As the winter approaches, many of us turn to the heating appliances in our homes to provide us with warmth. But relatively few people dedicate time to consider whether doing so is safe. Nationwide Chimney Components look at the dangers of carbon monoxide and what you can do to prevent the build-up.
Today the popularity of wood-burning stoves is on the rise. People want heating equipment in their homes that not only provide warmth but also look great too. But just like regular chimney flues, wood-burning stoves can become dangerous when they don't extract carbon monoxide from your home correctly.
The problem is more widespread than you might think. The Department of Health and Social Care estimates that more than 4,000 people visit the doctor every year because of carbon monoxide poisoning, and a further 50 die from accidental inhalation. Therefore, you must take steps now to avoid dangerous levels of carbon monoxide injuries in the future.
Why CO Is So Dangerous
Carbon monoxide (CO) is very different from carbon dioxide, which gives off when we exhale. The molecule has a strong affinity for the haemoglobin in our blood - the protein that binds to oxygen and transports it to all our cells. When CO enters our system, it binds to our red blood cells, preventing them from picking up the oxygen we need to survive. If enough CO gets into the blood, our body can no longer supply sufficient energy to cells, and we die.
Fortunately, most people don't experience extreme CO poisoning in their homes. Their heating systems don't emit enough gas. However, errant emissions can still make people feel pretty sick. Symptoms of "mild" CO poisoning include generalized depression, symptoms similar to the common cold and flu, and persistent, unexplained exhaustion.
Strangely, CO poisoning is on the rise. The Department of Health and Social Care believes that the reason could be changes in the design of homes. Energy-saving standards mean that modern properties are almost airtight. Thus, carbon monoxide from heating systems cannot dissipate into the environment quickly and tends to build up.
At the same time, the lack of draftiness means that less fresh oxygen gets into the home. As a result, heating systems don't burn as cleanly, so harmful byproducts, like CO, build up more.
The trend towards installing modern chimney flues in old chimneys is also a problem. Modern heating devices, like wood-burners, only work at optimal efficiency if connected to the outside world via a vent with the right proportions. But older chimneys may not suffice, again leading to the build-up of toxic gases in the home.
So how do you avoid it if you have a wood-burning stove or chimney flue in your home?
Clean Out Your Wood-Burning Stove Or Flue
Both wood-burning stoves and other forms of non-electric home heating solutions are sources of carbon monoxide and require a flue or chimney to transport byproducts out of the home and into the atmosphere. Homeowners get into trouble when they allow these byproducts to leak back into the house. As wood burns, for instance, it gives off soot and other gases, including CO. Most of these particles escape, but some of them wind up coating the inside of the flue. Therefore, flues and chimneys leading from wood-burning stoves should not have any cracks or problems with the seals.
Many heating solutions also rely on keeping an open airway between the fire and the outdoors. An unobstructed chimney allows air to circulate freely and lets the heating appliance or wood-burner draw in new oxygen to fuel combustion.
If soot builds up too much inside the flue or chimney, this can prevent airflow and cause gases to back up. Therefore, it is a good idea to schedule regular chimney or flue sweeping services, according to the needs of your appliances.
Get Your Flues Inspected Annually
Both wood-burning stoves and other combustion-based heating appliances rely on the correct shape and size of flues to emit harmful gases successfully. However, things like cold weather and animal invasions can damage these outlets or block them entirely, causing many of the problems discussed above.
Those who rely on wood-burners to provide their homes with heat, therefore, should arrange an annual flue inspection to check that it meets specifications. You should also ensure that the flue you already have installed can meet the demands placed on it. An existing chimney may not suffice for a new heating system.
If you notice that your wood stove isn't burning fuel as well as it once did, then it could be a sign that you have soot deposits in the flue blocking the flow of circulating air. Again, you'll want to call out professionals who can sweep the flue/chimney and offer you advice on whether your existing setup is good enough for your needs.
Just remember, this job is messy. Ideally, you need professionals to do it for you. They remove the dirt and prevent potentially hazardous contaminants from entering your home.
Install A Carbon Monoxide Alarm
Regularly sweeping your chimneys and ensuring that your flues are the correct specification can help avoid CO problems. But you may still have an issue, even if everything is clean and installed according to building regulations specifications.
And here's where a wood stove carbon monoxide detector can help. These devices produce an audible warning if high levels of CO rise significantly over background concentrations, immediately informing you that your wood-burner is emitting poisonous gas.
Remember, CO is an odourless and colourless gas. You cannot detect it with your senses. The only way to find out whether you have it is to install a certified carbon monoxide detector.
Burn The Correct Fuel
Unlike regular gas heaters, wood-burning stoves use a non-standard form of fuel, namely blocks of wood. While it might look stylish, it is a problematic fuel because it can vary from season to season (mainly if you collect it yourself). Ideally, therefore, you should use dried wood, labelled as suitable for indoor wood-burners. Avoid using haphazard fuel from garden clippings, as this likely falls outside of your wood-burners specifications.
So, in summary, your most potent weapon against CO problems is to operate your multi-fuel stove according to specification. Make sure you get regular maintenance on your flues and chimneys. Nationwide Chimney Components will be able to tell you whether your current setup is appropriate or not.