Home Fire Prevention Tips: How to Minimize Your Risk of Avoidable Fires
Over the decades, I have given much thought to fire prevention. Not having the luxury of enough income to afford luxuries like fire and flood insurance, I realized that the first line of protection from these events is my responsibility. Here’s what I have learned over the years:
- Inspect your electrical system and have it repaired if necessary, by an electrician with forensic fire investigation experience. He will know more about how electrical fires start and know what to look for and how to correct it. From really idiotic things like pennies used as fuses, to non-armored wiring being chewed on by rodents, dangerous conditions can result from poor wiring practices, animal nests in the fuse/breaker panel, etc.
- Practice safe electrical habits. Don’t use old, frayed extension cords, or appliances in which the cord is cracked and can potentially become shorted. Don’t place electrical cords under carpets. When using appliances that get hot, such as toasters, hair dryers, electric skillets, always unplug them when not in use. Electric skillets can overheat if the thermostat contacts ‘weld’ themselves in the on position, causing the unit to overheat. Always attend to this type of appliance while in use and unplug it if it malfunctions.
- If you have an oil fire while cooking, DO NOT DOUSE WITH WATER. Doing so will make the oil fire spread to other parts of the kitchen. Instead, use a tight-fitting lid to cover the pan and quench the fire by starving it of oxygen.
- With the increase in laptops and cordless cell phones and tablets, modern households have a not often noticed fire hazard: the Lithium Ion batteries in these devices. Sometimes they fail, and an internal short can cause a lithium fire, which is nearly impossible to extinguish. Do not operate, store or charge these devices in the presence of flammable materials. That means don’t charge your phone on a nightstand next to a box of tissues. Should the battery overheat and vent flames, the tissues will rapidly accelerate this fire into a major fire. Best practice is to charge your devices on a sheet of steel plate. You can get a steel plate at a home repair store or hardware store. Better yet, charge in an open steel box. I also charge some of my devices on the concrete floor in the basement. Laptops, phones, tablets and several other portable media devices use these battery types and should be charged on a non-flammable surface, a couple feet away from anything flammable. Do not use them in bed! A friend of mine recently came home to what nearly could have been a house fire–his laptop caught fire on the coffee table. The wood burned deeply, but fortunately did not sustain combustion. Even so, it caused thousands of dollars in smoke damage to his home.
- Heating systems. Another major cause of fire is heating systems. A properly maintained boiler or furnace is a good investment. Make sure your chimney is clean of creosote. Creosote can get hot enough under some conditions where it can ignite. A chimney fire is a well-aspirated fire–it burns like a flamethrower. This creosote buildup is of most concern if you run a wood burner. Oil furnaces should be tuned and operating properly. A poor fuel-air mixture can result in coking deposits in the flue, posing a fire hazard at some later time. If you have gas fired heat, regular inspection for leaks is good insurance against a catastrophe. On November 10, 2012, an explosion in the Richmond Hill subdivision in Indianapolis, Indiana in which two people died and five homes were completely destroyed; a total of 80 homes affected. If you currently use gas, you might consider converting to oil heat, as it is far safer.
- Candles, including religious candles: Use only away from flammables. Use away from curtains, on a stable surface in a stable tip-resistant holder. Anticipate the unexpected, such as a toppled candle. Burning candles in a clear area where if they did fall, they could not come in contact with flammables.
- Torchiere lamps with halogen bulbs. These get VERY hot. I recall a fire some years back that got started because one of these was too close to draperies in the livingroom. Consider switching to safer LED lamps which operate at cooler temperatures. Side benefit, you’ll have lower electric bills. In fact, converting all incandescent lamps to LED will allow fixtures to operate cooler and reduce the risk of fire. Avoid the use of CFL lamps. Cheap ones can fail and some have started fires.
- Air ‘fresheners’ that you plug into your wall outlet. If you have any of these UNPLUG THEM IMMEDIATELY and dispose of them. When I was working at a tower site, I had the opportunity to chat with a Fire Marshall from Old Saybrook, CT. He informed me that the leading cause of house fires at that time (2005-06) was these plug in air fresheners. What happens is a heating element heats a ‘wick’ and causes the fragrant oil to evaporate into the air. Some of these mechanisms fail, overheating the oil to its flash point. Since the oil itself is flammable, you have an instant fire, fueled by its own accelarant.
- Clothes dryers: The tubing that vents the hot air from your dryer builds up lint. This tubing should be cleaned out once a year, along with any grates that may be present to prevent squirrels from entering the dwelling through the vent. Clean the lint filter after each load. If possible, use the low heat setting and run the cycle for a bit longer. Don’t operate dryers while away or while sleeping.
- Cars and trucks and other fuel-equipped vehicles: Don’t store or park them inside a garage that is part of the lower level of the dwelling. If possible, store lawnmowers, chain saws, fuel, oil, etc., in a garden shed at least 30′ from the dwelling. Park your car in the driveway, at least 20′ from the house, if you have the room. Cars have been a significant cause of the worst dwelling fires, even when turned off. For example, some Ford and Lincoln models have caught on fire while parked, due to a faulty switch on the brake master cylinder. The switch shorts out and, using the brake fluid as fuel, starts a rapidly spreading fire.
- Lightning safety: There are some things you can to do minimze risk here, though not completely. One is having a good grounding system for the electrical service where it enters the house. And underground feed is a help, too. Having masonry installed where the electric service enters the home can deny a lightning strike the fuel it needs to start a major fire. A good surge suppression system involving coils of heavy wire in a separate NEMA box before the service enters the final surge suppressor can reduce the energy of a lightning strike at a nearby pole to levels which will not ignite wiring inside the walls. Use of armored wiring or steel conduit greatly reduces risk of fire from both lightning and shorts caused by rhodent damage to wiring. Avoid tall metal structures or antennas on your rooftop. If you must have an antenna, use a mast some distance from the house and bury the feed line underground to the house.
- Use of BBQ grills: When cooking, always use the grill outdoors, away from overhangs and not in the garage. Grilling on the back deck is okay if the grill is at the far end of the deck, furthest from the dwelling wall. When using charcoal briquettes, allowing proper cool down before disposal is essential Briquettes can remain hot enough to start fires the morning after a BBQ. When disposing of the ashes, do so in a pit and douse the pit with a garden hose. For gas grills, make sure the grill lights immediately. A grill that doesn’t ignite, but continues to vent gas is a potential bomb. Always supervise the use of the grill and when done with cooking, turn off the gas valved on the gas canister.
- Holidays/Christmas trees: A tragedy every year in the making are lights that get hot combined with dried out pine needles. If you use a real tree, keep it well watered. Switch from incandescent to LED lights for added safety. Make sure the proper size fuse is installed in the string, so as to safely disconnect the string should there occur a short somewhere in the string. Inspect your string wiring before decorating the tree each year. Discard any that should signs of wear, such as broken insulation.
- Smoking: Don’t smoke in bed! Believe it or not, this is a major cause of smoking related fires. Don’t toss your butts on the ground near leaves or anything else that can burn. Don’t throw into a trash receptacle–other flammables like paper may be in there and ignite from the embers of the cigarette/cigar butt. Don’t smoke around any volatile chemicals, fuels, nail polish remover, etc.
These are a few of the major fire risks that typical home dwellers must contend with. In the event that a fire DOES happen, make sure that you have smoke alarms at key locations in the home, situated such that their activation will awaken the most sound sleeper. In addition, I recommend CO alarms, because if a heating system malfunction should occur, causing carbon monoxide to build up in the living space, it can kill you without any aromatic warnings (it’s odorless). This is especially important is you MUST park a car in the attached garage. Exhaust fumes can build up in the living space.
More information can be found at the National Fire Protection Association at http://www.nfpa.org/public-education/resources/safety-tip-sheets .