Ghosts–it is that time of year!

Ghosts!

When she called me to book the inspection she told me that she had heard that the house was haunted.  She said she didn’t believe in ghosts and wanted to go ahead with the inspection anyway. 

I recognized the address, and had heard stories about the house being haunted myself.  I also had no reason to think that she didn’t believe in ghosts–I don’t belief in ghosts either. 

The house spent a lot of time being vacant and had more owners than a dollar bill.  Rumors travel fast about such homes and no amount of frosting on the listing was going to cover up its history.  It was still an awesome deal for the location–so awesome that most anyone would wonder why it sat vacant–if they had no clue of its history.

It was an enormous old house with thick heavy lead-based paint peeling off in sheets like shaved-chocolate from the cedar clapboard siding.  The trim was mostly bare wood–except the ornate decorative gables that were too intricate to peel and somewhat protected by the roof overhang. 

The rose bushes, that strangled the South side of the house, were mulched with the chocolate paint chips that had fallen there.

The story book old home had charm for sure.  It was located in a little hollow at the end of Cul-de-sac Street.  It had massive curb appeal–or at least it could have had a lot of curb appeal if an owner could have stayed there long enough to properly maintain it.  It was not hard for optimistic new buyers to see its promise–its great bones were obvious even if it did have a few skeletons in its many closets. 

It seems there is never any shortage of young home buyers with too much energy and lack of knowledge to prevent them from undertaking such projects.

Its many outdated systems would need upgrading–including the hammering and hissing old steam boiler with its many radiators. The monstrous old coal burning, asbestos-white boiler in the basement, that had been converted to oil in 1946 (right after the war) and then converted to gas in 1974 (right after the war), groaned and creaked through the long winters but still kept occupants and ghosts alike warm and cozy.

But the visions of returning the home to its former glory would sooner or later succumb to the stories of how previous owners had seen ghosts and heard strange noises in the house. 

All owners, sooner or later, would report seeing and hearing the ghosts and would pack up and leave, which only served to perpetuate the ghost story.

But alas–some ghosts–not all ghosts–are not what they seem, especially at Halloween.

 

Everyone knows the dangers of carbon monoxide which can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.  We are most familiar with “acute” carbon monoxide poisoning, where you get a massive dose in a short amount of time resulting in death or serious injury  (the car running in the closed garage scenario).

What is less understood are the effects of levels of carbon monoxide typically considered to be below the threshold for typical symptoms.  In other words we are only beginning to understand the cumulative effect of low levels of carbon monoxide that can lead to symptoms that might initially be misdiagnosed as some other condition.  Symptoms such as headache, dizziness, chest pain, nausea and vomiting can often be symptoms for other things besides carbon monoxide poisoning.

Even OSHA allows workers to be exposed to “average” carbon monoxide levels of 50ppm over an 8 hour period.

Since carbon monoxide accumulates in the body, it stands to reason that even levels below 30ppm or 20ppm might accumulate and have an effect on our health over time.  Supposedly removing oneself from the source of exposure allows one to return to normal, however there is some evidence that suggests that repeated exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide may do some damage.  Repeated exposure, places a heavy burden on the cells throughout our bodies–including our brains–affecting how well cells function.  It can lead to depression, confusion and memory loss.

Ghosts can even be a symptom.  According to Wikipedia, “Symptoms such as delirium and hallucinations have led people suffering (carbon monoxide) poisoning to think they have seen ghosts or to believe their house is haunted.”  It kind of makes you wonder how many of our ancestors were affected by carbon monoxide sleeping by the smoldering embers in the fireplace.

co-cigarettesLevels as low as 35 ppm can lead to headache and dizziness within six to eight hours of constant exposure to carbon monoxide. It is not unusual to have start-up levels of carbon monoxide on your home’s gas range or gas oven WAY above these levels.  Levels typically should drop to under 100ppm once the flame becomes established–if everything is working properly.  The question remains as to whether over time these low levels can affect our health–they certainly will not set off your carbon monoxide detectors.  Public health authorities say that the incidental nature of these exposures, and the fact that they are not sustained, makes exposure at these levels “safe.”

This may or may not be true.

These conclusions however are why it is not “required” to have a range hood over your gas cooking stove.  I have found in testing gas ranges that normal burning of the cook top will have levels of carbon monoxide well above safe levels–even if it is for a short period of time.  In homes with no exhaust fan, or with exhaust fans that do not get used, this represents quite a lot of exposure to carbon monoxide in the length of time it takes to cook the Thanksgiving turkey–another reason to pass out on the couch after dinner.

The now required carbon monoxide detectors in your home will do absolutely nothing to let you know about this condition.  In fact they are not allowed to alarm at low levels.

I have only a partial clue as to what the truth of repeated incidental exposure to carbon monoxide is, but it would seem prudent to ALWAYS use the exhaust fan whenever operating the gas cooktop, oven and/or broiler.  It would also seem prudent to install a range hood–and use it–if you don’t have one–regardless of codes.

PS

The “266ppm” in the picture above is the amount of carbon monoxide in the smoke from a Marlboro cigarette.  It would also seem prudent to not smoke.  It appears that cancer might not be the only problem with cigarettes.  I always knew there was something a little off with the Marlboro Man.

 

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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So you think you know everything there is to know about CO detectors?

In recent years the push to install CO detectors in homes has resulted in them being required in many jurisdictions and certainly any jurisdiction that has adopted the 2009 or later IRC Building Codes will require them in New Construction.  Washington State currently requires them on each floor level and in the vicinity of each sleeping area when a home is sold.  In most homes this means there will typically be two of the devices but with large sprawling homes with basements and/or multiple stories there could be several more.

Carbon Monoxide Detector

Carbon Monoxide Detector

CO detectors for residential construction must meet the requirements of UL 2034. 

What is not commonly understood about these detectors and UL 2034 is that they 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.”

(please reread the previous quote and the information below VERY carefully as it is counter-intuitive)

Following these standards, the alarms are: 1, not “allowed” to alarm when CO is lower than 50 parts per million; 2, they are required to alarm within 50 minutes at levels up to 150 PPM; and, 3, they are required to alarm within 15 minutes at Carbon Monoxide levels up to 400 PPM.

What the standards do not address is the fact that some individuals are greatly affected by being exposed to lower levels of CO over a longer period of time.

The Kidde user’s guide states: “While anyone is susceptible, experts agree that unborn babies, small children, senior citizens and people with heart or respiratory problems are especially vulnerable to CO and are at the greatest risk for death or serious injury.

INDIVIDUALS WITH MEDICAL PROBLEMS MAY CONSIDER USING WARNING DEVICES THAT PROVIDE AUDIBLE AND VISUAL SIGNALS FOR CARBON MONOXIDE CONCENTRATIONS UNDER 30 PPM.” 

They go on to state:CO alarms provide early warning of the presence of carbon monoxide, usually before a healthy adult would experience symptoms.

So does this mean that those most in need of protection are not in fact protected?

Other alarm makers have similar recommendations.

This next caution from Kidde is very important, as I can attest to, from an incident at a recent inspection:  “CAUTION: THIS ALARM WILL ONLY INDICATE THE PRESENCE OF CO GAS AT THE SENSOR. CO MAY BE PRESENT IN OTHER AREAS.”

When I turned on the oven at the inspection and it had been operating for just a couple of minutes, I started to experience some of the symptoms of CO poisoning.  (Once you have experienced these symptoms you can almost become your own CO detector—but unfortunately human beings sleep, and then there is the problem that you might not notice very low levels of CO and thus be no more effective than UL 2034.)  My “real” CO detector found over 600 PPM and yet the CO detector plugged in at the countertop on the other side of the kitchen did not go off and would not (under UL 2034) be required to go off until the unit experienced 400 ppm for as much as 15 minutes.  Depending on air currents in the home, the unit might never see appropriate levels—even after the person using the stove succumbed to the gas.

The biggest concern that I have with all of this information is: “Who reads the instructions?”  Are we creating an awareness of CO detectors where people are assuming they are protected when they in fact are not?  While I still think installation of these alarms is probably a good idea, and that perhaps more appropriate residential CO detectors may be forthcoming, I think it is at least as important to better educate people to recognize the symptoms associated with Co poisoning as well as to be aware of what these detectors do and don’t do.

Again from Kidde: “Be aware of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning: – headaches, dizziness, weakness, sleepiness, nausea, vomiting, confusion and disorientation.

Recognize that CO poisoning may be the cause when family members suffer from flu-like symptoms that don’t disappear but improve when they leave home for extended periods of time.”

Carbon Monoxide in homes is a serious issue, and legislation/codes do not adequately address all the concerns associated with it.  It is in all likelihood dangerous to assume that they do—if we and our families are to be safe in our homes.  This is especially true as homes become tighter in relation to becoming more energy efficient.
By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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