Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous, odorless, and colorless gas that may build up in a home with an oil furnace, resulting in dangerous levels in the air. If enough of the gas accumulates, it can be deadly. The risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is real, so you should take steps to reduce your chances of being exposed to too much CO from your oil furnace.
Read on to learn more about this toxic gas and how to avoid it.
Can You Get Carbon Monoxide Poisoning from Oil Heating?
Like other fuel-burning appliances, including boilers, cookers, and heaters, an oil furnace can produce dangerous levels of CO. It happens when the furnace is not vented correctly, when it’s burning fuel inefficiently, or when the burner becomes clogged.
Typically, all furnaces or appliances that burn fossil fuels produce a small amount of CO as a byproduct. This is expected and is not dangerous if the appliance is functioning normally.
However, oil furnace carbon monoxide poisoning occurs if the levels of CO in your home get too high, especially if it’s contained in a small area, such as an indoor room or basement. In these cases, CO can quickly reach dangerous levels and cause symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
In fact, according to a 2017 British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit (BCIRPU) report, there are over 300 CO-related deaths yearly and more than 200 hospitalizations in Canada. Similarly, in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that there are thousands of deaths and sicknesses due to CO poisoning.
The amount of acceptable CO in a vent is 400 ppm air free. This means that if the furnace is running properly and there are no other sources of CO in the home, it should not produce more than this amount. You can measure the levels of CO in the air with a simple CO monitor.
What Are the Symptoms of CO Poisoning?
Symptoms of CO poisoning include:
- In extreme cases, prolonged exposure at high concentrations can result in death
How Do Oil Furnaces Produce Carbon Monoxide?
As mentioned, oil furnaces produce carbon monoxide when oil does not burn completely. This can occur due to:
- Improperly installed and maintained furnaces
- The wrong size furnace
- Blocked ventilation systems that prevent proper airflow
- Heating system malfunctions
In addition, the age and condition of your heating system also affect how much this dangerous gas is produced. Older systems are more likely inefficient and give off higher levels of CO.
How to Know if My Furnace Is Leaking Carbon Monoxide?
There are warning signs indicating that your furnace may be leaking carbon monoxide, including:
- Soot or stain around the vent pipe on the outside of your home
- A yellow flame in your furnace (instead of a blue one)
- Excess moisture on walls and windows near the oil furnace
- Pets suddenly fall ill
- An increase in headaches, nausea, dizziness, confusion, and fatigue
- Symptoms disappear when you’re not on the property
As soon as you observe any of these signs, you must get your oil furnace tested for carbon monoxide emissions by a qualified technician.
Can You Get Carbon Monoxide Poisoning if Your Furnace Is Off?
Technically, your unit won’t produce carbon monoxide if it’s off. However, your furnace may pull in some CO from other sources in your home, like your water heater and gas appliances. It circulates throughout your house, especially if you have holes in your air ducts. CO can then be distributed through your furnace ducts even if the leaks come from outside your system. In return, your furnace can distribute CO into certain parts of your home.
So, no matter how you maintain your furnace, you can become poisoned if you have other sources of carbon monoxide in your home. That is why you must also check your appliances regularly to ensure they are functioning correctly and seal any air ducts that may be leaking.
Is My HVAC System at Risk of Carbon Monoxide Leaks?
Unfortunately, your HVAC system is also at risk of CO leaks if it’s not maintained properly. Though modern systems have safety features to shut off the system if CO levels become too high, these will only work correctly if the system is regularly checked and maintained.
Here are helpful tips to help you maintain your HVAC system and avoid CO-related accidents:
- Keep a regular HVAC professional to inspect your system. This is your first step in ensuring that your system stays safe and runs efficiently. HVAC maintenance technicians should check the heat exchanger, burner assembly, combustion chamber, and other components for signs of wear and tear. They closely monitor CO risks and take steps to prevent problems before they start. In addition, they should also check the heat exchanger, which is the component of the system that’s prone to CO leaks. Sometimes, a regular maintenance package doesn’t include this, so ask your technician to check it.
- Be aware of oil furnaces and carbon monoxide. Newer oil furnaces burn cleaner than the older models, but they still produce this deadly gas. However, the soot and other residue buildups can block off the burner, putting your system at risk of producing CO. Also, older homes with oil furnaces may rely on a natural draft to expel exhaust fumes, which can cause CO to build up in the house.
- Be aware of gas furnaces and carbon monoxide. Natural gas furnaces create CO more than oil furnaces. However, they have a lot of safety features that prevent CO buildups, like a sealed system and a pressure switch. If the pressure drops too low or the seal is broken, it will shut off your furnace to avoid hazardous conditions. Even if this is the case, regularly check your system for signs of wear and tear. Call a technician immediately if you notice any changes in the performance or smell like an unusual odor. A drop in furnace efficiency can also signify carbon monoxide in your home.
How Can I Prevent Carbon Monoxide Leak to Avoid Poisoning?
You can prevent carbon monoxide poisoning by taking a few simple steps.
- Have your furnace, boiler, and water heater serviced every year by a qualified technician. While you can physically check your appliances for any visible damage, only a qualified technician can ensure that your furnace is burning fuel efficiently. They have the knowledge, tools, and experience to detect and repair any underlying issues.
- Install carbon monoxide detectors in your home. Choose a detector that is UL-approved and certified for its smell, accuracy, and sensitivity. The IAFC (International Association of Fire Chiefs) recommends a carbon monoxide detector on each of your home’s floors, including the basement. It should be located within 10 feet of each bedroom door, and one should be placed near or over any attached garage. Replace your carbon monoxide alarm every five to six years or as specified by the manufacturer.
- See to it that your air vents are clear and not blocked. Check your vents and the area around them for any blockage or debris. If you find anything that might be blocking airflow, carefully remove it or contact a qualified technician to do this.
- Check your chimney regularly. It should be clean and free of creosote buildup, and the flue should be open. If you have a gas-fired furnace, check all your connections to ensure they are secure and there are no leaks.
- Replace old appliances with newer, energy-efficient models. Newer furnaces and appliances are built with better combustion technologies that produce less CO. On average, you should replace them every ten years as they become less efficient.
- Be aware of how your home may be leaking CO from outside sources. Outside sources, such as vehicles, nearby industries, or power plants, may emit CO that can enter your home. Seal any openings in the walls, windows, and doors to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide leaks in your home. Pay attention to any symptoms you experience if you think you’re being exposed to carbon monoxide, and take appropriate steps if necessary.
If not regularly maintained, oil furnaces can cause carbon monoxide poisoning like other fuel-burning appliances. To keep your home safe, have your oil heating system and other appliances inspected annually by a qualified technician. Also, install CO detectors on each floor to help alert you of any carbon monoxide buildup. Additionally, check around the air vents for any blockage and look out for signs of an issue with your furnace.