Nebraska Town Requires CO Detectors in New Home Construction

WAHOO, Neb. -- The recent deaths of two residents have spurred this city of 4,000 to become one of Nebraska's leaders in building code safety.

Wahoo is one of the first communities in the state to require carbon monoxide detectors for all new home construction and major housing additions.

"It usually takes a major tragedy for these things to come about, but not too many cities do this," said Wahoo City Building Inspector Jerry Peterson. "I just felt it was needed."

Peterson lobbied the Wahoo City Council to adopt the new ordinance in response to the Jan. 19 deaths that jolted the community. Ron Larsen, 55, and his son, Tim Larsen, 18, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in their Wahoo home.

Investigators blamed a faulty furnace for a leak of the deadly odorless and colorless gas inside the home.

After an investigation, a special prosecutor announced Wednesday that no criminal charges would be filed. A repair company had worked on the Larsens' furnace just days before the deaths.

At the time of their deaths, the Larsens did not have a working carbon monoxide detector inside the house.

Wahoo's new rules apply to all construction in the city limits and its one-mile zoning jurisdiction. New businesses or office buildings are exempt.

Wahoo, like virtually all Nebraska and Iowa communities, had not required homeowners to install the alarms, which cost between $50 and $60 at most hardware stores.

Many detectors plug into electrical outlets or are battery-powered, but the Wahoo regulations require contractors to hard-wire the devices into new homes and equip them with battery backups.

Builders also must install the carbon monoxide detectors on every level of a newly constructed home. At least one detector must be in the immediate vicinity of -- but outside -- the bedrooms.

Wiring must be permanent, and the device must not have a disconnection switch, the ordinance says. Hard-wiring the devices reduces the possibility of malfunction, compared with ones that are battery-operated, Peterson said.

"With Tim and Ron, it was just an unfortunate accident," he said. "It never became an ordinance in the past because we never really thought about it."

In 2002, the most recent year for which statistics were available, 711 people in the United States died of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

None of the communities surrounding Wahoo requires carbon monoxide detectors, according to city officials in Fremont, Blair, Omaha, Lincoln, Plattsmouth and Bellevue.

Plattsmouth has discussed a requirement, but its council has not taken any action or drafted any legislation, said Kevin Larson, city planning and zoning director.

Last October, a Plattsmouth members of a family escaped a carbon monoxide scare in their rental unit. A substandard heating system emitted the gas.

"Anytime you try to provide extra safety for families, it can only be good legislation," Larson said.

Steve Carmichael, the chief building commissioner in Bellevue, isn't surprised that most Nebraska cities do not require the detectors.

Typically, cities adopt their local building code standards based on national and international codes -- rules that are updated every few years. Current national codes do not address carbon monoxide detectors, Carmichael said.

He said, however, that expects the devices to become adopted as part of international codes by 2010, similar to the smoke detector movement a few years ago.

Fewer than 5 percent of all homes are equipped with carbon monoxide detectors, he estimated.

"In Bellevue, it's solely based on the owner's need to install them," Carmichael said. "Carbon monoxide detectors are becoming more prevalent in the same manner as smoke detectors did."

After the Larsens died, Wahoo's local hardware stores saw a rush to buy carbon monoxide detectors.

"Hundreds of people bought them in those first few days," said Lee Chipperfield, owner of Chipperfield's Home Store in downtown Wahoo. "Even places in Omaha and Lincoln sold out."

"The situation with Ron and Tim, it made a big impact, and that's good."