When it comes to emergency preparedness, it’s the small things we do that make the biggest difference.
For example, consider that the biggest killer after natural disasters isn’t damage from the disaster itself. Rather, most people die from carbon monoxide poisoning from their generators or gas stoves and heaters.
These deaths could have been easily avoided with a simple carbon monoxide detector.
In this guide, I will focus specifically on carbon monoxide detectors for power outages and other emergencies.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning and Power Outages
Anything that burns carbon-containing fuel can cause carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Even candles can cause CO poisoning.
But, before you worry about CO poisoning from your emergency candles, know that certain types of fuel-burning devices are more likely to cause CO poisoning.
CO poisoning primarily occurs when the fuel isn’t burned completely (aka incomplete combustion): When the flame doesn’t get enough oxygen, it starts to emit carbon monoxide (dangerous) instead of carbon dioxide (safe).
Signs of Incomplete Combustion
- Yellow flame: Flames should be blue and not yellow or orange. A yellow flame signifies that the fuel is not burning completely, and high levels of CO are being emitted.
- Soot: Any soot or staining around the appliance is a sign that there are high amounts of CO being produced.
- Flame or pilot blowing out: More carbon monoxide is produced anytime the flame is interrupted.
Preventing CO Poisoning during Emergencies
- Read the product manual: Always read the instructions for and test your emergency heaters, stoves, generators, etc. BEFORE you need them, ensuring you will know how to properly use them when an emergency strikes.
- Keep products clean: Incomplete combustion sometimes occurs because fuel lines are dirty or blocked. Regularly check, clean, and maintain your products, so they are safe to use when an emergency strikes.
- Use the high setting: Incomplete combustion is more likely on the low setting of stoves (such as when simmering) than when the flame is on high. Don’t keep the flame very low to save fuel.
- Put pots higher above flame: Anything that blocks the flame will also hinder combustion. Simply putting your pot or pan higher above the flame can reduce levels of CO.
- Only use products safe for indoors: See our picks for best indoor emergency stoves and indoor propane heaters.
Fuel Type and CO Poisoning
While CO poisoning can occur from anything that burns carbon-containing fuel, some fuel types are much more dangerous: they don’t burn as completely and are more likely to produce hazardous levels of carbon monoxide.
It is NEVER recommended to burn kerosene or charcoal indoors. Burning wood indoors – especially in a wood stove not meant for indoors — is also particularly dangerous.
By contrast, white gas (Coleman fuel), propane, butane, and alcohol-burning appliances are considered safer to use indoors.
During cold-weather power outages, people seal up their homes to trap heat. The problem with this is that it prevents fresh air from entering the house. As you use your heater or stove, it will burn up the oxygen in the room. The appliance will then start to “reburn” the oxygen-depleted air, producing deadly amounts of carbon monoxide in the process.
If used long enough without proper ventilation, even “safe” indoor heaters and stoves can cause CO poisoning. Candles and lanterns can even cause CO poisoning in small rooms that are sealed up tightly (yes, this has happened).
While it might seem counterintuitive to open windows when trying to heat the space, the heater will produce more hot air than is lost through the window. Plus, it could save your life.
How much ventilation do you need?
Generally, you will only need to crack a window about 1 or 2 inches to get enough fresh air and prevent CO poisoning.
Ideally, you would crack two windows to get some cross ventilation. However, ventilation requirements vary depending on how big the space is, how powerful the appliance is, the type of fuel, the burning conditions, and how long you leave the appliance running.
Check with the manufacturer for proper ventilation requirements.
Where to Put the Carbon Monoxide Detector?
- High on the wall: Carbon monoxide is slightly lighter than air, so a CO detector should be placed approximately 5 feet off the ground on the wall.
- Not on the ceiling: A layer of hot air sometimes forms on the ceiling above the carbon monoxide. This air might prevent CO gas from getting to the ceiling and triggering the detector. For this reason, it isn’t recommended to keep the CO detector on the ceiling. Unfortunately, smoke detectors should be placed on the ceiling. This means there’s no perfect way to position a combo smoke/CO detector.
- One detector on each floor: CO gas can get trapped on one floor of your home, so each floor needs its own detector.
- Near bedrooms: CO poisoning most often occurs in sleep. Keep a CO detector within 15 feet of each bedroom.
- 15 feet away from flame- and heat-producing appliances: To prevent false alarms, keep the CO detector away from appliances that have an open flame or produce heat.
- Away from open windows: The CO detector might only have fresh air reaching it even if CO levels become dangerous in another part of the room.
Best Carbon Monoxide Detectors for Emergency Preparedness
All of these CO detectors are suited for power outages. They all run on batteries and have low-battery alerts. Some are very affordable, so there is no excuse not to have a CO detector with your emergency supplies.
If you regularly use gas appliances or a wood stove, then you might want a plug-in CO detector and alarm with a battery backup. However, plug-in CO detectors tend to use a lot of power and blow through batteries very quickly.
Thus, for emergency preparedness, you might want a dedicated one that only uses batteries.
Top Pick: Google Smoke and CO Detector
While pricier than other options, the Google battery-operated smoke, and CO detector has some great features which make it worth the cost.
I particularly love that it tests its batteries every night. The color LED system lets you see that everything is working correctly, and you will also get a phone alert if the batteries are low.
It also works like a normal alarm without Wifi too.
- Phone alerts let you know of issues even when you aren’t home
- Voice alerts before alarm goes off
- Detects carbon monoxide, smoke and fast-burning fires
- Tests batteries automatically every night
- Color LEDs show that everything is working properly
- 10-year lifespan on CO detector
Runner Up: First Alert Z-Wave Smoke and CO Detector
First Alert is one of the most popular and trusted brands for fire and CO detectors.
Their Z-Wave detects both smoke and CO. It works as a standard alarm and has Wifi capability, so you can connect it to your phone via an app.
The only real downside of this CO/fire detector is that it eats through regular batteries quickly. You’ll want to use Lithium L91 cells with it.
- Uses 2 AA batteries (recommended Lithium L91)
- Low battery alert
- Compatible with Z-wave plus and Ring app
- Receive notifications on phone, including for low-battery levels
Budget Pick: Kiddie Carbon Monoxide Detector
If you only need a CO detector for emergency use, this is a very affordable option. It is made by a well-known brand and functions simply.
There is even an LCD screen showing CO levels and letting you know that everything is working correctly. This alarm plugs directly into the mains and also has a battery backup in case of a power cut.
- Plugs into the wall
- Uses 3 AAA batteries as backup
- LCD shows carbon monoxide levels
- Color LED system; green means everything is working properly
- Low battery alert
X-Sense CD07 Carbon Monoxide Detector
This CO detector’s standout feature is that it uses a sealed lithium battery that is rated to last 10 years. This means you never have to worry about replacement batteries.
On the downside, though, you can’t replace the battery once it dies, and you’ll need to buy a completely new CO detector.
- Includes 10-year lithium battery
- Low battery alert
- LCD shows carbon monoxide levels
Don’t Forget about Spare Batteries
You will need to have spare batteries so you can use your CO detector during a power outage. But be warned that not all batteries are equal. Some will lose a lot of their charge even when not in use, so it could be empty when you put them in the CO detector.
For this reason, we recommend having a stockpile of NIMH-LSD batteries on hand.