster for your business

You already know that carbon monoxide is deadly—you’ve certainly heard the horror stories that result from people unknowingly breathing in the colorless, odorless gas. So as a responsible business owner or manager, you don’t take those kind of risks lightly. That’s why you have carbon monoxide detectors installed throughout your space, right?

Here’s what you may not realize: while carbon monoxide detectors may alert you about a leak and prevent injuries and deaths, they can’t completely protect your business from the outcomes of high carbon monoxide levels. Even if no one is hurt because you got the warning quickly, there are still expensive consequences.

To avoid these, you need to prevent the carbon monoxide leak in the first place. And to do that, you need these HVAC safety tips.

HVAC, your furnace & carbon monoxide

Let’s clear up one common misconception about what produces carbon monoxide and what causes carbon monoxide leaks. Air conditioners cannot cause carbon monoxide poisoning, because they do not burn fuel or produce carbon monoxide. It’s your heating equipment that you need to be concerned about. We’ll get to those HVAC safety tips in a minute.

But first, let’s examine the risks from carbon monoxide, and what to do if your detectors go off.

What happens when you have a carbon monoxide scare?

Even if you have carbon monoxide detectors installed, you can still suffer from the effects of a carbon monoxide scare.

You’re in danger even when detectors DON’T go off
For one thing, low levels of the poisonous gas don’t always cause a CO sensor to go off, especially the kind that are installed in the ceiling and hard-wired to your electrical system. They are often programmed only to go off if carbon monoxide levels are dangerous enough to cause death. However, according to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), prolonged exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can still cause people to experience symptoms of headaches, fatigue and nausea. People with heart conditions can also experience chest pain.

If you become aware of a number of people complaining about these symptoms, you need to take action right away. Since the sources of carbon monoxide leaks are almost always fuel-burning appliances or heating systems, call in an HVAC company to inspect your heating system. Even better, if you own a restaurant, get a company that also services your kitchen equipment to inspect gas-burning cooking appliances.

Read more information from the CDC about carbon monoxide.

What to do when detectors DO go off
Have you stopped to think about what would happen to your business if your carbon monoxide detectors do go off while you’re conducting business and serving customers? Here’s the recommended protocol to follow if your detectors sound an alarm:

  1. Evacuate the building. Depending on the size and occupancy of your space, this can be difficult and potentially dangerous if you don’t have the proper security staff and plan in place to prevent panic.
  2. Call the fire department. If you have a large building with a facility management system, this may be set up to happen automatically. The next thing you know, the entire street may be blocked as fire trucks converge on your building.
  3. Do a head count to determine if anyone is missing. This can be challenging if you own a retail business. How can you verify exactly who was in the building?
  4. Turn off the heating system and any appliances. If you own a restaurant, you probably don’t want to think about shutting down the kitchen in the middle of the dinner rush.
  5. Open all the windows and doors to air out the space. Many buildings in New York City have windows that don’t open. If yours do not, it will take much longer to clear out the poisonous gas from the building.
  6. Get a qualified expert in to determine the cause of the leak and fix it. How long will you have to wait (with your business at a standstill) for that technician to arrive, then diagnose and fix the problem? If it happens at night or on the weekend, you’ll be paying emergency service rates.

A carbon monoxide scare can cause a significant loss of business, as well as a public relations nightmare when your evacuation is reported in the news and everyone who was there shares what happened on social media.

Having those detectors in place can be a lifesaver, but as a business owner you need HVAC safety tips to make sure you never have a carbon monoxide leak that can damage your business and your reputation.

Read on for HVAC safety tips that can help.

HVAC safety tips to prevent carbon monoxide leaks

Since so many carbon monoxide leaks come from heating systems and ventilation problems, your HVAC service company can help prevent carbon monoxide leaks from happening. These are the HVAC safety tips you need to stay safe.

At least one per year, ideally before the start of the heating season, have your furnace, as well as vents, chimneys, fireplaces, and any fuel-burning appliances regularly inspected by a qualified professional. If there are any problems they can be addressed before carbon monoxide becomes a problem. Ideally, you should establish a relationship with an HVAC service company with a preventative maintenance contract. That way, the technicians are familiar with your equipment, your business and space.

BONUS: Preventative maintenance also prevents breakdowns and reduces energy bills!

Related articles:
Furnace Not Working? 6 Things to Check
10 Fall Maintenance Tasks that Prevent HVAC Repair

Did you know what many furnace maintenance visits don’t include inspection of the heat exchanger? Be sure to verify that this important step is not skipped, since the most common cause of carbon monoxide leaks is a failed or leaking heat exchanger in your gas or oil furnace.

What is a heat exchanger? Its job is to vent the poisonous gases resulting from heat combustion away from your heating ducts and out of the building. Over time, the heat exchanger can develop corrosion, cracks or holes, and you will never know it because the furnace still works. Yet carbon monoxide could be making its way through your building’s ventilation system.

Blocked vents or chimney flues is another common cause of carbon monoxide leaks. Your ventilation system is designed to move the deadly gases out of your building, but can get clogged by years-worth of dust and debris. Sometimes blockages can be caused by insect, bird or rodents nests. Regular inspection and cleaning of vents and flues is one of the most helpful HVAC safety tips that can prevent a business disaster.

When you bring in a certified HVAC service company, a trained professional will make sure your equipment is safe, clean and in good working order. And if it turns out that repairs are needed to make it safe, you can do them at your convenience instead of on an emergency basis.

Carbon monoxide is only one of the dangers your business faces due to poor HVAC maintenance. If you’d like to learn more about the costs and risks associated with neglected heating and air conditioning equipment, take a look at our free guide to Calculating the Hidden Costs of Poor HVAC Maintenance.

Get the guide to understanding your HVAC System's hidden costs.