Manufactured, or factory-built homes are regulated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The current HUD code on vent placement for factory-built homes is reported to be 3 feet—that is, the furnace (and water heater) exhaust vent needs to be at least 3 feet away from any intake vent that introduces fresh air to both the furnace and into the home. Of course, you can have a greater distance than 3 feet and the further away the better. However, according to the HUD standard a minimum 3-foot separation is all that's required. Most manufacturers build to those standards.
Building experts and specialists in environmental health agree that the standard should be changed—and that leaving things as they are puts thousands at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning.
The issue was brought to the forefront by the case of baby Daniel Conrad. Last winter the now hale and hearty 16-month-old was a sickly infant and his parents were suspected of improperly caring for and feeding the child.
However, any suspected lack of oversight by the Conrads—who have 4 other children—turned out to be furthest from the truth. The true culprit, it was determined was carbon monoxide that entered the home through the fresh-air vent.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that is a silent killer and often goes misdiagnosed. Of the thousands who trek to hospital emergency rooms every year, many are thought to be suffering from the flu.
In the Conrad's case, Utah experienced a harsh winter in 2008, characterized by cold and a great deal of snow. The latter built up on the flat roof of the family's mobile home. Vents were located on the north-facing, shady area of the roof that did not benefit from the sun's potential to mitigate the buildup of snow.
"Mobile homes have stubby little vents and the snow cover adds to the risk," says Thomas Greiner, associate professor of engineering at Iowa State University, in comments posted at ABCNews.com. "You get cold weather and a potential for snow buildup that blocks the intake and exhaust."
In the Conrad's case the problem was visible according to one witness, former state senator and heating specialist Parley Hellewell.
"When it was cold, you could see the exhaust come out of one [vent] and go down the other," he told ABCNews.com.
It should be noted that a similar case in 2005 proved to be much more tragic. Two babies were sick and appeared malnourished. One child died. The stricken family was originally charged with child abuse, but those charges were dropped when experts called in to assess the family's living quarters found that the furnace exhaust and an old air intake vent were only 11 inches apart.
In Utah, local and state building codes require a minimum separation of 10 feet. There are those who feel separation should be even greater, at 12 feet. All agree that the HUD standard needs to be updated before more innocent people die.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta 600 Americans die each year as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. Anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000 flock to hospital emergency rooms. Some 11,000 cases of low-level carbon monoxide poisoning are treated each year.
The 10-foot minimum is in actual fact an international standard for structures. However, it has been noted that mobile homes are not scrutinized because they come with the so-called HUD seal of approval.
Rebecca Morely of the National Center for Healthy Housing wonders if HUD is the right agency for the job when it comes to regulating manufactured homes.
"The larger issue is, is HUD the best regulator of the units?" she says. "There should be more oversight. Who is responsible for quality control for both health and safety?"
In normal "thermal buoyancy," says Todd Mortensen, a local heating contractor, hot fuel gases rise above the roof and float into the air. But during winter months dense, cold air can cause exhaust fumes to hover over the roof. And with certain wind currents and snow blocking vents, "it's like a perfect storm for it to happen," he told ABCNews.com.
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The key therefore is to ensure that the various vents are placed in such a way that health hazards are avoided in the mobile home. However, any change in the regulation will only benefit manufactured homes coming off the line now. Existing mobile homes with the 3-foot minimum would have to be retrofitted.
In the meantime, if you are a resident of a mobile home with concerns about carbon monoxide, be sure to consult a qualified mobile homes and carbon monoxide attorney. Especially if your health and the health of you family has been compromised.