Having been involved with carbon monoxide (CO) alarms in a variety of roles since 1993, Detectagas inventor John Stones says his experience tells him there should be more questions asked about the way these products are currently being sold.
Claiming to be the first to offer domestic CO alarms by mail order in the early 1990s, Mr Stones subsequently joined CoGDEM, the council for gas detection and environmental monitoring and manufacturers of testing equipment.
“Through CoGDEM I became involved in the British Standards Committee in 1995,” he says. “As a result of that, I realised there was a major problem with the product we had been selling.”
In fact there were two problems, the first being that pressing the test button only tested the battery, not the CO sensor. The second was that the sensor, which can be affected by outside influences, has a limited and undeterminable life, he says.
His thoughts turned to those who had purchased alarms and continued to ensure batteries were changed regularly, unaware this would not guarantee that the sensor remained operative.
He embarked on finding a solution, he says, but his first effort - consisting of a small level of CO sprayed directly on the sensor to test it - was negated by a change in regulations that saw a three-minute delay introduced to reduce false alarms.
“So we developed a shroud and injected the gas into this,” Mr Stones continues. His solution involves a mix of nitrogen and carbon monoxide “with just sufficient CO to trigger the alarms”.
The two per cent content of CO meant that no hazard warnings needed to be included, under either UK or US regulations, he says.
To prove its safety of the product, Mr Stones offers to empty the contents of one of his company’s cans into his mouth during the interview with H&V News. He has attained three patents for his award-winning product.
“When the British Standard came out, some of the manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon and brought out cheap and cheerful CO alarms and this is when it starts to go crazy,” he continues.
“To gain commercial advantage, some kept increasing the warranty period by a year. We’ve ended up with seven years, on a product that costs a few pounds to make in China or Mexico.”
He explains why this is a problem by citing the requirements of a typical housing association, which may require CO alarms fitted to 14,000 of its properties. The housing association would be told that each alarm would cost around £8.
Initially, these alarms had a one-year warranty, which resulted in many organisations believing that this cost would be repeated each year.
There are approximately 18 million CO alarms installed in the UK. “Those have been selling in bulk since 1996,” says Mr Stones.
“There’s no provision to pull them back or recall them. If you take over the past seven years, from 2003 till now, at a million units per annum, that’s seven million units that have been sold.
“The sensors in those units may only last a few years, so there could be five million units out there that are probably not working anymore, but if people are still pressing the button they will still believe that they are,” he says.
To illuminate this point further, Mr Stones points to a recent report from The American Journal of Health in August 2011, which found that 57 per cent of installed alarms failed when tested.
“If those kind of figures are reported in the US then we should look more closely at what’s going on on our own doorstep to ensure lives are not being put at risk,” he says.
Mr Stones says he is now gaining support from industry and the government and believes action is now urgently needed to avoid potential instances of CO poisoning when gas appliances and equipment malfunction but alarms fail to warn as expected.