Home Heater Safety: Staying Warm This Winter While Preventing a Fire

As the temperatures drop outside, heating our homes is a major concern for most of us. Every winter, the news is full of reports about people losing their homes and their lives due to malfunctioning heating systems, or the improper use of kerosene and space heaters. There are some simple steps that can make your life safer as the termperatures continue to drop.

If you live in a new home or apartment, chances are you have central electric heat. While this is a safe modern way of heating, problems can arise. The biggest issue with electrical heating has to do with the safety of the wiring involved. Defective wiring from a heater system can easily start a fire. In buildings that have rodent issues, the wires can be chewed causing the same result. Since the electrical heat can be quite expensive, there are also central heating systems which use fossil fuels such as coal, oil, or natural gas. Any malfunctions in heating systems with these types of fuels may result in explosions as well as smaller localized fires. Blocked duct work can also pose a fire risk. It is reccommended that home or building owners have their heating systems inspected once a year by a certified inspector to be safe. Some insurance policies require it. The inspectors are trained to spot any abnormalities in the operation of the heaters.

Another heat source that we have used from the cave man days is fire. There is nothing like curling up with a cup of hot cocoa in front of the fireplace while the snow falls outside. A fireplace can be very dangerous if not maintained properly. Safety experts reccommend that you have your fireplace inspected and cleaned by professionals at least once a year. Chimneys not equipped with screens can become homes to squirrels and birds. Fireplace chimneys can become clogged with soot and interfere with the proper oxygen levels of the room and the venting of the carbon monoxide produced by the flames. The actual construction of the chimney can pose a problem as well if the bricks become loose and the chimney itself is unstable, eventually resulting in a collapse. The area aound the fireplace is also a potential fire hazard. Any flammable objects such as upholstered chairs or ottomans should be kept a minimum of three feet or more from the front. During the holiday season, be mindful of what decorations you place around the fireplace or on the mantle. Christmas stockings make for a fire hazard if they are too close to the flames or not secured well enough and they actually fall into the fire. A fireplace screen is also a must have, and take the time to clean the ashes from the fireplace on a regular basis.

Another very important comment about fireplaces is do not EVER place a live Christmas tree next to the fireplace. The artificial ones would be dangerous enough but the heat from the fireplace will cause the live tree to dry out that much quicker, and then you have a seven foot tall fireplace log standing in your living room. The image of the quaintly decorated tree by a roaring fire would make a good cover for your personalized Christmas cards, but it probably gives your home owners insurance agent nightmares. Put the tree on the other side of the room.

Many people, especially in older homes or who are facing tough economic times heat with space heaters and kerosene heaters. These types of heaters pose their own specific fire hazards. Space heaters on the market today are normally UL listed, and are certainly much safer than the ones of the past. There are fan forced heaters, radiant heaters, and infared heaters. While these heaters are relatively inexpensive to buy, they can run your electric bill up considerably. Space heaters are often misused with disastrous results. Let’s look at a few ways to operate them safely.

Space heaters were never entended as the primary source of heat for a home or building. Their intention was to supplement the already existing heating system by using them in large rooms that are difficult to heat or in rooms farthest away from the main heat source, because of the tendancy for those rooms to be cooler than the rest of the house. They are also good for use in unheated garages while tasks are being performed. One of the main things that start fires with space heaters are the electrical cords. I have noticed some brands in recent years which advertise that their cords stay cool. I haven’t personally tried them so I cannot vouch for that statement. Cords get hot for different reasons, and one of the main ones is that it is loose in the outlet. If your outlet plates have some years of use on them, they can be worn to the point that they no longer hold the cord plug securely in place. This can cause the cord and plug to heat to the point that it melts the plug and the outlet plate. Inspect your plate before plugging in a heater. New outlet plates are extremely inexpensive and take only a few minutes to install. If you find your plate and cord melting, immediately trip the circuit or pull the fuse for the outlet to stop a fire. Many times if you pull on the cable, the prongs from the plug remain in the outlet, as they will pull out of the half melted cord. For your safety, please consult an electrician before trying to remedy this situation on your own. When that plug and outlet cover begin to overheat, there is no mistaking that smell. That is why it is not reccommended that you use a space heater at night. When you notice the smell, you can often turn it off at that point and stop the damage. If you are asleep, you may wake to a house on fire, if you wake up at all. The same goes for extension cords. Most household extension cords are not a heavy enough guage to support the current necessary for the heater and it will melt the cord, and they should never be used with space heaters.

The next rule for safety applies to both space heaters and kerosene heaters. Always set the heater in an area that has three clear feet of space around it. I remember my mom heating her teakettle by setting it on the top surface of a radiant kerosene heater. The water would be boiling in minutes. Heat that high would have no problem starting a fire in your furniture or draperies. The same goes for laying rugs down over the electrical cords of the space heaters. It allows the heat to build up along the cord with no escape and can catch the rug on fire.

Space and kerosene heaters should also be placed out of the main flow of traffic, and well away from children or pets. A lot of the newer electrical heaters now boast of casings that remain cool to the touch but a burn presence is still there. Fan forced heaters disperse the heat out which lowers the risk there and infared heaters are made to heat the people in the room, not the air or objects so they don’t pose as great a risk. However, I had an experience with a radiant heater a few years ago that was very painful. I was working the midnight shift as a cab company dispatcher. The drivers eventually went home and the phone stopped ringing for a while and I fell asleep. Our office was in an old drafty trailer and it was the dead of winter. The only heat source was a radiant space heater under the desk. How many rules were we breaking already? The phone rang after a couple of hours and woke me up. Instantly, I felt excruciating pain. Both of my legs, that had been very close to the heater, were covered in huge blisters. I had gotten some very severe burns on my legs, even through thermal socks and heavy pants. The rule is stay back three feet, and it is there for a reason. It was an expensive and painful lesson.

Kerosene heaters are also popular sources of heat, and like space heaters, they were never intended as a main source. This is how they are often used, though, and they can be extremely dangerous if not maintained properly. The first step in the safe use of kerosene heaters relates to the fuel itself. Most heaters requires No. 1 kerosene. When used properly, this is a slow burning fuel that will keep your heater running usually from 8-12 hours, depending on tank size. Never, ever, ever use gasoline in a kerosene heater. Gasoline is a rapid accelerant, and it will cause the heater to explode, spreading flames all over you and your home. Have a dedicated can for your kerosene and do not put kerosene for your heater in a can that has ever been used for gasoline. A few years ago, a local convenience store got a gas delivery and the truck operator put the gas into the store’s kerosene tanks. Six houses burnt to the ground before a customer pointed out that the kerosene smelled like gas and sales were stopped. Amazingly no one was killed. Be aware of what kerosene smells and looks like, and if the fuel does not appear normal, do not use it. Never refill your heater while it is hot. Some tanks can be removed from the heater for refilling but some are built in. Spilling the kerosene on the hot exterior of the heater can start a fire. Never mop up spilled kerosene and then leave the rag laying by the heater. You are asking for trouble. Kerosene heaters are not reccommended for overnight use. Most common kerosene heaters are not vented, and the burning of kerosene introduces carbon monoxide into the air, and it gets worse as the fuel is close to running out. Always leave a window cracked an inch or two in the room where the heater is located. If your heater contains a wick, make sure that it is not burned down past the safety point and replace it if it is. If the flame is not up above the safety level, it can cause the heater to explode.

Some people also resort to heating their homes with their ovens or grills. Ovens can cause a serious burn hazard if you come into contact with the surface or coils. They can start a fire by the concentration of the heat on the surround cabinetry. Gas ovens can fill the house with carbon monoxide. This is also the main reason to avoid the use of a grill inside. Portable grills are also unstable and can easily be turned over and the burning coals start a fire.

Heat is necessary for us to live. Proper maintenance of your heater, no matter what the type, can keep you cozy and warm all winter long. Always follow the instructions that are provided with your heater, and also make sure that your smoke detectors are operational in your home or business. For those using fuels to heat, a carbon monoxide detector is also a must have. They can be obtained at department stores for as little as ten dollars and can save your life. Stay safe, and before you know it, Spring will be here.

Learn more from the National Fire Prevention Association

On the Net: www.nfpa.com

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