Your Place | Play it safe: If CO detector starts clamoring, call 911

Posted: May 25, 2007

Question: Last week, our carbon monoxide detector began going crazy, wailing and flashing for no reason at all. We were terrified, thinking that we were going to be overwhelmed by poisonous fumes.

Funny thing, though: The doors and windows were open, the gas stove was off, the furnace was off, and we have an electric water heater. I figured we were probably safe, so I unplugged the detector and pulled out the backup battery, and it stopped making noise. Do you know what could be wrong?

Answer: I would have called 911 just to make sure. I doubt the authorities would think you were making much ado about nothing. After all, the push for carbon monoxide detectors and smoke alarms comes from officialdom, and many municipalities mandate that these devices be hard-wired into new houses or as part of a renovation. Some communities require that smoke detectors be located on every floor and outside bedrooms as a condition of a real estate transaction.

Even though your detector is a plug-in, it's possible an old or dead battery might have set it off, especially if there was a momentary, yet unnoticeable, loss of power to the outlet. As with smoke detectors, CO detector batteries should be tested regularly. Some detector/alarm models have test buttons to check whether the circuitry and the CO sensors are working; on other models, the test button checks only whether the circuitry is working. For those units that test circuitry only, some manufacturers sell separate kits to help the consumer check the CO sensor.

By the way, opening the doors to get fresh air circulating was the right idea, but if this ever happens again and a quick test doesn't explain it, call 911. Your life is worth it.

Q: We recently purchased a 65-year-old house with radiator heat. They are the old-fashioned, tall metal radiators. We have no idea how to care for and maintain them.

A: First, I highly recommend a look at The site operator, Dan Holahan, has posted a 1935 circular from the National Bureau of Standards talking about how and how not to paint radiators. It's informative if you can get past the ancient bureaucratese.

I've owned two houses with radiators, and I've built covers for many of them. The idea behind the covers, other than hiding ugly, is that you keep the heat rising from the radiators focused toward where the occupants of the house would benefit from it. Sometimes it works. Some experts suggest metal covers; others, decorative wood. I've had both; it didn't seem to matter.

Regarding maintenance, the advice I've followed is to wire-brush the old paint off the radiators and repaint them with high-heat enamel paint. Trouble is, volatile organic compounds in the paint remain for a long time during heating season, and the odor can be so overwhelming at the outset that you have to keep windows open.

Don't use latex paint. The heat will affect it quickly, and it will flake off. And since radiator heat tends to be relatively dry, someone will inevitably drape a wet bath towel over the radiator and rust stains will appear on the painted surface.

Want Alan J. Heavens' advice on a home-improvement project or purchase? E-mail him at, or write to him at The Inquirer, Box 8263, Philadelphia 19101.

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