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Can I use any carbon monoxide detector?

2010 June 1
Dear Boat Doctor,
I am rehabbing a Cal 2-30 with an inboard Atomic 4 gas engine. This is my first boat and I am brand new to sailing. I am concerned about carbon monoxide from the engine and would like to install a carbon monoxide detector. I have researched marine-specific models and also looked at the ones from the big box stores. I have not been able to detect a lot of difference other than the price. Is there is a difference between the marine and home models? Thanks.
Glenn Johnson
Catonsville, Maryland

Dear Glenn,
You are wise to be concerned about carbon monoxide infiltration. Carbon monoxide could be released via a faulty exhaust system on your engine, but it could come from other sources in your boat or even from a boat docked near you. All boaters with enclosed cabins should have at least an awareness of carbon monoxide, and I highly recommend a carbon monoxide detector.

There is a difference between the behavior of marine and residential carbon monoxide detectors because the presence of carbon monoxide means different things in either environment. Typically, the carbon monoxide level in a house is very low, and should never get any higher. If the level rises, it means there is a faulty combustion device (stove, furnace, dryer, etc) in the house and the occupants need to be alerted immediately. In a boat, it is acceptable for the carbon monoxide level to spike but only for short periods of time. For instance, if your boat is docked near another boat and it starts its engines, you could theoretically get a bit of carbon monoxide in the boat, even a relatively high level, but only for a short period of time. Marine detectors will note the carbon monoxide level, but will only alarm if the level stays high for a period of time. Marine detectors will typically have several concentration/duration profiles.

If you choose to use a residential unit in your boat you have a high potential of getting false-positive alarms. Additionally, the marine-specific units are better able to handle the harsh marine conditions. The marine units are worth the extra money, and I think it's the way to go in your situation.