Fire Hazards Where You Live
Most homeowners know the drill for reducing the risk of a house fire: They keep a smoke detector on each floor and make sure they are all in good working order at least twice a year. They closely monitor cooking, candles, and wood stoves and fireplaces, and refrain from smoking indoors. They keep matches and lighters stowed away where children cannot reach them.
Although all of these precautions are an excellent start for promoting fire safety at home, they don’t necessarily protect you from all of the fire hazards that could be lurking in your home. Here are 10 fire hazards you might not realize are in your home, and how to safely use, store, or dispose of each item to reduce the risk of fire.
1. Worn Electrical Cords
The electrical cords on any appliances that you frequently move—such as your vacuum cleaner or power tools, or even your laptop—can end up taking a great deal of abuse. Although power cords have no expiration date, they can wear out over time as they are used and abused.
For instance, the insulation around the power cord can wear away, either from the cord’s overheating or through misuse. If you’ve ever been guilty of pulling the vacuum cord out of the outlet by the cord itself rather than the plug, you may have weakened the insulation that surrounds the electrical cables. Similarly, electrical cords that run through high-traffic areas may lose their insulation as they are repeatedly treading on, and cords that get caught or pinched between heavy furniture can see the same kind of damage.
But cords that have lost their insulation can potentially electrocute you, not to mention the fact that they are a serious fire hazard.
If any appliances or extension cords in your home get hot to the touch or show signs of wear, do not use them. You can recycle worn extension cords at your local Best Buy, and you can find safe and environmentally friendly ways to dispose of old appliances through the EPA’s Responsible Appliance Disposal program.
You can prevent your cords from wearing out in the first place by keeping cords out of the path of any foot traffic, not forcing cords into spaces that may pinch or crimp them, and never using staples or nails to attach cords to a baseboard or wall.
Finally, you should never run a cord under a rug, since it prevents the cord from releasing heat and keeps it out of your sight, so you are less likely to notice if a problem develops.
2. Recalled Appliances
Even if your appliances have intact cords, they may still pose a fire threat to your home if they have been recalled. Some of the most commonly recalled appliances include:
- Indoor generators
- Clothes washers and dryers
- Computer batteries
It’s a good idea to periodically check the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s list of recalled items to make sure nothing in your home appears on the list. Make looking over this list part of your twice-yearly fire safety routine when you’re also checking the batteries in your smoke detectors. If you discover that one of your appliances has been recalled, contact the manufacturer to determine the proper next steps for dealing with the issue.
3. Space Heaters
Having a space heater in the winter can often mean the difference between chattering teeth and blessed warmth. But because space heaters are portable, many users will place them too close to combustible items—like curtains, furniture, rugs, or blankets.
Coil space heaters are especially dangerous because the coils are so hot that they can quickly ignite anything flammable that comes into contact with them.
If you use a space heater in your home, make sure it is kept far away from any items that could catch fire. Also, the radiator-type space heaters that diffuse heat over the entire surface of the appliance are safer than the coil heaters, although you must keep both kinds well away from flammable items. Finally, make sure your space heaters have been safety tested and UL approved, and always follow proper usage instructions. For instance, you should never leave a space heater unattended and it should not run all day.
4. Clothes Dryers
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), local fire departments respond to an estimated 15,970 home fires involving clothes dryers or washing machines each year: 92% of these fires involved the clothes dryer, while combination washer/dryers accounted for 5% of the fires.
So what is it about clothes dryers that make them such a potent fire hazard? Accumulated lint. This material is very flammable, and it can build up both in the lint trap and in the venting system. Since dryers use heated air to work, and exhaust that air through the vents, any lint in the system has the potential to ignite.
Cleaning the lint trap of your dryer before each and every use can do a great deal to prevent fires. However, that is not the only cleaning you need to do to protect your home from this hazard. Experts recommend having your dryer vents professionally cleaned every 12 to 24 months.
In addition, know the warning signs that your dryer vents may need cleaning:
- Your clothes take a long time to dry.
- The dryer gets extra hot.
- There is a burning smell when you run the machine.
5. Loose Outlets
If plugs keep falling out of an outlet, it’s more than just a nuisance—it’s a major fire hazard. That’s because the contacts in the wall have worn down, meaning they are not able to securely grip your plug, causing a missed electrical connection. Such a missed connection can cause electrical arcing (a spark wherein electricity jumps from one place to another), which can cause a fire.
Replacing loose outlets is a simple job for a professional electrician. In general, you can expect to spend $8 to $10 per outlet, although most electricians will have a minimum charge for your bill. If you are committed to DIY, there are a number of sites online that will walk you through the process—but it’s always better to get professional help when you’re dealing with electrical work.
6. Oily Rags
Changing your own oil is a great way to save money, but it can increase your risk of a home fire. That’s because oil-soaked rags can spontaneously combust—without any spark to ignite them—whether the oil is from your car’s engine, from oil-based paint, from varnishes, or from the vegetable oil you use in the kitchen.
Here’s how it works: The rags will slowly heat to the oil’s ignition point via oxidization. Oxidization causes a substance to release heat, and, if there is no place for the heat to dissipate—because the rags are in a pile, for instance—then the temperature will rise to the oil’s ignition point, starting a fire.
When you have oily rags that you wish to reuse, hang them up to dry outside or in a well-ventilated room before laundering them. This will allow the heat to dissipate safely as the rags dry and help prevent spontaneous combustion.
If you plan to dispose of oil-soaked rags, make sure you place them in a container with a tight-fitting lid, then fill the container with water. It is safest to use metal containers, but you can use a zip-top plastic bag as an alternative. From there, contact your garbage disposal service to find out how to properly dispose of the rags.
7. Excess Sawdust
Any amateur woodworkers or home improvement DIYers know that sawdust is the inevitable result of their projects. Unfortunately, it is hazardous to allow sawdust to collect.
Not only does sawdust ignite and burn much more easily than whole pieces of lumber, but also sawdust in the air ignites even more easily. Even a fine layer of sawdust poses a significant fire hazard in your home.
Make sure you regularly clean up any sawdust you create using a vacuum specifically created to collect combustible dust. Once the dust has been vacuumed up, it can be bagged in a plastic garbage bag and disposed of in the trash. If you plan to make a serious hobby of woodworking (or other sawdust-generating activity), invest in a good dust-collection system.
8. Household Chemicals
From the bottle of nail polish remover in the bathroom cabinet to the ammonia and bleach in the laundry room, to the aerosol cans of cleaning solutions under your kitchen sink, your home is full of various chemicals that are potential fire hazards.
Thankfully, unlike oily rags, these types of chemicals are not likely to spontaneously combust. Instead, they can sometimes emit combustible fumes or can catch fire if used too close to any kind of open flame or spark.
Make sure that you keep any combustible household chemicals well away from anything that can cause a spark, including outlets, candles, fireplaces, and lit cigarettes.
9. Crumbs in the Toaster
Most people are not surprised to learn that half of all fires begin in the kitchen. After all, fire (or heat) is a necessary component of cooking. However, while you are perfectly aware of the potential fire hazards of using the stove and oven, you might overlook the possible danger lurking in the humble toaster.
Toasted bread generates crumbs, which can accumulate in the bottom of your toaster. These combustible crumbs can ignite during normal toasting and set the appliance on fire.
Most toasters have a removable tray on the bottom for easy cleaning. Make sure you clean out the tray regularly to mitigate this hazard.
10. Non-Dairy Coffee Creamer
This innocuous grocery item may just be your preferred coffee additive, but it is also a highly flammable substance. In fact, when powdered coffee creamer is suspended in the air, it is potentially more flammable than flour or rice dust. Everyone from various YouTube stars to the Mythbusters team has used coffee creamer to create fireballs to show off the flammable nature of this substance.
The good news is that it would require much more creamer than you use in a normal cup of coffee to put yourself at risk. However, it’s important to recognize just how flammable your non-dairy coffee creamer is, just in case.
Keep your coffee creamer away from open flames—and if you should ever drop a whole container of the stuff, consider using a vacuum for combustible dust to clean it up.
By becoming aware of these 10 common—and not-so-common—fire hazards in the home, you can help protect both your family and your property. It’s also critical to know what you’d do in the event of a fire—whether it’s establishing your evacuation plan or having a fire extinguisher at the ready.