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A Beep in the Night

March 15, 2013

It was one of those warm bright days that we get in late summer.  The sky was hazy because of smoke from distant forest fires carried by the wind.  I smelled smoke all day.  I could even smell it faintly inside the house.  It grew stronger towards evening.  I knew it would disappear when the wind changed.  I went to  bed at my usual time and fell soundly asleep.

Suddenly, I found myself awake.  What had happened to awaken me?  I listened carefully.  There was only silence.  Suddenly, I heard a loud beep.  A minute or two later, I heard another one.  What was doing that?  It must be my smoke detector, in the hall just outside my bedroom.  They chirp when the battery is low, with a long delay betwen chirps.  It sounds like there’s a bird in the house.  That’s not what I’m hearing.

Maybe there’s a fire.  That can’t be it either.  Smoke detectors make a continuous loud sound if there’s a fire.  Maybe there’s just enough smoke from those forest fires to trigger my smoke detector occasionally.  That’s got to be it.  I’ll just wait for a while to see if the beeping stops.  Nope, I kept hearing the beeps.  Maybe I’ll just ignore the beeps and go back to sleep.  Nope, they kept waking me up again.

I’ll have to do something about that smoke detector.  Still very sleepy, I got out of bed and removed it from the ceiling.  I put it in the broom closet in the kitchen.  I still heard the beeps.  They were painfully loud.  Then I took it down the basement.  Still I heard the beeps, but now they were coming from upstairs.  It can’t be that smoke detector.  I took it back upstairs and replaced it on the ceiling.

What else could be making those beeps?  I looked all over the house.  Finally, I noticed that my carbon monoxide detector in the kitchen was flashing its lights in time with the beeps.  It had never made a noise before, except when I pressed the test button.  I unplugged it.  What a relief to hear silence again!  Maybe it just needed a reboot.  I plugged it back in.  It was still silent.  Very clever, I thought.  I went back to bed.  Just as I was about to doze off, it beeped again.

I have to do something about that CO detector.  I can’t have it doing that all night!  I got up and uplugged it again.  Once again there was silence.  So, we don’t have a fire problem; we have a CO problem.  I went down to the basement to check the furnace.  It was summer!  The furnace was turned off.  It didn’t even have a pilot light.  How about the gas water heater?  The main burner was off, of course.  There was no demand for hot water that time of night.  There was only the small flame from the pilot light.  It was pale blue, the same as it always was.  Nothing was unusual in the basement.

I went back to bed, but I couldn’t get to sleep.  Instead, I thought about all the possible sources of CO.  A gas furnace is the most likely one.  It could be a blocked flue or a disturbance of the flame on the main burner.  Ten years ago, when I bought this house, it was producing CO because of a cracked heat exchanger.  Air blowing through the crack turned part of the flame from blue to yellow.  I replaced the furnace before I moved in.  It can’t be the furnace now: it’s not even running.  It can’t be the water heater either.  What are the other sources?  A car running beside the house?  No, that wasn’t possible.  A wood or charcoal fire inside the house?  No, I had nothing like that.  There can’t be CO in this house.  Still a bit worried that I had forgotten something, I went back to sleep.

Next morning, I took a closer look at the CO detector.  It had istructions printed on the back.  It’s supposed to give a continuous loud tone when it detects CO.  That wasn’t what I heard.  It’s also supposed to produce a beep when it loses its sensitivity.  That was  what I heard last night.  It was faulty; I needed to replace it.  Later that day, I bought a new carbon monoxide detector.  When I read the manual, I noticed that it will produce a warning signal after five years.  Five years exactly!  Ah, it just has a built-in timer.  At the exact instant when the five years expires, it starts to beep.  I’ll bet that the old one worked the same way too.  It happened in the middle of the night.  At least I’ll know what to do next time I hear something go beep in the night.

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