The Emergency-Free Home - Emergency-proofing your home

The modern home is a marvel of devices and appliances, such as space heaters, washers, dryers, refrigerators, gas and electric furnaces, and many others. To a great extent, the hazards of large or small appliances are associated with fire. But householders should also take precautions against the dangers of electrocution, falls caused by poorly placed electrical cords, and other accident-producers.

Household items that are most likely to be hazardous are heating-cooling equipment, cooking equipment, heat tapes and humidifiers, and small electrical appliances.

Heating-Cooling Equipment

In the first category are furnaces, air conditioners, space heaters, and similar equipment. The primary safety rule with heating equipment is to make sure it is operating properly and efficiently. For furnaces of any kind, an annual checkup—usually in the summer or fall—is advisable. Many homeowners have maintenance policies that include such checkups.

All space heaters come with instructions for installation and operation. These instructions should be followed closely. Space heaters should be located so that they have plenty of room around them. They should be placed at a safe distance from all papers, clothing, draperies, furniture, and children. Manufacturers’ labels usually indicate what the proper clearance is for a particular model.

As with furnaces, space heaters should be kept in good working condition. Missing controls should be replaced; so should missing or defective guards or screens.

Electric space heaters should have tip-over shutoff switches that turn off the current if the unit is knocked over. These heaters should also have guards around their coils. The guard can be a wire grille or other protective “fence” that keep fingers or fabrics away from the heating element.

If an extension cord is used with the space heater, the cord should have a power rating at least as high as the heater's rating. The cord should be in a safe place and out of the reach of children.

An important rule: Do not use a portable electric heater in a bathroom, near a sink, or close to water. This presents the risk of electrocution.

Gas space heaters may be vented or unvented. Both kinds need special care and attention.

If a gas space heater is vented, it should be vented correctly. That is, the vent pipe should be properly sized and free of cracks, leaks, and blockages, with tight joints and crack-free heat exchanger (to prevent leakage of carbon monoxide). If in doubt about the venting, call a servicer or your gas supplier.

When using an unvented gas space heater, you should always have a door or window slightly open in the room where the heater is located.

With either kind of gas heater, light the match first before you turn on the gas for the pilot light. This prevents flareups due to accumulated gas.

Woodburning , kerosene , or oil space heaters not only need to be installed properly; it would also be wise to have them inspected by a local fire safety official. Then you should use only the fuel, and in some cases the grade of fuel, for which the heater was designed.

The chimney of the heater or stove should be cleaned regularly, once every couple of months at least. In the case of a woodburning heater, it is best to use only paper or wood for kindling. Never use gasoline or another flammable or combustible fluid to start a woodburning stoves.

Cooking Equipment

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that more than 100,000 fires each year are associated with cooking equipment, especially stoves. These fires cause an estimated $300 million in property losses.

Some basic safety precautions can prevent most of these fires. For example, householders can avoid storing flammable or combustible items above the stove, including potholders, plastic utensils, or towels. Children's favorite foods, including cookies or candy, should never be kept above the range or in its immediate vicinity.

Clothing can be a trap for the unwary. Loose-fitting sleeves should not be worn while cooking. Also, you should never leave a stove unattended, especially when a burner is turned to a high setting.

Heat Tapes and Humidifiers

Heat tapes and ultrasonic humidifiers can pose home safety and health hazards. Heat tapes, used to keep exposed water pipes from freezing, present fire hazards. Ultrasonic humidifiers filled with tap water may discharge dangerous mineral particles into the air.

Electric heat tapes , or pipe heating cables, plug into wall or floor outlets. Once plugged in, they emit heat through their molded plastic insulation. Used in crawl spaces and in the substructures of homes and mobile homes, many tapes remain plugged in year-round. A thermostat in the power supply cord turns the tape on when the temperature falls below a certain level.

Improper installation of heat tapes has become a major cause of home fires in recent years. In many cases, lack of attention to the instructions that come with the product has resulted in faulty installation. Some homeowners lap the tape over itself when winding the tape around the pipe. Others ignore manufacturers’ warnings that specific lengths of tape be used to protect pipes of given diameters and lengths.

If your home has heat tapes already installed you should (1) inspect all tapes, or have a licensed electrician inspect them, for proper installation or deteriorated installation; (2) check older tapes for cracks in the plastic insulation or bare wires, and replace worn tapes at once; (3) make certain, if you have plastic pipes, that the tapes you are using are recommended specifically for your kind of plastic piping; and (4) inspect all tapes to make sure none is wrapped over the thermal insulation on a pipe or near flammable objects.

Ultrasonic humidifiers using tap water have been found to spread such impurities as lead, aluminum, asbestos, or dissolved organic gases into the air. All these substances can be health hazards. To avoid such problems, use bottled, demineralized water or install demineralizing filters on your tap-water supply.

Other humidifiers pose no such mineral particle threat.

Home Electrical Safety

Have you conducted an audit of the connections, cords, gadgets (aside from major appliances), and other electrical equipment in your home? If not, such an audit is virtually a must.

You can start checking all lighting, including bulbs and sockets, all cords and extension cords, and all TV or audio equipment. Bulbs with wattages too high for the size of a fixture may overheat and cause a fire, so you should replace oversized bulbs with others of appropriate wattages. If the correct wattage is not indicated, use a bulb no larger than 60 watts.

Make sure all electrical cords are placed out of traffic areas so that people will not trip or fall over them. Stepping on cords can damage them, too, and produce fire hazards. Also check to make sure that cords do not have furniture resting on them. Cords should not be frayed, should not be wrapped around themselves or any object, and should never be attached to walls with nails or staples.

Extension cords should be equipped with safety covers and should never carry more than their proper loads. Cords and electrical devices will normally have electrical ratings.

Wall outlets and switches should be checked to make sure they are working properly and fixed if they are not. You can test them by touching: an unusually warm outlet or switch may indicate an unsafe wiring condition. Plugs should fit into outlets snugly, and all outlets should have face plates so that no wiring is exposed.

Kitchen countertop appliances should be placed so that they remain dry. If they give off heat, as does a toaster, they should have some space to “breathe.” Countertop appliances should be unplugged when not in use.

Cords for countertop appliances are critically important. These should never be placed so that they can come into contact with hot surfaces; especially cords around toasters, ovens, and ranges. The same rule holds with water or wet surfaces.

Because ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) can prevent many electrocutions, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that all countertop outlets be equipped with them. They should also be used in bathrooms and other areas where there is a risk of electrical shock. Test your GFCIs regularly in accordance with the manufacturers’ instructions.

Most current building codes require that bathrooms be equipped with GFCIs. Older homes may not have them.

Other electrical appliances and equipment require safety care. These items can include hair dryers, curling irons, and electric blankets. A universal rule is that such devices be unplugged when not in use. Plugged in and allowed to fall into water, they can cause an electrocution. They should also be in good operating condition, with no damaged wiring or other parts.

Do not use portable electric heaters in the bathroom or other rooms where they may come into contact with water. Keep any use of electrical devices or appliances in such rooms to a minimum.

Electric blankets also have to be used with care. They should be in good condition and have no charred spots on either the upper or the lower blanket surface. Before using them, look for cracks or breaks in wiring, connectors, and plugs.

To prevent overheating, do not cover electric blankets with other blankets, comforters, or other bedding. They should also be used flat, not folded back, and should not be tucked in except in accordance with the manufacturers’ instructions.

Basement , garage , and workshop power tools and outlets constitute another extremely important area of safety concern. Power tools should have three-pronged plugs to indicate that they are double insulated. These plugs reduce the risk of electric shock.

Check your fuse box or circuit breaker. A fuse of the wrong size can present a fire hazard. If you do not know what sizes are correct, an electrician can tell you. Your circuit breakers should be “exercised” periodically if they are to remain in good working order. This procedure is simple:

1. Turn off your freezer, refrigerator, and air conditioner.

2. Flip each circuit breaker off and on three times.

3. Turn the appliances back on.

Repeat this routine at least once a year. Also check the GFCIs on your basement, garage, or workshop equipment to make sure they are working properly.

Receptacles located outdoors represent a final stage in your electrical audit. These receptacles or outlets should have waterproof covers that keep water out and prevent malfunctions. The covers should be closed when not in use. If your home has no GFCIs on outside receptacles, have them installed.

As regards electric lawn movers and other electric garden tools and appliances, the basic rules of safety apply. But remember: extension cords used outside should be specifically designed for such use, or you may be risking a fire or a serious shock.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: