Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Two days ago, my parents’ lives were saved by a $20 carbon monoxide detector.

We now know that sometime during the course of the summer, the two water heaters in the basement of the house failed, burning natural gas incompletely and venting a huge amount of Carbon Monoxide and soot into the house and flue. They never noticed because the water stayed hot, and because all throughout the summer, they keep most of their windows open, living in a rural area with great views and fresh air, venting the lethal gas before it collected in sufficient amounts to be detected.

Tuesday night, it was cold and rainy. And as such, for the first time since May or June, they closed up all the windows and they turned on the central fan to keep air circulating. This allowed the gas to start building up, and turning on the central fan, due to improper plumbing, began to pull more of the gas from the shared flue and circulate it through the entire house. The closed windows just allowed the gas to build up and displace oxygen throughout the whole building, starting in the basement and moving upstairs.

By the evening, enough of the heavier-than-air gas had build up to set off the downstairs detectors, which my parents couldn’t hear from their living room and bedroom upstairs. By around 11 PM, the bedroom detectors started going off, the whole downstairs having already filled up. Enough gas had built up that the pilot light on their fireplace was six inches high, rising up above the CO to the oxygen above, and every houseplant there had wilted and dropped flowers.

When the detectors upstairs went off, they called the fire department, who walked in with a meter, measured the extent of the buildup, and immediately ran back to the truck for respirators. They ordered my parents to evacuate the house, offering to go back in (wearing oxygen tanks) to get anything they would need while evacuated. The fire department then spent several hours trying to vent the gas and isolate the source, and eventually, around 2am, once the levels were back to normal and the source was found and disabled, let them back in.

Carbon Monoxide is an odorless, heavier-than-air gas, and when it overcomes you, you don’t choke, or gasp, or wake up screaming. You just die. There were no signs, no obvious clues overlooked. The heating and plumbing had been inspected just a year before. This is just a freak occurrence that, without a $20 detector plugged into their bedroom wall, likely would’ve killed my parents as they slept.

So, please, take 5 minutes to test your CO detectors, and if you don’t have one on every floor and in every bedroom, go buy more. At $20, that bedroom detector is the best investment they ever made. I’m sure you and your families are worth it.


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