Dan Rattiner's Stories

3 Days of Hell: Eight Years Ago, I Installed Three Carbon Monoxide Alarms

The first inkling that something was wrong was when our dog Bella began acting as if a fly were bothering her. She’d turn around one way, then around another. There was no fly.

When Bella took off for the bedroom upstairs, though, I followed her. Then I heard it. At 10-second intervals, something was giving off a very loud, high-pitched cheep. It was an alarm of some sort. We have all sorts of alarms in the house. A smoke alarm, a fire alarm, a burglar alarm. But which one?

Bella squirreled herself under the bed.

The problem with these cheeps is that you can’t really tell where they are coming from. I’m chasing ghosts. Is it here? There? Well, the dog ain’t talking. In the old days, when we had just one battery-operated smoke alarm on the ceiling, we could hit it with a broom and that would shut it up and bring it down. Now there’s dozens of things that cheep and they’re all wired.

It was just me and the dog in the house at that time. So I checked out the things that cheep on the second floor. I checked out all the things that cheep on the first floor. Nothing wrong. Then I went down to the basement.

It was quite loud in the basement. And it was coming from the basement carbon monoxide detector, which is the size of a dinner plate, on a wall at the far end of the room. A digital number was flashing. The number was 6. I had no idea what that meant, but I was determined to get it to stop one way or another. We’d put this in years ago. Carbon monoxide is deadly, invisible and odorless. Thank God for the carbon monoxide detector. But it was hurting my ears. I twisted it and it came off the wall into my hand, wires attached on the back. BEEP. I pulled out the wires. BEEP. How could this be? It was dead now, yes? No! It had a compartment in the back with a backup battery. How long did I have before I passed out? Five minutes? Ten? So I took out the 9V battery and finally, it shut up.

I took a sniff. Everything smelled okay. Must be a malfunction. A moth in its innards or something. But still. I took it upstairs, got my laptop, got Bella from under the bed and took everything out onto the deck for fresh air. There I Googled the name and model number and asked it what “6” meant.

It meant it was time to replace the detector. It had reached the end of its eight-year lifespan. There were filters inside that could not detect carbon monoxide anymore. And there was no way to replace them. Just toss it out. And buy another one. Did they even make this model anymore?

I brought the detector inside and tried the hardware store. Yes, they had a replacement. I could get it any time. And no, I was probably not in any danger. No carbon monoxide disaster had killed anyone in eight years. We’d make it through one more day.

Solving this particular carbon monoxide detector problem, however, did not mean I had solved the problem.

The next day, in the afternoon, Bella started chasing the fly around and again ran upstairs to wriggle under the bed. This time I knew to look for another carbon monoxide detector. After a while chasing ghosts, I found it in on the first floor on the living room wall behind a chest my wife had bought. I dealt with it.

Then the next day, Bella ran upstairs and under the bed around 1 p.m. again. And this time, I found the problem in the upstairs hallway.

Three disruptions, three days in a row, from an installation of three carbon monoxide detectors exactly eight years ago to the day, on three separate days in a row on July 12, 13, and 14, 2008.

I now had the three dead ones stacked up on my desk, having not yet gone to the hardware store. Would they have three? I also had three perfectly good 9v batteries next to them. All used just once. All with an expiration date of December 2014. Wouldn’t it be something if we all died of carbon monoxide poisoning during the short time we had before I bought three new ones?

I also thought what a terrible waste this was. They could have built them with a replaceable 15-cent filter, but they didn’t. Instead, they’d built these very complicated contraptions. Online I learned they had these 10 different signal numbers that could mean 10 different things. They displayed the highest CO levels, from 33 to 900, on the screen when that was the problem, and a memory indicator could tell an expert when that was. They could make a different sound if they detected smoke, so they were also smoke detectors. They gave off their death rattle after eight years, to the day. They have a red flashing light to signal “alarm.” They show an amber light while recalibrating after a power outage. They show green when in “go” mode. They have a “test” button and a “re-test” button. The beep is 85 decibels at 10 feet, about the sound level of a helicopter, but brief. They have an interconnectivity ability with 18 other devices, and they have a special sound for their heat alarm. They have a plastic pull tab that when pulled activates the backup battery. It did everything except land on the moon.

All of this I learned online, and I got my next three, for $36 each. This doesn’t even make sense if you pay Third World people living in huts a dollar a day to build them. At the hardware store, I learned they’ve extended the lives for the new detectors. It’s now set to drive you crazy after 10 years, not eight.

Most interesting, of course, is it got me thinking back to eight years ago. That July, a building contractor had just completed a renovation on this old house. He was a good building contractor, and I had a hard time believing he installed these three detectors on three different days. I’m sure it was all on the same day. It’s just a quirk in the manufacture. The stock market was soaring in July 2008. Million dollar mortgages were being given to the unemployed. The war in Iraq was going on, though it was on simmer. Architects were still re-designing the World Trade Center site. American planes accidently killed civilians in Pakistan that month. And Egypt brokered a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab League.

That July 12, eight years ago, my daughter Maya flew into JFK from where she lives in San Francisco with her husband, Kevin, and their two children. Solange then was six. Rhone was a toddler. The house was all shined up.

Those three July days, I found the time, early in the morning, watching sunrise down at Main Beach from a folding chair, to write three articles for Dan’s Papers, one each day. I keep everything I write on a thumb drive. Have done it since when they started thumb drives, which was in 2001. So here’s what I wrote about those days (and subsequently published in Dan’s Papers).

July 12: BRAIN POWER. A story about a recent Harvard study of brainpower. It was found that young people could review data quicker, but would miss things that older people would pick up. I gave an example.

Here’s the movie where the 55-year-old King and the 25-year-old Prince are discussing the enemy that is arrayed before them on the field.

“There they are,” the Prince shouts. “Let’s take ’em. Issue the order to charge.”

“Wait a minute,” the King says, holding up his palm. “There’s very angry-looking rain clouds coming in from behind us. It could be a downpour. If it is, our archers will be blinded. And our advantage in mobility will be compromised. Let’s wait until it passes.”

At the end of the article, I asked, Who should we vote for? Obama, who was 48, or McCain, who was 71?

JULY 13: NO WINE AND CHEESE. The police in East Hampton shut down an art gallery opening at the Walk Tall Gallery on Park Place because they had not bought the $37 temporary food permit to serve free wine and cheese. The same thing had happened to Ruth Vered at her gallery next door the week before, when the police not only summonsed her but also arrested her and walked her off when she made a case out of it. I also wrote about how Dylan Lauren had been given a summons for giving away free ice cream to people who came to her new store in town.

JULY 14. THE MUSIC CONTEST. At eight each evening during the annual Hamptons Music Festival every year, a train roars along the adjacent tracks blowing its horn, which, at that hour, would disrupt Haydn, Bach or whatever was being played at the time. I wrote about a contest I organized. During the winter, composers from around the country between the ages of 15 and 29 were invited to create a classical concerto of 12 minutes or less that would include this train as a musical instrument as it came through. Fifty-five young composers entered. The winner was Mark Petering, a grad student at the University of Minnesota who was present at the festival with his family earlier that week as his piece was played by the orchestra, with Michael Gutman conducting. A train, courtesy of the LIRR, roared through blowing its horn at the exact time it was supposed to.

As for the rest of Dan’s Papers that week, there were other things going on. I have a collection of back issues in a library for every week since July 1, 1960. So I could look this up. What was going on when they installed the carbon monoxide detectors?

Southampton Town Police had raided a house on Millstone Road in Noyac just before dawn to discover 36 people sleeping on mattresses wall-to-wall in a group house. Summonses were issued. A law was passed in Southampton Town making it illegal to have more than one party with 50 people or more a year. And the Cole Brothers Circus was in town, but because PETA had demonstrated against their using elephants and the town passed a law forbidding elephants, the circus tent was no longer in a field at the VFW Hall on County Road 39 but at a field on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation—which allows elephants. Meanwhile, in East Hampton, a petition was passed around asking people to sign up demanding the resignation of Town Supervisor Bill McGintee, who had inherited his job with a $12 million surplus and was now showing a $14 million deficit.

Anyway, that year my wife, my daughter, her husband and the two little kids went out into Gardiner’s Bay for an afternoon in my boat; we went to a barbecue at Indian Wells Beach; we went to a play at the John Drew Theater; we invited over some of her old high school chums. And the whole time, the newly installed carbon monoxide devices were chugging away.

By the millions, around the country, these detectors were chugging away, all getting ready to be replaced after eight years. It’s the law. And it does line somebody’s pockets.

I wonder where I will be 10 years from now when the carbon monoxide detectors in my house go nuts again.

The family hopes to be better prepared next time. We are putting it into our smartphone calendars, with a heads up a week ahead.

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