Did you know that even though a staggering amount of Victorian properties are fitted with gas heating, many people aren’t aware of the risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning?

Being informed of the risks and the preventative measures you can take – and acting on those measures – is critical for keeping yourself and those around you safe.

As we write this, Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week approaches (29 April – 5 May 2019). Supported by Energy Safe Victoria, CO Awareness Week was launched by the Chase and Tyler Foundation because Vanessa Robinson, their mother, is doing everything she can to ensure other families don’t suffer the same fate as hers.

As a Victorian business and qualified gasfitters, Toscano Plumbing wants to do everything we can to support CO Awareness Week and help our fellow Victorians understand how to stay safe.

This article will help you understand why carbon monoxide testing is compulsory, what else you should do to reduce the risk of CO poisoning and who you should engage for carbon monoxide testing at your property.

What is Carbon Monoxide and how do leaks occur?

Carbon Monoxide is a colourless, odourless gas that is toxic to humans and animals. It is known as a silent killer because you can’t see it, hear it, taste it or even smell it – that’s what makes it such a threat in our homes and workspaces.

CO can come from any fuel-burning appliance when the fuel does not burn away completely. Leaks occur when those appliances are faulty, poorly maintained or old.

But improper ventilation and misuse is also a problem. If there is nowhere for the gas to escape, or if extraction fans are drawing the air out of a space more quickly than it can be replenished, air (and the CO) enter the room, instead of venting to the outside. Similarly, if there are cracks or holes in the mortar or brickwork of a brick chimney, the chimney may not be able to effectively vent combustion products, creating back pressure and drawing CO inside.

Lack of awareness around carbon monoxide poisoning also shows up when people move outdoor heating appliances indoors or to enclosed areas. These products were not designed to be used in this manner, so without adequate ventilation, or a flue to disperse CO outside, the gas builds up to potentially deadly levels.

What is Carbon Monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs by inhaling leaked CO. The severity of the effects suffered depends on the concentration of the gas, the length of exposure and the person who has inhaled it. Those at increased risk are the elderly, children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, and those suffering from heart disease, anemia or respiratory illnesses.

CO prevents the transport of oxygen and oxygen use in the body. Because the symptoms are nonspecific, if you don’t know what to look for, it’s easy to miss the cause until it’s too late.

Symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Malaise
  • Reduction in cognitive and functional capacity
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Ongoing chronic illness
  • Death

A May 2012 Report to the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism by the Allen Consulting Group stated: “the QRA estimated that one death and 21.3 injuries are caused by CO poisoning by gas appliances each year in Australia.”

But often, it’s not just one individual at a time that suffers fatal poisoning, but family groups. This is because they were home together when the leak occurred, or a relative has gone to assist, and find themselves also overcome by CO. In fact, Professor Anthony Brown from the School of Rural Health at the University of Sydney said, “in over 60 per cent of cases, not only did the victim die, but the first rescuer as well.” “Between four to six minutes turns a rescue into a recovery,” he said.

You can take action today to ensure your property is safe

There are many ways to keep your family, friends, employees and tenants safe from CO poisoning:

1. Carbon monoxide testing

Ensure all types of gas heaters are serviced at least every two years by a registered gasfitter and tested for CO spillage. While every two years is the mandatory testing requirement, you can and often should have appliances tested more often.

If you notice any of these signs, stop using the appliance immediately and contact Toscano Plumbing for advice and to arrange for carbon monoxide testing:

  • Your appliance is showing yellow flames instead of a sharp blue (although yellow flames are sometimes deliberate for decorative effect in some gas log fires/fireplaces)
  • There is no apparent reason for your heater/fireplace to go out, yet it does
  • There is discolouration or soot around the gas heater/fireplace or peeling paint above the appliance
  • The cowl on top of the flue pipe is damaged
  • Debris has fallen down the chimney/flue pipe

2. Sweep and inspect chimneys and flues annually or more often

3. Never DIY the installation of ventilation.

Always contract the work to a licenced builder, gasfitter or electrician.

4. Ensure there is appropriate ventilation when using appliances

5. Have high-quality audible carbon monoxide alarms fitted to your residence by a qualified gasfitter.

Preferably outside the entry points to sleeping and living areas. These serve as an added point of protection to your regular servicing and upkeep.

As there is currently no Australian Standard for carbon monoxide alarms, it is recommended you choose ones certified to European or US standards (EN50291 or UL2034).

Note: alarms are not a replacement for carbon monoxide testing.

6. Never leave a car idling in an enclosed space

7. Never use external gas heaters indoors or in enclosed areas

8. Never tamper with vents on gas heaters

9. Learn how to recognise CO poisoning

How is carbon monoxide testing done?

Gasfitters follow guidelines set out by Energy Safe Victoria in their use of carbon monoxide detection equipment. Gasfitters test for CO in two main ways:

1. Testing for a negative pressure environment

Your gasfitter will test the environment created when exhaust fans are turned on throughout the property. They do this by creating a small source of smoke with a smoke pen and watching where the smoke travels. If the smoke moves towards the heater’s exhaust, this is a sign it is functioning correctly. However, if it moves towards extraction fans, there is negative pressure.

Your gasfitter will advise you of a recommended course of action to rectify a negative pressure environment.

2. Servicing and testing individual appliances for CO spillage

Your gasfitter will dismantle and clean the appliance as part of the service. They will also perform a flue integrity check and ventilation size and clearance check. They will note any damage to the appliance and whether remedial work is required, as well as checking connections between the furnace, venting systems and flue pipes.

After the service, your gasfitter will use a CO analyser to test for spillage. They will test both the appliance and the surrounding area to ensure no detection of CO in the air.

If spillage is detected and is unable to be immediately rectified, your gasfitter is legally required to disable the appliance for being unsafe. They will recommend the appropriate course of action to repair or replace the appliance.

Who can do carbon monoxide testing?

Carbon monoxide testing should only be performed by a licenced and registered gasfitter who has completed the Master Plumbers CO training course. Look for “Gas Servicing – Type A” on their plumbing licence. In Victoria, you will find this on a Victorian Building Authority Plumbing Licence.

All Toscano Plumbing plumbers & gasfitters are licenced and registered to perform carbon monoxide testing, so you can rest assured that your safety is in the right hands.

Don’t be complacent – take action today.

For advice or to book your CO test, contact our team of gasfitters on 1300 867 226.