Preventing house fires should always be a priority, but if you're like most Americans, you think you're at very little risk of ever experiencing a house fire. This attitude, however, can be almost as dangerous as fire itself. Outside of the former Soviet Bloc, Americans have the highest fire death rate in the industrialized world. In fact, in the past year there were 530,500 structure fires that caused 3,000 civilian deaths, 15,350 civilian injuries and $10.6 billion in property damage, according to the National Fire Prevention Association.
As a former professional home inspector who has been through thousands of homes, I've become a skilled observer of the obvious--and not so obvious--sources of house fires. When outside temperatures drop, fire risks increase. To keep your family safe and prevent house fires, consider the following.
Healthy heating equipment
Faulty heating equipment (including furnaces, fireplaces, wood stoves and portable heaters) is the second leading cause of fire deaths. To prevent a fire in your house, get your heating equipment in tip-top shape:
- Service furnace, water heaters and boilers: Combustion-burning appliances get dirty from use and must be professionally cleaned and serviced each year to maintain safe operation.
- Clean fireplace chimneys: These get dirty from combustion deposits called creosote that can fuel a very serious chimney fire. Before the season gets underway have the chimney cleaned and inspected by a certified chimney sweep. When using the fireplace, always burn hardwood logs; soft woods like pine or cedar can clog your chimney. Burning things like paper or branches releases burning embers that could ignite your roof. Also, make sure your fireplace is covered by a sturdy screen to keep hot embers from jumping into your living room.
- Prevent portable heater problems: Every year, portable heaters cause household fires that could easily have been avoided with a little common sense. Before using a heater, read and study the manufacturer's instructions. Be very careful not to place the heater where it can be knocked over, and keep it away from clothing, paper, furniture and other combustibles. When refueling, make sure you let the heater cool down completely, and never mix or substitute fuels like gas and kerosene. Portable heaters are designed for a single fuel and mixing can cause a serious fire.
- Practice safe storage: Files, clothes, boxes or anything flammable that sits too close to a heat source can become easy kindling for a household fire. Never store anything on top of or near your furnace or water heater. Also, be careful to keep things away from light bulbs, especially in closets. Be sure to keep flammable liquids like gasoline or paint thinner in proper containers and well away from any sources of heat, including pilot lights.
Smart smoke detectors. All smoke detectors are the same, right? Wrong! Old-technology smoke detectors have an ionic sensor that sets off the alarm when it "sees" fire. Newer photoelectric sensors, around for the last couple of years, are more sensitive to slow, smoldering fires. Together, these two detector technologies provide a greater degree of protection and prevention against household fires.
Expect to pay about $30 for a combination photoelectric and ionic smoke detector. If your budget is tight, however, don't wait until you can afford the more expensive units. Ionic sensors alone are still effective and can be purchased for about $10. An important smoke detector feature to look for is a reset or "silencer" button. This lets you shut down the detector for about 10 minutes when nuisance alarms occur, like burnt toast. Once the smoke clears, the unit goes back to full alert.
Effective extinguishers. Before you buy so much as another potted plant to fill up your house, make sure it's protected by adequate fire extinguishers. Like smoke detectors, there are different types for different fires. The kitchen is the most common source of household fires so make sure it is equipped with one rated Type B-C. This means it is effective in fighting grease, as well as electrical fires. Type B-C extinguishers are also appropriate for the garage or workshop. For the rest of the house, purchase a combination unit rated Type A-B-C, meaning it will cover fires fueled by wood, grease or electricity. At least one extinguisher per floor is recommended for the prevention of house fires.