Protecting Your Home from Unexpected or Hidden Fire and Carbon Monoxide Dangers

Homeowners, landlords and parents: 
We are entering the peak season for house fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.
It is time to talk about some safety risks that you may have never heard or thought about

According to the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), heating equipment is the second leading cause of home fire fatalities after smoking. It is also the major cause of carbon monoxide in the home. There are some simple safety precautions you should take.

You already know that you should have your furnace serviced each year. The operation and venting of furnaces needs checked. Complex new furnaces can be put out of commission by failure of a simple part. Maintenance can avoid that “ice cube for a house feeling”.  As a bonus, you will probably  save fuel costs with a properly adjusted furnace. 

There is common serious problem that you probably have not heard about and is often ignored by heating professionals.  You should hire a furnace technician who will look at ALL of the gas appliances in the home. High efficiency furnaces can cause an intermittent problem of a furnace pulling carbon monoxide back into a home from other gas appliances such as gas clothes dryers, hot water tanks and fireplaces. If you occasional smell the odor of natural gas or experience headaches, you probably have that problem.  Return air ducts that are installed too close to these appliances can also cause the same problems.      

  • If you smell gas, turn off gas at the exterior meter, open windows and have the cause immediately corrected.
  • If any pilot light goes out, you smell gas around the hot water tank, the fireplace smoke comes back into the home, or you smell gas when the clothes dryer is working, the probable cause is the furnace operation. This needs addressed ASAP.
  • Place space heaters in protected areas surrounded by noncombustible surfaces away from pets and children.
  • Do not fill portable heaters with liquid fuels indoors.
  • Do not use extension cords with space heaters.
  • Turn portable heaters off when leaving a room or going to bed.

Fireplaces are another major cause of residential fires. You can pretty much count on seeing house fires caused by fireplaces the first cold weather snap.  Many of the fires are the result of minor defects that go one day too many without repair. Metal fireboxes and flues can develop holes from rust. Masonry fireplaces can have loose mortar and bricks from repetitive heating and cooling.  Heat rolling out of the firebox can first char and then ignite mantles, flammable trim, flooring or decorations sitting too close to the firebox.      

  • Have fireplaces and chimneys cleaned and then checked with a camera. Have any needed repairs made before the first use each season. An opening in mortar the size of your little finger can be the cause of your home burning down. 
  • Install a spark screen and cap on fireplace chimneys. The cap should prevent water from leaking back into the chimney to cause damage.
  • Check for combustible materials too close to the firebox. Look under the mantle for charring.

Clothes dryers are an often ignored and serious fire risk. Lint can collect in the vent pipe. This is a fire hazard. Lint has also become a major cause of damage to clothes dryers by collecting and then overheating the heater unit in the dryer. The expense of replacing damaged heater parts can easily be hundreds of dollars.  Use of the plastic flexible vent pipes is also a major cause of fires which is easily avoidable by replacing the pipe flexible aluminum pipe.  

Electrical hazards are too easy to ignore. “If it turns on, it must be OK” could not be further from the truth.  A common electric fire hazard is improper or damaged extension cords. Never, ever run extension cords under carpets. Do not use damaged cords. Make sure that any extension cord is rated to carry the electrical load you are putting through the cord. Old extension cords do wear out and then become fire hazards. If any electrical item is charred or causes a shock, replace it NOW!   

  • Loose connections at switches and outlets are top causes of electrical fires. If you see melted switches or plugs or smell melting plastic or fire, shut off the power and locate the cause.
  • If a motor stops working, hums loudly or gets hot, disconnect or unplug the device. Attic fans, paddle fans, overhead garage door motors and damaged garbage disposal motors are a few examples of this problem. 
  • Circuit breakers are not intended to be used as switches. They are designed to shut off power before the house wiring turns into a “toaster wire”. If you have repetitive tripping, the circuit breaker can wear out. Repetitive tripping is your warning that there is a problem that needs immediately repaired.   
  • Incandescent light bulbs above closet shelves and too high wattage light bulbs in low wattage fixtures are major fire risks. Check the label on the fixture for proper sizing. Use florescent bulbs above shelves.

No basic fire safety article would be complete without mention of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. You may be surprised to know that CO detectors may not sound the alarm to protect you at the toxic level of 100 parts per million, and smoke detectors vary in effectiveness. 

A Basic Lesson on Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors

What you probably do not know about smoke and carbon monoxide detectors:  Detectors vary widely in quality and sensitivity. Just like Goldilocks and the porridge, some are too sensitive and others not sensitive enough.     

IONIZATION smoke detectors are more sensitive to flaming fires and PHOTOELECTRIC smoke detectors alarms are more responsive to smoldering fires. Combination type smoke or both types together is the best selection for your home. 

Carbon Monoxide detectors should also be installed. Nighthawk brand detectors are regularly rated highly by Consumer Reports. You may read it here first, but you will someday see a major news story about this demonstration by the manufacturer Bacharach.  I have witnessed the demonstration twice. A brand new Nighthawk CO  detector was opened and then placed into a sealed plastic bag with calibration grade carbon monoxide gas certified at 100 parts per million. According to OSHA standards, employees are to immediately removed from a workplace with CO at that level. In both instances, it took over and hour for the detector alarm to go off. There is a delay built in alarm function response of CO detectors. The solution is to install a CO detector which also has a digital readout in a visible location.

October 6 to 12 is Fire Protection Week. This annual event is sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association. Even if you have never heard of Fire Protection Week or the NFPA, you have had your safety protected by the codes they develop and provide. These include the National Electrical Code, National Fuel Gas Code, the Standard for Chimneys and Fireplaces and dozens of more codes and standards that affect safety. For more information about the association go to