Colder temperatures are starting to arrive here in the PNW and across the nation – but before you crank up that space heater, make sure to read this comprehensive safety guide from our friends at The Hartford. It covers gas patio heaters and fireplaces, too, including signs you may have had a chimney fire and not even known it!
When the weather turns chilly outside, many homeowners turn to a fireplace, space heater, wood-burning stove or patio heater to make their space a little cozier. Yet these appliances require proper installation, use and maintenance to keep you, your home and your family safe.
Installing and maintaining working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors is important in all homes, especially those that enjoy a wood stove or wood-burning fireplace. There are also several other things you should be aware of so you can enjoy heat-generating appliances safely.
Electric Space Heater Safety
An electric space heater is a great way to warm up a drafty or chilly room in your house, as long as you follow these electric space heater safety tips:
- Choose the Right Heater for Your Space
Determine the size of the room you’ll want to heat. Shop for a heater that is an appropriate size for your space. The packaging or manufacturer specifications should tell you how many square feet the appliance can heat. Choosing a heater that’s too big for the room can pose a safety risk.
- Purchase a Quality Heater with Safety Features
Buy your space heater from a reputable retailer, and make sure the label states that it has been certified by an independent testing laboratory such as UL. Look for features like a safety cut-off switch that will turn the heater off if it tips over.
- Use the Space Heater Safely at Home
Follow these basic safety precautions when using your electric space heater:
- If you need an extension cord, use the shortest one possible. Never run the cord under rugs because that could create a tripping hazard.
- Set the heater on a level surface to reduce the chances it will tip over while running.
- Make sure the heater has at least three feet of space around it on all sides. Keep it clear of furniture, blankets and any other items that could catch fire. Also keep pets and kids away from the space heater while it’s running.
And finally, turn your space heater off if you plan to leave the room or go to sleep to avoid the serious fire risk posed by an unattended electric space heater.
Electric Fireplace Safety
Electric fireplaces have become popular with homeowners who love the pleasant glow of a fire but don’t want to deal with wood, smoke, and ashes. They are generally safer than those that burn wood, but it’s still important to follow these electric fireplace safety tips:
- Buy the Right Electric Fireplace for Your Home
There are many electric fireplaces available, including:
- Wall-mount units
- Standalone units
- Units that can be retrofitted to an existing hearth
Choose an electric fireplace that’s right for the size of your space and the location you want to use it, whether indoors or outdoors. Note that many electric fireplaces are made for indoor use only. Also look for safety features such as an overheat safety shutoff and a feature that monitors the heat of the plug to prevent electrical fires.
- Make Sure You Install Your Electric Fireplace Correctly
Some electric fireplaces simply plug into a power outlet. If you buy an electric fireplace that plugs in, follow the manufacturer’s instructions about the required type of outlet and grounding. You may need to put the fireplace on a dedicated circuit to avoid blowing a fuse. And if you buy an electric fireplace that needs to be hardwired into your home’s electrical wiring, hire a licensed electrician to do the job safely.
- Operate Your Electric Fireplace With Safety in Mind
Only use your electric fireplace when you’re awake and in the room where it’s operating. Electric fireplaces give off much less heat than wood-burning fireplaces, but it’s still important to be diligent when you’re using one. Follow manufacturer instructions on cords. For example, some manufacturers warn you not to use an extension cord with your electric fireplace.
- Be Careful When Performing Maintenance
If you need to change a light bulb, clean the fireplace or perform other maintenance, make sure the appliance is unplugged and has cooled down completely first. Follow the cleaning and maintenance instructions in the owner’s manual when accessing the unit, cleaning it and performing maintenance. For example, the manual may tell you not to use water or abrasive cleaners on your fireplace.
Gas Patio Heater Safety
Patio heaters allow you to stay warm and toasty in your outdoor living space into the fall and even the winter, depending on where you live. Most gas patio heaters run on propane gas, though there are electric and natural gas patio heaters. If you’ll want to heat up your outdoor space, follow these patio heater safety tips:
- Choose an Appropriate Patio Heater for Your Space
The manufacturer specifications should tell you the size of the area the appliance is intended to heat. Measure your space, and pick a heater that’s the correct size for the square footage. You may need multiple heaters for a large space. Also look for safety features, such as automatic shut-off when the heater is tilted.
- Follow Manufacturer Instructions on Proper Use and Placement
The manufacturer will tell you what kind of fuel to use for your heater and where you can safely place the heater in your outdoor space. Pay close attention to the required distance from walls and ceilings or tarps. Putting your heater too close to one of these structures could cause a fire.
- Use a Patio Heater Only in a Well-ventilated Outdoor Space
Patio heaters such as those that run on propane gas emit carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes. It is very important to never, ever use a patio heater indoors. Doing so could pose a life-threatening safety risk to you and your family. Patio heaters are meant for use on outdoor courtyards, decks and patios.
- Store Your Heater in a Safe Place During Windy Weather
If you’re expecting strong winds in your area, you may need to store your patio heater in a shed or other safe space during the bad weather. High winds could tip and damage your patio heater, making it less safe to operate.
Wood Stove and Fireplace Safety
- Correct Installation Is Critical
If you’re considering installing a wood stove in your home, it’s important to get familiar with your local and regional regulations regarding wood-burning appliance installation. Make sure your stove complies with all local fire and building codes, such as proper clearance around the stove and acceptable venting. Also ensure your stove pipe dimensions and flue/damper specifications meet the necessary requirements.
Whether you heat your home with a wood-burning fireplace or a wood stove, it’s critical to make sure there’s enough ventilation to direct smoke and carbon monoxide out of your home. Inadequate ventilation could lead to the buildup of carbon monoxide, a silent, odorless, yet deadly, gas inside your home.
Also take a look at what’s surrounding your chimney on your home’s exterior. Remove tree branches that are within 15 feet from the top of your chimney. Ensure there’s a chimney cap installed to prevent debris and small animals (like squirrels) from falling in and blocking the smoke flow from your wood stove or fireplace.
- Maintain Your Wood-Burning Appliances
As with all areas of your home, proper maintenance of your wood-burning appliance helps prevent potential problems like overheating, which could lead to fires, and leaks that could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Keep an eye on your wood stove doors’ seals to ensure they aren’t crumbling. Also monitor your chimney for wear and tear on pipe, stone, mortar or chimney bricks that could pose a fire hazard.
Schedule annual inspections and cleanings of your chimney with a qualified chimney services technician. Keeping your chimney clear of soot and debris can help prevent both fires from starting in the chimney and potential carbon monoxide poisoning. In addition to a thorough cleaning, a professional will look for and remove any other chimney blockage that could pose a chimney fire hazard, like birds’ nests.
A professional can also help you determine if you’ve already had a chimney fire, which often goes undetected. Even a small fire can damage a chimney, endangering your home and family. Signs you may have had a chimney fire include:
- “Puffy” or “honey combed” creosote
- Warped metal damper or chimney/stove pipe
- Cracked or damaged flue tiles with missing pieces
- Damage to the exterior roof or nearby metal TV antenna
- Damaged and/or discolored chimney cap
- Create a Safe Environment
Developing good safety habits around your wood stove and fireplace is a wise idea for everyone in your family to help prevent injury and unwanted fires.
While you’ll want to keep a fire extinguisher within easy reach of your stove or fireplace, don’t store matches, lighters, or lighter fluid close by. They can quickly catch fire and/or explode if they get too hot. Also pay careful attention to where you store your wood for burning. Don’t put it within three feet of your wood stove or fireplace or you could risk a random spark starting your indoor wood supply on fire.
To avoid potential fires, your fireplace or wood stove area also should be clear of anything flammable on the interior of your home, including:
And while you may love the idea of curling up by the fire with a hot drink and a favorite book, try to keep chairs and other furniture at least three feet from the fire. In addition, choose fire-resistant furniture when it’s time to redecorate.
Consider the type of wood you burn in your stove or fireplace. Green or young wood has a high moisture content that results in not just a lot of smoke, but also a buildup of creosote. Instead, choose wood that’s been seasoned or dried for at least six months to produce an even, safe fire. And, wherever possible, choose hardwood over softwood, as it produces less creosote.
- Safety Accessories for Wood-Burning Appliances
If you’re enjoying a brand new stove, keep the safety manual handy (but not close enough to catch fire), as well as a fire extinguisher.
It may also be wise to invest in a few key accessories to improve safety around your wood-burning stove or fireplace.
- Non-flammable gloves will protect your hands when you’re adding wood to your stove.
- A fire screen not only helps prevent sparks from flying out of a fireplace, but also it’s useful for keeping small children and pets from getting too close and getting burned. A portable fire screen is a stand-alone, foldable screen with two or more sections.
- Always Correctly Dispose of Ashes
Don’t let the ashes from previous fires build up in the bottom of your fireplace or your wood stove. Anything more than one inch of ash could lead to smokier fires, as it becomes more difficult for oxygen to find its way to the wood. To prevent this, you’ll want to shovel the ash out. However, make sure you do it when the fire is completely out and the ash is cool. You can easily scoop it out into a metal container with a lid. Don’t throw your ashes into your indoor (or outdoor) trash bin as it could lead to a fire.
Important: Store your fireplace or wood stove ash outside and away from your home in the metal container with lid. This reduces the chance of unexpected fires.
Insuring Properties with Electric Fireplaces and Wood-Burning Appliances
While most insurers do provide homeowners insurance for properties that have electric and traditional fireplaces or wood-burning stoves, you can expect to answer questions about your wood-burning appliances. Your insurer will expect the wood stove or fireplace to be installed and/or built to current fire codes. You are also expected to maintain and operate it safely.
There are several excellent online resources that address the maintenance and safe operation of wood stoves, fireplaces and electric heaters in the home. Visit these sites for more information:
- Chimney Safety Institute of America
- National Fireplace Institute
- Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Burn Wise
When enjoyed responsibly, a fireplace, wood stove or electric heater can be a welcoming and relaxing center of your home that provides warmth and comfort on chilly days. However, if you don’t maintain it properly, it could also be a danger to you, your loved ones and your property.
By taking the time to learn about the proper operation, cleaning, and safe use of your heating appliances, you can help avoid potentially fatal house fires or carbon monoxide poisoning—and safely enjoy the warmth for years to come.
Source: The Hartford’s ‘Extra Mile’