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updated 7/20/22


Do I Need to Worry about Portable Air Conditioner Carbon Monoxide?

Every homeowner has a laundry list of concerns regarding what to worry about in their home. Aside from ensuring that all your utilities are correctly working, you also need to ensure that your appliances remain in working condition, especially your most common ones such as your refrigerator, oven, furnace, and air conditioner. For many people who own houses that lack central air or prefer only to cool the rooms they regularly use, portable air conditioners become the defacto air conditioner for daily use during the warmer months.


While these are generally easier to work around than your major appliances, people nevertheless have significant questions regarding their safety and effective operation. Today, we’ll address the question of whether your portable air conditioner is a carbon monoxide producer.


What Is Carbon Monoxide?


living room equipped with portable ac unit and sofaThis question is a reasonable one to consider, especially considering the risks associated with carbon monoxide. There are a few essential facts to review to gain a proper understanding of the gas:


  • Carbon monoxide is a hazardous gas for humans to ingest. It is odorless and colorless, so its non-irritating nature makes it particularly challenging to detect without special equipment. Unlike a gas leak from your natural gas supply, you are unlikely to tell that it is happening without an alarm.
  • Carbon monoxide tricks your lungs and blood into thinking that it is oxygen. The result of this error is that your body will receive the carbon monoxide, which then replaces oxygen in your blood, resulting in your body not receiving the most vital part of the air we breathe. As your body loses oxygen during a large exposure to carbon monoxide, you become lightheaded and pass out. If no one removes you to safety at that point, it is fatal.
  • The most frequent source of carbon monoxide is incompletely burning fossil fuels such as natural gas. When you use a machine that processes this gas but is faulty, then it may put out carbon monoxide in varying quantities.


Carbon monoxide is incredibly dangerous. The above risks are the primary reasons that many homeowners check for carbon monoxide leaks during their pre-purchase home inspections, as well as why you should seriously consider purchasing a carbon monoxide detector for your home.

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Does Your Portable Air Conditioner Make Carbon Monoxide?


The good news is that your portable air conditioner doesn’t make carbon monoxide in any normal situation. That being said, there are a few unusual or uncommon situations whereby your air conditioner may be involved in bringing carbon monoxide into your home:


  • Many portable air conditioners are electric-powered. Due to the nature of the energy powering your air conditioner, it cannot produce carbon monoxide. However, there are a few portable air conditioner models that can operate on natural gas, which can produce carbon monoxide if malfunctioning.
  • Even if you have an electric portable air conditioner, you may be using a power source that itself could generate carbon monoxide. If you use a gas-powered generator for appliances in an RV or temporary building at a construction site, then it is helpful to have a carbon monoxide detector nearby to remain safe.
  • Additionally, other sources of carbon monoxide, such as car exhaust, may be present near your air conditioners intake. While your portable air conditioner may not itself produce the carbon monoxide, it can easily bring it into your home through its proper cooling function if there is a source near the intake.

If you use portable air conditioners, you don’t need to worry about the devices themselves producing carbon monoxide. Nevertheless, remain alert regarding the above situations that may apply. It’s always best to be aware of the risk of carbon monoxide exposure if you have an air conditioner near a potential source of the gas.


Ensuring Your Portable Air Conditioner Is Carbon Monoxide Free

Most people who use portable air conditioners shouldn’t have carbon monoxide worries. To reiterate the above, carbon monoxide is a deadly and largely undetectable gas that can prove fatal if it shows up in the wrong circumstances. While electrical devices cannot produce the gas on their own, they may be complicit in bringing carbon monoxide into your home or vehicle, depending on the ultimate fuel source you’re using. As long as you remain aware of the tips and warnings covered above, then you can stay safe from carbon monoxide poisoning.


If you have any questions regarding carbon monoxide and your home’s HVAC system, then licensed contractors can help you address these questions. There’s no such thing as being too safe, and it’s best to ensure that your system is working correctly. We recommend coupling that preventive maintenance with an affordable carbon monoxide detector so that your family remains safe in every circumstance.


Health Effects of Air Conditioning

Air conditioners have become a pretty central facet of American homes, and as global temperatures continue to rise, the popularity of AC is only increasing. There’s nothing more miserable than being stuck at home in the heat. However, it’s reasonable to wonder about the health effects that might come from leaving the air conditioner running all summer long. Comfort is nice, but it’s a much lower priority than the health and safety of you and your family.


As a general rule, climate control systems actually have an overall positive effect on your health. Pretty much every part of the human body works better at a comfortable temperature, from your heart to your lungs. In fact, studies have even found that our brains work better at moderate temperatures, and extreme heat can have a negative effect on cognition. Leaving the air conditioner on when the temperature outside is extremely warm can also protect you from heat-related conditions like heat stroke and dehydration, and a furnace can do the same when it’s freezing cold outside.


That being said, everything comes with some risk, especially if there’s something wrong inside the appliance itself. To put your mind at ease and make sure you and your family are as safe as possible during the summer, we’ve put together this guide to some of the real or perceived side effects of air conditioning and how you can avoid any potential health risks.


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Respiratory Health

Overall respiratory health is often very closely tied to air quality, so this is of particular relevance to HVAC systems like air conditioners. In general, running an air conditioner will improve the quality of the air inside your home. It’s a common misconception that AC units pull in air from the outside, but standard split-system air conditioners actually just cycle the same air from inside your house. Because the air passes through a filter every time it leaves the unit, running the AC will gradually remove contaminants like dust and pet hair from the air in your house, leaving it cleaner than before.


Of course, especially sharp readers might have already identified the biggest weakness in this system. As the air from your home passes through the air filter, all the little specks of dust, pollen, and other contaminants get stuck in the fabric of the filter. That’s a good thing since it takes the contaminants out of the air, but it also means that the filter gradually gets dirtier and more clogged up with dirt. This has two primary effects. The first is that it cuts down on the airflow in the system, forcing the air conditioner to work harder and use more electricity. This won’t affect your health, but it will affect the health of your wallet. Second, that buildup can eventually cause contaminants to be forced through the filter into the air.


If dust, pet hair, pollen, or other junk makes it into the air, they can cause some health effects, especially if you or any member of your family suffer from pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma. They can cause sniffling, sneezing, headaches, itchy eyes, and other irritating symptoms, as well as worsening allergic symptoms that you might already have. If you notice any of these symptoms, there might be dust or dirt building up somewhere inside your HVAC system.


The way to avoid these issues is pretty simple: you just have to swap out or clean the air filter. Typically, air conditioner filters have to be either washed or replaced once a month, depending on the type of filter you bought. This is the single most important thing you can do to keep your air conditioner running smoothly and prevent contaminants from getting into the air in your home.


Besides the filter, dust and dirt can also build up in your ductwork. For this reason, we recommend having your ducts cleaned once every two to five years, depending on the specifics of your house and the surrounding climate. You can help to prevent dust in the ducts by regularly cleaning the air filter and any vents leading to the HVAC system. Duct cleaning is especially important since the ductwork can also be home to something much more dangerous: mold.


If mold starts growing in your ducts, it can release dangerous spores into your air supply. For most people, exposure to mold spores will only cause allergy-like symptoms, but the spores can also lead to more serious infections in your lungs, throat, and sinuses. If you detect a musty, earthy odor every time the air conditioning is turned on, it might be time to have your ducts cleaned. Mold is notoriously difficult to get rid of since even a single spore can start growing a new patch, so we recommend having a professional HVAC contractor handle the duct cleaning for you.



The other main health effect that can come from an air conditioner is dehydration. As the air conditioner runs in the summer, it slowly reduces the humidity in your house. This is due to a neat little quirk of chemistry. When air is warm, its molecules are more active, and they move around more energetically. That causes them to collide with airborne water molecules, bouncing them around and preventing them from clustering together into droplets. When the water molecules can’t cluster together, they remain a vapor and stay suspended among the air molecules. However, when the air cools down, the air molecules slow down and stop moving as much. This allows the water molecules to cluster into droplets and fall out of the air. Fun fact: this phenomenon is actually where rain comes from.


Chemistry lessons aside, lowering the humidity in your house is usually a good thing in the summer since it prevents the air from feeling sticky and uncomfortable. However, if the humidity gets too low, it can make your body start to dry out. Moisture in the air slows down the rate at which water evaporates from your skin and the surface of your eyes, so when the humidity is lower, that evaporation accelerates. This can result in uncomfortable dry skin and eyes for you and your family, which is never pleasant.


In more serious cases, dehydration can cause headaches and even nasal infections as the mucus membrane in your nose dries out. While it would be pretty much impossible for an air conditioner to make the air in your home so dry that you suffer nosebleeds and infections, it can be one of a few contributing factors to a more severe case of dehydration.


As you surely already know, the best way to avoid dehydration is to drink more water. While other drinks like soda can help with dehydration, water is always the most effective way of rehydrating your body. Drinking water will also help with symptoms of external dehydration like dry skin or eyes, although you can help rehydrate faster with lotion or eyedrops if you’re too uncomfortable.


Air conditioners will generally only make you feel dehydrated if you live in a climate that’s already very dry, like the deserts in the American southwest. If the humidity is very low to begin with, making the air cooler can drain the last few drops of moisture vapor from it. The same goes for any method of cooling the air, whether it’s a window AC or even a simple oscillating fan. There’s nothing about how an air conditioner functions that especially contributes to dry air, just the temperature change itself.


If you do live in a dry climate, we recommend keeping a humidifier in your home, especially in the summer months when you’re more likely to keep the AC running. Some air conditioners actually come with built-in humidity controls, making them ideal choices for anyone living out in the desert.


Refrigerant Leaks

Air conditioners work by passing a working fluid back and forth between two coils, the condenser and the evaporator. As the fluid, called refrigerant, flows between the coils, shifts in pressure cause it to change back and forth between a gas and a liquid. The heat transfer generated by those transformations is what cools down the air inside the unit and allows the entire system to operate. Because those chemical changes are so precise, the refrigerant needs to be made up of some very specific chemicals. Some of those chemicals can be dangerous to both you and the environment.


When the working fluid passes back and forth between the two coils, it travels through two copper lines called the refrigerant lines. The larger of these is called the vapor line or the suction line and carries the refrigerant when it’s in a gaseous form, and the smaller is called the liquid line and, as the name suggests, takes the liquid refrigerant back the other way. Because both lines are made of copper, leaks are relatively rare, but they are vulnerable to a process called formicary corrosion. When formic acid from the air reaches the copper, it can create very small holes and allow the refrigerant to escape. You can help prevent the buildup of formic acid by keeping your home well-ventilated.


For the most part, a leak in the liquid line isn’t much of a cause for concern. Only very small quantities of liquid refrigerant will escape, and you’d have to either touch it or ingest it to experience major issues. If you do get liquid refrigerant on your skin, it can cause some irritation or, in large enough quantities, chemical burns and frostbite. Even if you haven’t touched the refrigerant, you should still keep an eye out for symptoms if you’ve been exposed to it. Chemical burns, irritation to your mouth, eyes, and throat, coughing, headaches, and nausea are all symptoms of refrigerant poisoning.


If refrigerant vapor is allowed to escape from the suction line, or liquid refrigerant escapes and evaporates, you could end up with a more serious problem from exposure. While gaseous refrigerant isn’t likely to cause damage to your body, it is heavier than oxygen. If your indoor AC unit is kept in a small room, a large enough refrigerant leak can cause the vapor to push all the oxygen out of the room. If inhaled, refrigerant can also settle in your lungs and is difficult to remove.


Because most air conditioners only use small amounts of working fluid, the risk of refrigerant poisoning is very low. Typically, the only ones in danger are people working in the HVAC industry who are exposed to large amounts of refrigerant on a regular basis. However, it’s still a good idea to have your air conditioner serviced once a year by an HVAC technician who can check for leaks in the lines. They’ll also refill any refrigerant that’s been lost, allowing your AC unit to operate at full capacity.


Carbon Monoxide

Though some especially cautious consumers have raised the question of carbon monoxide poisoning in connection to air conditioning, this really isn’t something you need to worry about coming from your AC. Carbon monoxide can only be created by combustion reactions, like when coal or natural gas is burned. Most combustion reactions typically create carbon dioxide, made up of a single carbon atom bonded to two atoms of oxygen. However, if there is insufficient oxygen present during the combustion, the carbon atoms will only bond to a single atom of oxygen, creating carbon monoxide.


While carbon dioxide can asphyxiate a person in high enough quantities, it’s easy enough to escape by going outside or opening a window to let more oxygen in. Carbon monoxide, however, is significantly more dangerous. When you inhale carbon monoxide, your body mistakes it for pure oxygen and allows your red blood cells to carry it through your bloodstream. Soon, the carbon monoxide will replace oxygen in your body, causing it to shut down. What makes carbon monoxide so insidious is that your body never realizes you’re breathing it in. Its presence doesn’t set off any panic alarms inside your body, so you can just continue to unknowingly breathe it in until it’s too late to escape. It’s also odorless and tasteless, so it’s impossible to tell you’re breathing in anything other than regular air.


The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include dizziness, nausea, headaches, confusion, shortness of breath, and blurry vision. Eventually, prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide will cause you to pass out and, unless someone rescues you, never wake up. These symptoms all come from oxygen deprivation. In addition to the risk of death, depriving your brain of oxygen can cause irreversible brain damage. If you think you might be experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, you should get outside as soon as possible and call 911.


Because carbon monoxide is only caused by combustion, you’re never at risk from an air conditioner. All modern AC units run on electricity, which involves no combustion and can therefore create no carbon monoxide. However, there are some HVAC systems that can create the gas. Furnaces that run on wood or natural gas can create carbon monoxide if something goes wrong and they don’t have enough fuel or oxygen inside the combustion chamber. Air conditioners can also inadvertently bring carbon monoxide through the vents into your home if you leave a car running in the garage or outside by another intake.


Because carbon monoxide poisoning is so dangerous, it’s recommended that every home be equipped with carbon monoxide detectors that can warn you before it’s too late. If you have a natural gas-burning furnace, you should also have it checked regularly to make sure it’s not leaking carbon monoxide. As long as you stay up to date on your tests and keep a working carbon monoxide detector in your home, you should be safe from any leaks or other potential risks.


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Covid-19 and Air Conditioning

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has made everyone extra aware of the dangers of airborne pathogens, and that makes some people wonder how air conditioning affects the risks of catching the coronavirus. Studies into Covid-19 have shown that by far the most common form of transmission of the virus is through the air. When you cough or sneeze, your body expels a mist of water droplets from your nose and mouth. These droplets are mostly just water, but they can also include microscopic pathogens like the Covid-19 virus. Because the droplets are so small, they often hang in the air for a little while, allowing opportunities for someone else to breathe them in and catch the virus.


Because air conditioners recycle the same air over and over again, they can suck Covid-19 droplets into the unit and distribute them throughout the house. However, while that might sound like a potential risk factor, the truth is that residential air conditioning is mostly irrelevant when it comes to transmitting the coronavirus. Since the air used by AC units comes from the house itself, it creates a closed system. Essentially, the only droplets you’re going to be breathing in are your own and the rest of your family’s. If someone in your family does have Covid-19, you’re far more likely to catch it directly from them than through the vents.


However, it’s an entirely different story when it comes to public places. Because stores, movie theaters, and other public-facing businesses have plenty of people coming in and out, the chances are high that the air supply has some Covid-19 droplets in it. Running an air conditioner could distribute those droplets throughout the entire store, spreading the virus across a far greater area than a single person could by themselves, no matter how much they cough.


That being said, there’s not as much of a reason to panic as you might think. To counteract this exact problem, many commercial air conditioning systems have been overhauled with extra-fine HEPA filters instead of the regular air filters they had before. Any filter with a MERV rating of 13 or higher can trap extremely small particles, including viruses. This means that, rather than distributing the virus through the building, the HVAC system is actually scrubbing the air clean of Covid-19 droplets before blowing it back out. These filters have been in use in certain spaces like hospitals for quite some time now, but the pandemic has seen them adopted in a much wider range of places. Businesses all across the country have been working hard to upgrade their air conditioning systems with better filters in order to reduce the risk of catching Covid-19 when customers visit.


Still, despite the improved filtering capabilities, going into public places will continue to be a risk for the foreseeable future. The best way to avoid Covid-19 is to stay at home when possible, get vaccinated against the virus, and wear a mask when you do go to public spaces.


Call Valley Comfort Heating & Air Today

If you have any other questions about making sure your air conditioner is as safe as possible, or you’d like to schedule some regular maintenance to keep it running in top shape, you should get in touch with an HVAC contractor today. Air conditioners are extremely low-risk appliances, and the chances of experiencing any negative health effects from your AC are very very low. However, it’s still a good idea to keep your air conditioner well maintained to make sure nothing breaks or causes any problems. Like any other appliance, air conditioners are really only risky when they’re malfunctioning.

If you’re in Marin, Sonoma, or Napa Counties, Valley Comfort Heating & Air is available to help you out with any air conditioning-related concerns or problems you might have. We’re always happy to answer more questions, help put your mind at ease, or set up an appointment so we can give your HVAC system the once-over and make sure it’s all running as smoothly as possible.