I always find it fascinating how Go Inside Magazine articles can hunt you down and beg to be written any time everywhere – even while you’re away on assignment! My most recent “drop everything and write this” article was sparked by an experience with First Alert. First Alert made their bones in the smoke detector field and now they’ve expanded their product line to include Carbon Monoxide (CO) Alarms.

Safer Than Sorrier
CO alarms are alleged to be the latest and greatest thing in home safety. CO is dangerous because it is a silent killer. CO can be present in your home and you can die from inhaling it but, unlike natural gas (which is given a distinct smell by your local gas company for nose detection) CO is odorless. You need to have a CO alarm in order to sniff the air for you and alert you to imminent danger.

The Clamshell
My associates and I purchased two First Alert CO Alarms (model FCD2DDCL4) with a digital display that shows the amount of CO in the air in parts per million (ppm) for use in two homes. At over $40.00 each, these units weren’t an impulse buy. I was told by First Alert that this particular CO detector is First Alert’s top of the line unit. On the back of the box, First Alert claims that CO is the “#1 cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the United States. Odorless, tasteless, and colorless, carbon monoxide is a by-product of combustion.”

The First Alert box then goes on to list these potential sources for CO:

Gas or old-burning furnaces
Gas fueled hot water heaters
Gas ranges or cooktops
Gas dryers
Fireplaces
Automobiles in attached garages
Wood or coal-burning stoves
Blocked chimney or flue
The only gas fueled things we have in both homes are furnaces and the water heaters. Everything else is electric. Both garages are separate from the homes.

Installation
Opening the hard plastic clamshell package proved to be quite a task! The unit was encased in the sort of thick, impenetrable, impossible-to-open easily, sharp plastic that can slice your skin if you’re not careful. We had to use heavy scissors to cut off the top of the clamshell and then tear down the side of the heat-sealed plastic in order to withdraw the alarm.

The unit itself makes an impressive first impression for it is heavy and AC only powered. The red, LED, digital display is large. The green, amber and red alert lights are bright. After we un-clamshelled the two units, we let them sit out in the air for two days before we plugged them in because we wanted to read the documentation first to make certain no errors were made in setting up the units for proper CO sniffing.

Before you can start using the unit, you must first pull out a yellow “Factory Freshness Seal” stuck in the front grille of the unit. This yellow strip of plastic allegedly guarantees the unit is virginal until you bring it into the environment of your home. The First Alert “Factory Freshness Seal” is not unlike the tab you need to pull off a hearing aide battery or a lithium backup battery found in handheld PCs you must remove before use.

The “Factory Freshness Seal” has a check mark at the end of the tab hidden inside the detector to ensure you know you’ve pulled all of it out of the device. Both associates pulled the tabs out just fine and each check mark was withdrawn intact.

The First Home
After the installation and testing routine, we began to watch as the unit in one home blinked to life in the kitchen and immediately began giving high digital readouts alerting us to large and potentially dangerous levels of CO in our home!

Full Alarm
Here are the initial readings the First Alert CO Alarm provided us:

9:00 pm – 180 ppm
9:15 pm – 141 ppm
9:25 pm – 128 ppm
9:30 pm – 115 ppm

We were shocked and panicked! The red alarm light was flashing and an 85 dB alarm blared right after the first First Alert “sniff” of the air for the presence of Carbon Monoxide! The First Alert User’s Manual states on page four that any ppm reading above 50 is abnormal, potentially damaging to your health.

If you are in Full Alarm (we were, according to our First Alert device, over three times the base “safe limit” of 50 ppm). Page 12 of the First Alert User’s Manual urges you to call 911 or the Fire Department immediately if you have a headache or an upset stomach and we did! Was the cause of our pain CO poisoning or was it due to the continuous 85 dB alarms we kept having to reset and silence?

We called the Fire Department and explained our situation. Help was on its way! As we waited for the firemen to arrive, our First Alert CO Detector continued its perilous procession of viciously loud alarms and flashing red lights in Full Alarm:

9:32 pm – 128 ppm
9:34 pm – 115 ppm
9:40 pm – 102 ppm

Help Arrives
As the four uniformed firemen arrived in their fire truck, they monitored the air inside and outside of the home for high levels of CO with a highly sensitive, portable, electronic sniffer of their own. The firemen found ZERO Carbon Monoxide in the air! They went downstairs and stood beside the gas furnace and gas water heater and found no CO. Their unit was working fine and getting readings: According to their device we had 24% oxygen in our air and not a trace of deadly carbon monoxide anywhere.

Embarrassment
After we got over our relief that we weren’t living in a poisoned home, we quickly grew red with embarrassment that we had called the Fire Department to come to our rescue when there was no emergency. Our false Carbon Monoxide issue was even listed in the Sunday paper for fire calls!

The Fire Chief unplugged the First Alert unit and tumbled it in his hands. He said the unit was obviously malfunctioning because it was giving off wildly changing readings over a too short period of time. I told the Fire Chief the First Alert User’s Manual states on page 6 under the bolded “Malfunction Warning” section that the unit self-diagnoses every 90 seconds and if there is a problem, the device will flash the red light, the alarm will “chirp” and the digital display will say “Err” instead of posting a number or a series of scrolling dashes. We never got any sort of error message, so how could the unit not be sniffing CO somewhere?

The Fire Chief told me the unit wasn’t working properly since there was no CO in the air. It appears First Alert gave us a False Alarm! I wondered aloud about the irony of First Alert crying wolf when their entire reason for being is to reliably alert you to danger you cannot detect alone! What could be worse than purchasing a CO detector that doesn’t read the air accurately? I suppose the answer to my own question is purchasing a CO detector that mis-reads the air and falsely sounds an 85 dB alarm!

I asked the Fire Chief if having CO detectors are a good idea and he said they are a good idea to have if they operate reliably and accurately. I then asked him how many false alarms they get from CO detectors and another one of the firemen responded by saying it happens “ a lot.”

The firemen left and my associates and I decided to do some further testing of our own.

The Second Home
We decided to place the second First Alert CO detector in a second home in a different part of town to see if it, too, would offer up immediate warnings as the first unit did in the first home. Sure enough, within minutes of being set up and tested, the unit blared a Full Alarm horn, flashed the red alarm light and said there was 150 ppm of CO in the air! We unplugged the unit in disgust and decided to take both units back to the place of purchase to exchange them for two new units that, we prayed, wouldn’t cry wolf.

Calling First Alert
Before we returned the units, several calls were placed to First Alert (1-800-323-9005) via their 24 hour hotline (which, ironically, turns out not to be manned by humans except for a limited weekday schedule). We left several messages on the First Alert voice mail system realizing that, on a Friday, we wouldn’t be able to raise a real voice until the following Monday. So much for the First Alert 24 hour hotline!

On Tuesday we called First Alert again. There was a message they were at lunch and unable to come to the phone for 30 minutes. We called back half an hour later and, after refusing to play phone tag with the First Alert voice mail system by pretending we had a rotary phone, Mary took our call.

Mary Says
When we described our readings and the comments from the Fire Chief who came to the first home, Mary didn’t respond with alarm or ask us to immediately send in our units for testing in their Aurora, Illinois headquarters. Mary instead began to run a laundry list of reasons why our First Alert CO Alarm cried wolf:

Open chemicals.
Open cleaning materials.
A BBQ grill.
An attached garage with a car.
Pets.
High humidity.
Low cloud cover trapping CO in the atmosphere.
Construction equipment.
Remodeling.
Glue.
Contaminants in the house.
What a list!

It ‘s curious that laundry list of CO causes wasn’t listed on the First Alert CO Alarm box or User’s Manual.

When we told Mary we didn’t have any of those causes in our home, she told us that the CO detector we bought from First Alert was “Top off the line. A premium product with 99% efficiency.”

We asked Mary why the fire department didn’t get any CO readings when they investigated while her First Alert unit did get readings?

Mary asked if we were located in an “industrial city with air pollution” and we politely told her we did not live in such a place and that two different detectors went wild with high CO alarms in two different homes in different parts of town.

Mary, in the end, had no idea why her First Alert detectors provided false alarms and expressed no interest in discovering the cause beyond her supplemental list of possible culprits.

One would think that Mary would be alarmed and curious at our CO readings with her First Alert alarm and would urge us to send them to her for testing at her expense while she cross-shipped us replacement units.

I wonder if First Alert makes laundry lists of causes for false alarms with their Smoke Detectors? One would reason you either have smoke or you don’t. You’d think they’d support the same philosophy with their CO Detectors: You’re either in danger of CO poisoning or you’re not!

Second Try
After hanging up with Mary, our curiosity was up and we decided to give the original First Alert CO detector a second test try before returning both units. We moved the unit from the upstairs kitchen to the basement Rec Room and, after a reset, here are the results:

1:30 pm – 128 ppm
1:45 pm – 115 ppm
2:00 pm – 128 ppm

Wowser!

We were still way above the 50 ppm safe level and the reading on this unit had jumped to 128 ppm while it stopped at 102 ppm during the first day of testing.

The Full Alarm sounded and the alert lights blinked!

Being burned by First Alert before, we did not call the fire department.

Third Try
We unplugged the unit and took it back upstairs and placed it in the living room for another reset and test:

2:25 pm – 89 ppm
2:35 pm – 76 ppm
2:45 pm – 89 ppm
2:55 pm – 76 ppm
3:00 pm – 63 ppm
3:15 pm – 50 ppm
3:45 pm – 50 ppm

The Full Alarm sounded at 2:55 pm. We kept resetting the unit every four minutes to silence the alarm horn. Why were the CO readings going down? We changed nothing in our environment to warrant the lowering CO readings!

At 4:00 pm we unplugged the unit and took both units we purchased back to the store to exchange them for two new ones. We had to know if this is how these First Alert CO Alarms work or if the two we happened to purchase originally were duds.

Two New
Swapping out the two First Alert units for two new ones brought about the same alarming results after proper setup and reset. This time we placed both units in the same home in which we did our last vigorous test. One was setup in the kitchen, the other in the downstairs Rec Room and the single list below identically expresses the experience of both units. Both associates were positioned in the room with the detectors in order to mark the time and CO ppm reading for this article.

Here are the results of that test and please know that once the Full Alarm sounds at levels above 50 ppm you must reset the unit which only quiets it for four minutes.

7:32 pm – Units plugged in
7:45 pm – 232 ppm
7:48 pm – 219 ppm
7:55 pm – 206 ppm
7:57 pm – 193 ppm
8:00 pm – 193 ppm
8:03 pm – 193 ppm
8:05 pm – 180 ppm
8:09 pm – 167 ppm
8:14 pm – 167 ppm
8:19 pm – 141 ppm
8:26 pm – 128 ppm
8:27 pm – 115 ppm
8:30 pm – 102 ppm
8:32 pm – 89 ppm
8:35 pm – 76 ppm
8:45 pm – 63 ppm
8:50 pm – 50 ppm
9:05 pm – (Scrolling Dashes with Red Alarm Lights)
9:40 pm – (Scrolling Dashes with Green Normal Lights)

I can’t imagine doing this test alone because every four minutes you’d have to either run downstairs or upstairs to press the reset button to silence the 85 dB alarm horn!

The two swapped units have now been operating for over three days with Scrolling Dashes and Green Normal lights. What caused this strange initial false readings that led us to call the fire department after the initial false alarms on the original units and these two replacement detectors? Why did we have to babysit two First Alert CO Alarms every four minutes to silence the 85dB alarm?

As we wondered on this, First Alert called.

Unidentified & Craggy
A rather Craggy-Voiced Woman from First Alert said she was returning our the voice mail message we left with on their system five days ago. My associates and I listened to her via speakerphone.

We asked her to detail the steps for setting up the units for use and she stepped us through the setup. We told her our trouble and that we had followed those setup instructions and still had false readings. We shared with the Unidentified Craggy-Voiced Woman the written record of our history with her First Alert CO Detectors you’ve been reading here.

The Unidentified Craggy-Voiced Woman said the monitors were “simply burning off a previous CO contamination.”

Say Huh? We couldn’t believe our ears! “Were these units pre-owned,” we inquired?

“No,” the Unidentified Craggy-Voiced Woman intoned, “They were probably contaminated in transit.”

“In transit?” I said rather loudly, “Explain that to me.”

The Unidentified Craggy-Voiced Woman said the units were probably “contaminated with CO from the roadway exhaust from the shipping trucks as they were transmitted to stores.”

I couldn’t help myself, I laughed out loud at her and asked her how FOUR First Alert CO Alarms could all be “contaminated” in that manner? Are First Alert Smoke Alarms “contaminated” if there are Summer BBQs along the streets the delivery trucks use to route their products into stores?

The Unidentified Craggy-Voiced Woman then said that “the contamination could’ve happened in their Mexican production plant and the CO was trapped in the clamshell packaging.”

“That’s even more ridiculous,” I said, “Because we aired out the first two units for two days before we plugged them into the AC outlet. Any CO contamination in the packaging would’ve been long gone or else the fire department would’ve read the CO in the air.”

The Unidentified Craggy-Voiced Woman replied, “Well, these First Alert CO Alarms are the top-of-the-line and they were simply burning off a previous contamination and that is shown in the initial, progressive, lowering of readings and the normal readings now.”

“But,” I said, “We had to reset these units every four minutes to silence the Full Alarms! If these units were previously contaminated then, according to you, they were contaminated either by the First Alert production line in Mexico or in First Alert delivery trucks! That makes this a very serious First Alert quality control problem.”

“No,” she stated, “We can’t know where or how they were contaminated.”

“Except,” I repeated, “We know the initial units we bought were out of the clamshell for two days before we plugged them in and we got high CO readings right away and the Fire Department confirmed there was no CO in the home, so wouldn’t the unit, if contaminated, express CO into the room so the Fire Department would pick up a reading?”

“The contamination,” The Unidentified Craggy-Voiced Woman said shortly, “Was inside the Detector.”

“Ah,” I said, “Then you admit that this has happened before since you now confess the source of the contamination was the unit itself?”

“No. This has never happened before,” she snapped.

When we asked the Craggy-Voiced Woman for her name for inclusion in our story for Go Inside Magazine concerning these false alarm First Alert Carbon Monoxide detectors, she refused our request and quickly got off phone.

Alone Again
As I hung up the phone, I wondered how First Alert could come up with such a simple answer to a problem they had never before experienced! I found it curious First Alert wasn’t champing at the bit to bring these units back for internal testing since, according to them, this was a historic, one-of-a-kind, False Alarm event we’d experienced with four of their CO detectors. The fault, according to First Alert lies within the atmosphere, the truck fumes, the BBQ grill, their unit or some other realm, but, the fault is not within their stars.

I am disappointed in First Alert. If these two units ever sound an alarm will I unfailingly call the Fire Department to come over and check for CO contamination? Probably not! I’ve already been burned by First Alert once: Their product made me and my associates into unwilling participants into The Boy Who Cried Wolf and that does not please me or encourage a feeling of satiety and safety when it comes to purchasing any First Alert product.

Common Sense
In my humble layman’s opinion, I believe the First Alert units were simply going through a “Burn In” process that any electronic device goes through in its first few hours of its working life. I believe some sort of CO or other gasses were emitted from the unit itself as it heated up and got all its bits and pieces working together (this theory does make sense if you consider the First Alert claim from The Unidentified Craggy-Voiced Woman that the contamination was “inside the Detector.”).

Every piece of sophisticated electronic equipment (TVs, stereos, radios, computers, etc.) get hot and smell like burning plastic and that’s why “burning it in” by leaving it on and running for at least three days straight is a good, general, rule of thumb to live by because it will either fail in two days or last you twenty years.

I realize First Alert cannot confess to nor admit to the possibility of a “Burn In” (or a CO “burn off”) process for their CO detectors, for if that theory is the reason behind our initial trouble, it means in its current form, end users like us must babysit the First Alert unit for two hours silencing the 85 dB alarm horn every four minutes!

I can tell you, it’s no fun!

Even admitting this “burn in” need in print on the box or over the phone would cause a loss of face and reputation so great that First Alert would bear unfixable damage to their entire product line. But is stonewalling an honest answer any better a solution?

I think not.

Conclusion
I believe the only end game for First Alert is to recall these digital, AC only Carbon Monoxide Alarms and insert some BIOS or internal code into second generation units that will build in an automatic two hour “Burn In” time where no alerts are sounded. That two hour grace startup window should happen every time the device is plugged in so the detector can warm up accordingly without sounding false alarms that make you cry wolf.

Otherwise, the remark The Unidentified Craggy-Voiced Woman made concerning the Carbon Monoxide being “in the detector” rings with eternal irony: The Carbon Monoxide in your home was brought in by First Alert!