Economy could force some to cut corners on heat

First Posted: 12/29/2008

A bad economy could be prompting more local homeowners to turn to alternative heating sources that also could bring increased risks if key safety measures are ignored, according to Mount Airy Fire Chief Benny Brannock.
Our biggest concerns are the space heaters either kerosene or electric, Brannock said of such heating sources that people might be relying on more this winter as opposed to centralized units such as furnaces or heat pumps.
The reasons for those concerns are clear.
In Philadelphia on Friday, seven people died as a result of a fire in a duplex involving a kerosene heater. Authorities said a woman had tried to pour fuel into the heater, which got too hot. As she tried to carry it outside, the unit exploded, leading to the deaths.
Closer to home on Dec. 21, a house fire occurred on Miller Road, which a Franklin Volunteer Fire Department official said originated from an electric space heater that had been placed in a bedroom. The occupants of that home were able to escape.
Brannock said he doesnt want to discourage use of such heaters, which because of being portable can be employed safely and economically to concentrate heat in certain areas of a residence. But precautions must be observed as well as manufacturers instructions, he said.
The biggest need with space heaters is to make sure they are positioned a safe distance from combustibles: furniture, drapes or anything else that could catch fire. The Mount Airy fire chief recommends at least 3 feet.
Another danger is children playing in and around them, said Brannock, who added that this also can be a concern with other heat sources.
With kerosene heaters, refueling can be a risk in itself, as evidenced by the fatal blaze in Philadelphia. A lot of people sometimes will fill them when theyre burning in the house, and that just adds to the danger, Brannock said.
His advice is to let the unit cool, then take it outside to add the fuel. The heater can be lighted again once its back inside.
Space heaters should be turned off when one leaves a home or goes to sleep.

Carbon Monoxide
Kerosene heaters can pose a dual threat due to the presence of carbon monoxide, which is caused by the incomplete burning of kerosene as well as wood, propane, natural gas or coal. So it can be associated with other open-burning processes as well.
Brannock said he can recall at least one case of carbon monoxide poisoning in the local area in the past few years.
Since the wicks in kerosene heaters deteriorate over time, their correct replacement also is important, Brannock said. Weve had some problems with people replacing them and not putting them in properly, he said.
If the wick is not positioned correctly, it can lead to the fuel not burning cleanly and the emitting of carbon monoxide. An improperly installed wick also can interfere with the automatic shutoff function included in kerosene heaters which causes them to quit burning if accidentally tipped over by a child or other means.
Carbon monoxide dangers can increase when using kerosene heaters in a confined, unvented space such as a bedroom, Brannock said. Thats because one might be asleep for six to eight hours at a time with no exposure to fresh air. When a person is not sleeping, he or she is likely to be moving from room to room and not restricted to that single location, the fire official explained.
Brannock said that with the bad economy, some people might be pulling kerosene or electric heaters out of the mothballs which havent been used recently, increasing the need for maintenance or repairs.
It might be more convenient, and less-costly, to undertake such work on a do-it-yourself basis or to recruit the aid of a friend or family member. However, Brannock said that relying on experienced professionals for any heating-relating work regardless of source is always best in the long run.
Were all guilty of getting the wrong people to do it sometimes, the fire chief said of such tasks. Weve all done it.
Since carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas, the fire chief encourages the use of alarms that detect its presence. However, those devices are no substitute for proper use and upkeep of appliances that produce carbon monoxide.
Another important precaution involves not using gasoline in a kerosene heater. Never mix and match, said Brannock, who added that fuel containers should be clearly identified to avoid mistakes.
Heating fires are said to account for 36 percent of residential home blazes in rural areas every year.

Woodstove Precautions
With concerns over petroleum prices also prompting more people to turn to wood as a heating source, either in woodstoves or fireplaces, other safety measures exist for it, Brannock said.
One of the big dangers associated with woodstoves is the buildup of creosote, which can be prevented by using well-seasoned hardwood with a low moisture content. Slow burning or incomplete combustion can cause the tar-like flammable substance to collect in the flue, and possibly lead to a chimney fire.
Fire-resistant materials should be used on walls around woodstoves.
Along with following manufacturers guidelines on the safe operation of stoves, Brannock advises having chimneys and fireplaces periodically inspected and cleaned by a professional chimney sweep, who also can make any needed repairs.
One of the reasons for this is the possibility of cracks in the chimney which a homeowner might not be able to pinpoint without a full inspection, he said. Masonry, for example, can weaken over time, possibly forming open areas where flames can ignite surrounding structures.
With fireplaces, the use of protective metal-mesh screens is encouraged to prevent sparks from being discharged and to keep children or pets away from the flames.
Cardboard boxes, trash or debris should never be burned in a fireplace or woodstove.
Meanwhile, firewood should be stacked outdoors at least 30 feet away from the home.
While less dangers are associated with other types of heating sources, the Mount Airy Fire Department recommends having all heating systems inspected and serviced by a professional technician near the beginning of each heating season.

Smoke Alarms
Brannock reminded that if a fire does occur, a smoke alarm can be worth its weight in gold in terms of saving lives.
The Mount Airy Fire Department advises installing detectors on every level of a home and in all bedrooms. Alarms should be tested monthly to make sure they are working properly, and new batteries installed at least once a year.
Smoke alarms more than 10 years old should be replaced, local fire officials say.
They also point out that sleeping children might not wake up to the sound of a smoke alarm, so it is a good idea to expose them to the alarm so they will recognize it and respond appropriately in an emergency.
Contact Tom Joyce at [email protected], or at 719-1924.

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