You know how they say “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”? In most cases it’s true; the person who keeps objecting to the way things are gets more attention than the one who quietly keeps doing things the same old way, even if that same old way is really dumb.
I’m not talking about people, though. I’m talking about . . . detectors. Admit it – when your smoke detector goes off, the first thing you do is curse it, and the second thing is to call 911 to put out the fire.
No, it’s not. If you’re anything like me, I’ll bet what you do is grab a chair or a broom and poke the thing with a finger to shut it up. (If you are tall, you just walk over and address it, unaided.) That usually suffices to quiet down a detector that has detected not the smoke from a fire in the living room, but a low battery.
If you are a good citizen, you then find a new battery, insert it, and pat yourself on the back for doing your patriotic duty. Because every dwelling should have functioning smoke detectors, except – in my house – at Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the roast beast tends to send out smoke signals as it “browns” in the oven. Blackened chicken, anyone?
We really are pretty good about smoke detectors. We also have a plug-in carbon monoxide detector. It’s been in our house for over ten years, silently checking for poisonous gas in the hallway outside the bedrooms, the best place to have one. Articles about CO poisoning describe it as “odorless and colorless,” giving it an especially sinister air.
About a week ago, we started hearing chirping sounds. Since it’s winter, we knew it wasn’t songbirds. So we followed the noise, the hateful noise of the smoke detector going off. Only this time, it was the carbon monoxide detector. Since it doesn’t take a battery, we figured it might be malfunctioning. My husband, Bob, went to the nearest hardware store to purchase a new one.
By the next day, that one was going off, too. Bob read the directions and learned that the basement is a terrible place to put a CO detector, so we figured that Oh, that’s why it went off. Not to worry. He brought it upstairs to the dining table. By then the old one was plugged back in, this time in the living room so we could keep an eye – or an ear – on it.
It wasn’t long before both of them were peeping. Still convinced it was a machine malfunction and not a CO emergency, since, hey, all three of us – Bob, me, and the cat – were feeling fine, he went out and bought yet another one.
When all three of them went off, I had this idea. “You know,” I said, “these are detectors. Maybe they’re detecting something.” Something like, um, carbon monoxide?
We then spent far too long trying to find the number for non-emergency dispatch in the not-very-useful phonebook. Because, you know, we were fine. It was the detectors that were going nuts, not us. We didn’t want to sound alarmist about our alarms.
Finally, Bob called 911. The nice dispatcher told him she would notify the fire department right away, and that we should not open any windows or doors, so they could get an accurate reading. If she said to go outside, he didn’t hear that part. So we waited, nonchalantly breathing the possibly deadly air.
About five minutes later, there it came, the really big fire engine that could hardly fit down our street. Up the stairs came two firemen. When the first one reached our enclosed front porch, he called back to his buddy, “Nope, I’m not getting any– wait a minute.” He then called out some number that apparently was not a good one when it comes to carbon monoxide.
Forgive me, but it looked like the Ghostbusters were checking out our little house. They went upstairs, they went downstairs. Our cat went into shock, and hid somewhere. Once it had been established that we had twelve times the lethal limit of CO in our house, they kindly suggested that we wait on the porch. So we put on our coats and did that. (Lucky thing we keep a sofa there for lounging in the summer.) Once they disabled the cause, we were invited back in so we could open windows while they propped open the doors.
So what was the culprit? Our water heater, venting inside instead of out. (I cringed as one fireman explained, “The cobwebs were going this way instead of that way.”) They turned it off, checked some more, and declared the house CO-free. One fireman said, “You no longer have a gas problem; now you have a cat problem.” (Leo came down the stairs, cautiously, after they left.)
We went back through the house, closing windows as the furnace kicked into gear. Someone from the gas company came the next day, as well as a city inspector. We had our new water heater, complete with a pricey power vent, just one day after that. Although we hid the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, we were, amazingly, able to take showers for the duration. Short but warm showers.
Oddly, I had no headaches that entire weekend, even though I usually have them All. The. Time. What I’d been complaining about was an off odor. CO may be odorless to the common nose. Mine? I can smell anything, though I can’t always identify it.
So that’s how to make sure you wake up Christmas morning. Buy a carbon monoxide detector. And if it goes off? Believe it.