Dryer Vent Safety
Clothes dryers work by evaporating the water from wet clothing by blowing hot air past them while they tumble inside a spinning drum. Heat is provided by an electrical heating element or gas burner. Some heavy-garment loads can contain more than a gallon of water, which, during the drying process, will become airborne water vapor and leave the dryer and home through an exhaust duct, more commonly known as a dryer vent.
A vent that exhausts damp air to the home's exterior has a number of requirements:
- It should be connected. The connection is usually behind the dryer but may be beneath it. Look
carefully to make sure it’s actually connected.
- It should not be restricted. Dryer vents are often made from flexible plastic or metal duct, which may be easily kinked or crushed where they exit the dryer and enter the wall or floor. This is often a problem, since dryers tend to be tucked away into small areas with little room to work. Vent hardware is available which is designed to turn 90 degrees in a limited space without restricting the flow of exhaust air. Air flow restrictions are a potential fire hazard.
- One of the reasons that restrictions are a potential fire hazard is that, along with water vapor evaporated out of wet laundry, the exhaust stream carries lint – highly flammable particles of clothing made of cotton and polyester. Lint can accumulate in an exhaust duct, reducing the dryer’s ability to expel heated water vapor, which then accumulates as heat energy within themachine. As the dryer overheats, mechanical failures can trigger sparks, which can cause the lint trapped in the dryer vent to burst into flames. This condition can lead to a house fire. Fires generally originate within the dryer but spread by escaping through the ventilation duct, incinerating trapped lint, and following its path into the building wall.
The Master Inspector Certification Board believes that house fires caused by dryers are far more common than are generally believed, a fact that can be appreciated upon reviewing statistics from the National Fire Protection Agency. Fires caused by dryers in 2005 were responsible for approximately 13,775 house fires, 418 injuries, 15 deaths, and $196 million in property damage. Most of these incidents occur in residences and are the result of improper lint cleanup and maintenance. Fortunately, these fires are very easy to prevent.
The recommendations outlined below reflect International Residential Code (IRC) “Section M1502 Clothes Dryer Exhaust” guidelines:
M1502.5 Duct construction.
Exhaust ducts shall be constructed of minimum 0.016-inch-thick (0.4 mm) rigid metal ducts, having smooth interior surfaces, with joints running in the direction of air flow. Exhaust ducts shall not be connected with sheet-metal screws or fastening means which extend into the duct.
This means that the flexible, ribbed vents used in the past should no longer be used. They should be considered a potential fire hazard if discovered.
M1502.6 Duct length.
The maximum length of a clothes dryer exhaust duct shall not exceed 25 feet from the dryer location to the wall or roof termination. The maximum length of the duct shall be reduced 2.5 feet for each 45-degree bend, and 5 feet for each 90-degree bend. The maximum length of the exhaust duct does not include the transition duct.
This means that vents should also be as straight as possible and cannot be longer than 25 feet. Any 90- degree turns in the vent reduce this 25-foot limit by 5 feet, since these turns restrict air flow.
A couple of exceptions exist:
- The IRC will defer to the manufacturer’s installation instructions, so if the manufacturer’s recommendation permits a longer exhaust vent, that’s acceptable.
- The IRC will allow large-radius bends to be installed to reduce restrictions at turns, but confirming compliance requires performing engineering calculations in accordance with the ASHRAE Fundamentals Handbook.
M1502.2 Duct termination.
Exhaust ducts shall terminate on the outside of the building or shall be in accordance with the dryer manufacturer’s installation instructions. Exhaust ducts shall terminate not less than 3 feet in any direction from openings into buildings. Exhaust duct terminations shall be equipped with a backdraft damper. Screens shall not be installed at the duct termination.
Homeowners may see many dryer vents terminate in crawlspaces or attics where they deposit moisture, which can encourage the growth of mold, promote wood decay, or create other material problems.
Sometimes they will terminate just beneath attic ventilators. This is a defective installation. They must terminate at the exterior and away from a door or window.
Also, a screen may be installed at the duct termination to prevent birds and other small animals from building nests in the protected and warm tunnel of the vent, but a screen can prevent the expulsion of lint, which can accumulate, along with other debris. This is an improper and dangerous situation, so the screen should be removed and replaced with a movable damper.
M1502.3 Duct size.
The diameter of the exhaust duct shall be as required by the clothes dryer’s listing and the manufacturer’s installation instructions. Look for the exhaust duct size on the data plate.
M1502.4 Transition ducts.
Transition ducts shall not be concealed within construction. Flexible transition ducts used to connect the dryer to the exhaust duct system shall be limited to single lengths not to exceed 8 feet, and shall be listed and labeled in accordance with UL-2158A.
A pilot light is a small flame that is kept constantly lit in order to serve as an ignition source for a gas burner. It’s used on many natural gas and propane appliances, such as water heaters, clothes dryers, central heating systems, fireplaces and stoves.
The pilot light is fueled by a small amount of gas released from the gas pipe. When the appliance is turned on, a valve releases more gas, which is ignited by the pilot light. The light may need to be re-lit from time to time after being extinguished on purpose or by accident. Modern alternatives to the pilot light include a high-voltage electric arc between two electrodes placed close to the gas flow, and a red-hot surface made from silicon carbide, silicon nitride, or another material that can withstand prolonged heat exposure. While most commercial kitchens still rely on pilot lights for ovens and grills, their residential counterparts typically use electronic ignitions.
If a pilot light is accidentally extinguished, there exists a danger that the gas used to keep the flame lit will continue to vent, possibly into the living space. If this leak continues, its concentration may reach a point where a spark – such as that from a cigarette lighter, static electricity, or even the pilot light itself as it is being re-lit – will cause a fire or even an explosion. As a precaution, the flow of gas to the pilot light is maintained by electrical circuitry that relies on the detection of the flame by a sensor.
Modern appliances that use pilot lights should be equipped with one or more of the following sensor types:
- a photo-resistor, which detects the light emitted by the pilot light;
- a thermometer, which detects the heat created by the pilot light; or
- a voltmeter, which detects the electrical current created by the heat of the flame as it warms a thermocouple. A thermocouple is a device that creates a voltage related to the temperature difference at the junction of two different metals.
Natural gas and propane can usually be detected by a home’s occupants by their odor, which is added to these naturally odorless fuels specifically to alert people to a lurking danger. Numerous injuries have been reported, however, when homeowners have tried to re-light a pilot light after the appliance’s malfunctioning sensor failed to stop the flow of gas into the room. Thermocouples are degraded by
continued exposure to the pilot light’s flame, which increases their electrical resistance and reduces their effectiveness as flame sensors. Periodic testing and replacement of these devices will mitigate the safety hazards posed by pilot light-equipped appliances.
While many homeowners may not be aware of the danger, a number of houses are destroyed every year when a pilot light ignites the explosive gases released from insecticide "bug bombs" and foggers. A fire erupted in a Newburgh, Ohio house after a man placed a roach fumigator under his kitchen sink and the fumes reached his oven’s pilot light. Even worse, when homeowners employ a recklessly large
number of these foggers, they can generate enough gas to create a catastrophic explosion, and the determination of homeowners driven mad by cockroaches and fleas is occasionally enough incentive for them to employ such overkill. In one case, 19 foggers were unleashed in a 470-square foot San Diego home, filling the building with so much gas that the pilot light destroyed the home and launched shrapnel into the street. Fortunately, foggers are typically used in buildings that have been vacated.
However, three men were hospitalized when an oven's pilot light in a Thai restaurant in Perth, Australia ignited the gas released from 36 foggers – enough to blow the roof off the building in a massive explosion that rocked the suburban neighborhood, causing $500,000 in damages.
Pilot lights are not needed for the majority of the time that they’re lit, which is how they waste a large amount of fuel. The exact amount of energy wasted depends on the unit, but various studies report that a pilot light burns $7.50 to $18 per month of natural gas, and even more for propane-fueled appliances. They waste more than 20% of the gas used in the United States, according to Cornell Environmental Health and Safety. A constantly burning pilot light also adds heat to the house, which may be convenient in the winter, but adds to the heat load in the summer and places an unnecessarily greater burden on the air-conditioning system. Even in the winter, the appliance may be located in a utility room or other area that doesn’t require heating. Also, a typical pilot light can generate 450 pounds of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas -- over a six-month period.
If an appliance isn’t needed for a long period of time, its pilot light may be extinguished to save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce the risk of a fire or explosion. Concerned homeowners can also purchase appliances equipped with the aforementioned alternatives to the pilot light. If they have any additional issues or concerns related to pilot lights or fuel-burning appliances, they should consult with their Certified Master Inspector® during
their next scheduled inspection.
In summary, pilot lights are a somewhat antiquated technology plagued by fears concerning fire and energy waste, but safer and more energy-efficient alternatives are available.
Hearths and Hearth Extensions
A fireplace hearth is the floor area within a fireplace. It is made from noncombustible materials, such as brick or stone. The hearth extension is the noncombustible material in front of and at the sides of a fireplace opening. Hearths and hearth extensions are designed to prevent sparks that leave the fireplace area from igniting nearby combustibles.
Guidelines for sufficient thickness and size of hearths and hearth extensions can be found in the International Phase I Standards of Practice for Inspecting Fireplaces and Chimneys and in the manufacturer’s instructions.
The following guidelines are from the International Phase I Standards of Practice for Inspecting Fireplaces and Chimneys, which are also useful for homeowners to know:
- The inspector should inspect for hearth extensions that have a thickness of less than 2 inches.
- The inspector should inspect for hearth extensions that are less than 16 inches in front or less than 8 inches beyond each side of fireplace openings that are 6 square feet or less.
- The inspector should inspect for hearth extensions that are less than 20 inches in front or less than 12 inches beyond each side of fireplace openings that are greater than 6 square feet.
- The inspector should inspect the hearth, hearth extension, and chambers for joint separation, damage and deterioration.
The 2006 International Residential Code (IRC) offers the following exception to the 2 inch-thick
When the bottom of the firebox opening is raised at least 8 inches above the top of the hearth extension, a hearth extension of not less than 3/8-inch thick brick, concrete, stone, tile, or other approved noncombustible material is permitted.
Homeowners should note that carpet or tile may
obscure the hearth extension so that it may be difficult to tell how thick it is.
In summary, hearths and hearth extensions are noncombustible surfaces designed to prevent fires from spreading beyond the fireplace. If they are not large and thick enough, they might not be sufficient to prevent the spread of fire.
The winter holidays are a time for celebration, and that means more cooking, home decorating, entertaining, and an increased risk of fire and accidents. The Master Inspector Certification Board recommends that you follow these guidelines to help make your winter holiday season safer and more enjoyable.
- Use caution with holiday decorations and, whenever possible, choose those made with flame- resistant, flame-retardant, and non-combustible materials.
- Keep candles away from decorations and other combustible materials, and do not use candles to decorate Christmas trees.
- Carefully inspect new and previously used light strings, and replace damaged items before plugging lights in. If you have any questions about electrical safety, ask your Certified Master Inspector® during your next scheduled inspection.
- Do not overload extension cords.
- Don't mount lights in any way that can damage the cord's wire insulation. To hold lights in place, string them through hooks or insulated staples--don't use nails or tacks. Never pull or tug lights to remove them.
- Keep children and pets away from light strings and electrical decorations.
- Never use electric lights on a metallic tree. The tree can become charged with electricity from faulty lights, and a person touching a branch could be electrocuted.
- Before using lights outdoors, check their labels to be sure they have been certified or UL-Listed for outdoor use.
- Make sure all the bulbs work and that there are no frayed wires, broken sockets, or loose connections.
- Plug all outdoor electric decorations into circuits with ground-fault circuit interrupters to avoid potential shocks.
- Turn off all lights when you go to bed or leave the house. The lights could short out and start a fire.
- Use only non-combustible and flame-resistant materials to trim a tree. Choose tinsel and artificial icicles of plastic and non-leaded metals.
- Never use lighted candles on a tree or near other evergreens. Always use non-flammable holders, and place candles where they will not be knocked down.
- In homes with small children, take special care to avoid decorations that are sharp and breakable, and keep trimmings with small removable parts out of their reach.
- Avoid trimmings that resemble candy and food that may tempt a young child to put them in his mouth.
- Unattended cooking is the leading cause of home fires in the U.S. When cooking for holiday visitors, remember to keep an eye on the range.
- Provide plenty of large, deep ashtrays, and check them frequently. Cigarette butts can smolder in the trash and cause a fire, so completely douse cigarette butts with water before discarding.
- Keep matches and lighters up high, out of sight and out of reach of children (preferably in a locked cabinet).
- Test your smoke alarms, and let guests know what your fire escape plan is.
- When purchasing an artificial tree, look for the label "fire-resistant."
- When purchasing a live tree, check for freshness. A fresh tree is green, needles are hard to pull from their branches, and when bent between your fingers, they will not break.
- When setting up a tree at home, place it away from fireplaces, radiators and portable heaters.
- Also, place the tree out of the way of foot traffic, and don’t block any doorways.
- Cut a few inches off the trunk of your tree to expose the fresh wood. This allows for better water absorption, which will help keep your tree from drying out and becoming a fire hazard.
- Be sure to keep the tree stand filled with water. Heated rooms can dry live trees out rapidly.
- Make sure the base is steady so the tree won't tip over.
Toys and Ornaments
- Before lighting any fire, remove all greens, boughs, papers, and other decorations from the fireplace area. Check to see that the flue is open.
- Use care with "fire salts," which produce colored flames when thrown on wood fires. They contain heavy metals that can cause intense gastrointestinal irritation and vomiting if eaten.
- Do not burn wrapping paper in the fireplace. A flash fire may result as wrappings ignite suddenly and burn intensely.
Children and Pets
- Purchase age-appropriate toys for children. Some toys designed for older children may be dangerous for younger children.
- Electric toys should be UL-Listed and approved.
- Toys with sharp points, sharp edges, strings, cords, and parts small enough to be swallowed should not be given to small children.
- Place older ornaments and decorations that might be painted with lead paint out of the reach of small children and pets.
- Poinsettias are known to be poisonous to humans and animals, so keep them well out of reach, or avoid having them in the house.
- Keep decorations at least 6 inches above the child’s reach.
- Avoid using tinsel. It can fall on the floor and a curious child or pet may eat it. This can cause anything from mild distress to death.
- Make sure that any ribbons on gifts and tree ornaments are shorter than 7 inches. A child could wrap a longer strand of ribbon around his neck and choke.
- Avoid mittens with strings for children. The string can get tangled around the child’s neck and cause him to choke. Use clips instead. It’s easier to replace a mitten than a child.
- Watch children and pets around space heaters or the fireplace. Never leave a child or a rambunctious pet unattended.
- Store scissors and any sharp objects that you use to wrap presents out of your child’s reach.
- Inspect wrapped gifts for small decorations, such as candy canes, gingerbread men, and mistletoe berries, all of which are choking hazards.
- Activate your home’s burglar alarm system.
- If you plan to travel for the holidays, don’t discuss your plans with strangers or on social media.
- Have a trusted friend or neighbor keep an eye on your home.
A firestop is a passive fire-protection method designed to reduce the opportunity for fire to spread through unprotected openings in a rated firewall. Such openings are found around the perimeter of pipes and wiring that penetrate firewalls.
Places where firestops are required:
Firestops must seal all unprotected openings in firewalls. In homes, firewalls are found in the following locations:
- between the garage and the living space, including the overhead ceiling;
- between the attic and the living space. Homeowners should be on the lookout for fireplace and wood stove flues that lack adequate fire-rated sheetrock or metal flashing firestopping;
- firewalls that separate condominium units are often penetrated by utilities that serve multiple units. These utilities are sometimes contained inside chases that should be sealed where they pass through the firewall between units. Firewalls between units must be continuous, all the way to the roof. Homeowners should have their CMI check in attics of multi-family dwellings to make sure that the firewall has not been violated in the attic space.
Common Problems with Firestops
Homeowners should look for any instances where firestops are missing, damaged, or otherwise inadequate. Some descriptions of firestop deficiencies are as follows:
- Missing firestop: Unsealed pipe penetrations will greatly reduce the ability for a firewall to contain a fire. This situation is more common in old buildings than in new ones due to changes in building code.
- Cable or pipe replacement: Electricians and plumbers may partially remove a firestop in order to install new cables and plumbing. A firewall’s fire-resistance rating will be compromised if the opening created by this removal is not filled.
- Improper installation: Firestops will be effective only if they are installed correctly. For instance, firestop mortars are sometimes smeared into place unevenly and lack the required thickness at certain points. Also, firestops that are installed on only one side of a penetration may not be sufficient to prevent the spread of fire through the opening.
Common Firestop Materials
- Firestop mortar: Cements made from lightweight aggregates, such as vermiculite or perlite, can be used as firestopping. They are typically colored to distinguish them from other types of cement that lack firestopping characteristics. For example, firestopping mortar made by Nelson is colored red, and 3M™ Fire Barrier Mortar is bluish-gray.
- Intumescent: Any substance that expands as a result of heat exposure is considered an intumescent. Intumscents used as firestops can be made from a variety of flame-retardant materials, such as graphite, hydrates, and sodium silicates. They are especially useful firestopping materials for electrical cables, which can completely melt or burn away in a fire. The expanding intumescent will partially or completely cover the exposed opening created by a melted wire.
- Firestop pillows: These items contain various flame-retardant and intumescent substances, such as rockwool and graphite. They are filled loosely inside of a fiberglass fabric case that resembles a small pillow. Firestop pillows can be inserted into openings in firewalls and used in conjunction with other firestopping materials.
- Sheet metal.
- Fire-rated sheetrock.
In summary, firestops are designed to prevent the spread of fire through unprotected openings in rated firewalls.
Clothes Closet Lighting
People don’t often think about the fire risks posed by the light in their clothes closet, but it’s one of the few places in the house where a source of high heat can get too close
to flammable materials. Lighting must be installed safely with adequate separation from clothes, boxes and other flammables stored in the closet. Additionally, the quality of the light, as well as bulb efficiency, will influence your lighting choices.
The 2009 International Residential Code (IRC) on "Permitted Luminaires and Clearance from Clothing"
The IRC defines a "luminaire" as follows:
a complete lighting unit consisting of a lamp or lamps, together with the parts designed to distribute the light, to position and protect the lamps and ballast (where applicable), and to connect the lamps to the power supply.
Types of luminaires permitted by the 2009 IRC include:
- surface-mounted or recessed incandescent luminaires with completely enclosed lamps, surface- mounted or recessed fluorescent luminaires; and
- surface-mounted fluorescent or LED luminaires identified as suitable for installation within the storage area.
Luminaires not permitted by the 2009 IRC:
- Incandescent luminaires with open or partially enclosed lamps and pendant luminaires or lamp- holders are prohibited.
Clearances permitted by the 2009 IRC:
The minimum distance between luminaires installed in clothes closets and the nearest point of a storage area shall be as follows:
- Surface-mounted incandescent or LED luminaires with a completely enclosed light source shall be installed on a wall above the door or on the ceiling, provided that there is a minimum clearance of 12 inches between the fixture and the nearest point of a storage space.
- Surface-mounted fluorescent luminaires shall be installed on the wall above the door or on the ceiling, provided that there is a minimum clearance of 6 inches.
- Recessed incandescent luminaires or LED luminaires with a completely enclosed light source shall be installed in the wall or the ceiling, provided that there is a minimum clearance of 6 inches.
- Recessed fluorescent luminaires shall be installed in the wall or on the ceiling, provided that there is a minimum clearance of 6 inches between the fixture and the nearest point of storage space.
- Surface-mounted fluorescent or LED luminaires shall be permitted to be installed within the storage space where identified within this use.
Also, metal pull chains may be dangerous; if the base cracks, the chain can become electrified.
Color Rendering Index (CRI)
CRI is a quantitative measure of the ability of a light source to reproduce the colors of various objects faithfully, in comparison with an ideal or natural light source. The closer the CRI of a lamp is to 100, the more "true" it renders colors in the environment. Poor CRI is the reason that a shirt and pants that seemed to match at home now clash in the restroom at work. For clothes closets lighting, the CRI should be as high as possible. Incandescent lights are inefficient but they have a CRI of 100, making them the most aesthetic lighting choice. Compact fluorescents lights (CFLs) are far more efficient and have a longer life than incandescent bulbs, but they have a CRI in the low 60s, making them a poor choice for
clothes closet applications. Low-voltage halogen and LED lights are relatively efficient, long-lasting, and have a high CRI, although not as high as incandescent bulbs.
In summary, homeowners should replace lighting in their clothes closets if the light has the potential to ignite flammable materials in the closet.
During barbeque season, homeowners should heed the following safety precautions in order to keep their families and property safe.
- Propane grills present an enormous fire hazard, as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is aware of more than 500 fires that result annually from their misuse or malfunction. The following precautions are recommended specifically when using propane grills:
- Store propane tanks outdoors and never near the grill or any other heat source. In addition, never store or transport them in your car’s trunk.
- Make sure to completely turn off the gas after you have finished, or when you are changing the tank. Even a small gas leak can cause a deadly explosion.
- Check for damage to the tank before refilling it, and only buy propane from reputable suppliers.
- Never use a propane barbecue grill on a terrace, balcony or roof, as this is dangerous and illegal.
- No more than two 20-pound propane tanks are allowed on the property of a one- or two-family home.
- To check for a leak, spray a soapy solution over the connections and watch for bubbles. If you see evidence of a leak, reconnect the components and try again. If bubbles persist, replace the leaking parts before using the grill.
- Make sure connections are secure before turning on the gas, especially if the grill hasn’t been used in months. The most dangerous time to use a propane grill is at the beginning of the barbeque season.
- Ignite a propane grill with the lid open, not closed. Propane can accumulate beneath a closed lid and explode.
- When finished, turn off the gas first, and then the controls. This way, residual gas in the pipe will be used up.
- Charcoal grills pose a serious poisoning threat due to the venting of carbon monoxide (CO). The CPSC estimates that 20 people die annually from accidentally ingesting CO from charcoal grills. These grills can also be a potential fire hazard. Follow these precautions when using charcoal grills:
- Never use a charcoal grill indoors, even if the area is ventilated. CO is colorless and odorless, and you will not know you are in danger until it is too late.
- Use only barbeque starter fluid to start the grill, and don’t add the fluid to an open flame. It is possible for the flame to follow the fluid’s path back to the container as you're holding it.
- Let the fluid soak into the coals for a minute before igniting them to allow explosive vapors to dissipate.
- Charcoal grills are permitted on terraces and balconies only if there is at least 10 feet of clearance from the building and a water source immediately nearby, such as a hose (or 4 gallons of water).
- Be careful not to spill any fluid on yourself, and stand back when igniting the grill. Keep the charcoal lighter fluid container at a safe distance from the grill.
- When cleaning the grill, dispose of the ashes in a metal container with a tight lid, and add water. Do not remove the ashes until they have fully cooled.
- Fill the base of the grill with charcoal to a depth of no more than 2 inches.
- Electric grills are probably safer than propane and charcoal grills, but safety precautions need to be used with them, as well. Follow these tips when using electric grills:
- Do not use lighter fluid or any other combustible materials.
- When using an extension cord, make sure it’s rated for the amperage required by the grill. The cord should be unplugged when not in use and kept out of a busy foot path to prevent tripping.
- As always, follow the manufacturer's instructions.
Safety Recommendations for General Grill Use:
- Always make sure that the grill is used in a safe place where kids and pets won't touch or bump into it. Keep in mind that the grill will still be hot after you finish cooking, and anyone coming into contact with it could be burned.
- If you use a grill lighter, make sure you don't leave it lying around where children can reach it.
- They will quickly learn how to use it.
- Never leave the grill unattended, as this is generally when accidents happen. Keep a fire extinguisher or garden hose nearby.
- Ensure that the grill is completely cooled before moving it or placing it back in storage. Ensure that the grill is only used on a flat surface that cannot burn, and well away from any fencing, shed, trees and shrubs.
- Clean out the grease and other debris in the grill periodically. Be sure to look for rust and other signs of deterioration.
- Don't wear loose clothing that might catch fire while you're cooking. Use long-handled barbecue tools and flame-resistant oven mitts.
- Keep alcoholic beverages away from the grill; they are flammable!
In summary, homeowners should exercise caution when using any kind of grill, as they can harm life and property in numerous ways.
A kerosene heater, also known as a paraffin heater, is a portable, unvented heating appliance that runs on the controlled burning of kerosene. In the U.S., it is used mainly for supplemental heating and for emergency heat during a power outage. In Japan and other countries, it is used as the primary source for home heating.
Kerosene burners operate in a manner similar to kerosene lamps: a fabric wick draws kerosene from a tank via capillary action into a burning chamber mounted above. Once lit, the wick warms nearby objects through radiation and convection. The user may control the burner’s heat by raising or lowering the wick's height inside the burning chamber. The heater is turned off by fully withdrawing the exposed wick into a cavity beneath the burner.
Kerosene heaters are favored for their portability, efficiency, and lack of reliance on electricity. They also lack a pressure-fed fuel system, which is a significant safety advantage over standard heating systems.
However, the following problems plague kerosene heaters:
- Odor. While newer kerosene heaters do not present as much of a problem, all such heaters emit a smell when they are being fueled. Odors typically cease after the heater begins burning normally. If the odor does not dissipate, the cause may be because the wick may be too thin for the heating unit, allowing kerosene vapors to pass through the wick gap and vent into the room. Odors and excess smoke may also result from the combustion of low-grade fuel or contaminated kerosene.
- Inadequate ventilation. Kerosene heaters, like ventless fireplaces, vent soot, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide directly into the living space. In modern well-insulated homes, an improperly adjusted, improperly fueled, or poorly maintained kerosene heater can pose a serious health hazard.
- Fire hazard. Highly flammable liquids are burned within the living space, creating vulnerability to mechanical and human-caused problems.
The aforementioned safety concerns can be addressed by inspecting for the presence of the following safety design features:
- an Underwriters Laboratory (UL) seal, guaranteeing that it has passed certain safety requirements;
- a push-button, automatic starter, which eliminates the need for matches;
- a low center of gravity, which makes accidentally tipping the burner over less likely;
- an automatic cut-off device to turn the heater off in case it is tipped over. This device also prevents kerosene from spilling during a tip-over;
- a grille attached to the front to prevent contact burns; placement of the heater on a large, fireproof surface;
- a model that is equipped with a wick -- this makes flooding of the burner impossible; all components made from heavy, durable metal;
- a sturdy fuel tank, sealed and installed beneath the burner; and a fuel gauge to prevent inadvertent over-fueling.
- Burn only water-clear, K1 kerosene that is not yellow or contaminated. While other grades of kerosene may look like K1, they will release more pollutants into the home. Never burn gasoline or any other flammable liquids, as they dramatically increase the risk of fire or explosion.
- Do not use a kerosene heater in areas where explosive vapors may be present, such as in a garage.
- Always store kerosene in a container intended for kerosene and marked as such, and never in a can that previously contained gasoline. Gasoline containers are typically red, while kerosene containers are usually blue. The container should have a tight-fitting lid to avoid spills. Do not store large amounts of kerosene or any other flammable liquid.
- Never bring kerosene into the house other than the fuel in the heater, which should be filled outdoors after the heater has cooled down.
- Maintain a safe clearance between the heater and furniture, drapes, and other combustibles. Do not place the heater in a high-traffic area or in the way of an exit.
- Instruct children to never touch the controls, and keep children and pets away from the heater at all times.
- Do not let the heater operate while the house is empty. Ventilate the room by opening a door or window.
- Never move or carry the heater in the event of an explosion or flare-up. In an emergency, activate the manual shut-off switch, if the heater has one.
In summary, kerosene heaters are attractive alternatives to standard heating systems, although they present certain health and safety concerns if improperly designed or operated.
Attached Garage Fire Containment
An attached garage is a garage that is physically attached to a house. Fires that begin in attached garages are more likely to spread to living areas than fires that originate in detached garages. For this reason, combined with the multitude of flammable materials commonly found in garages, attached garages should be adequately sealed from living areas. A properly sealed attached garage will ideally restrict the potential spread of fire long enough to allow the occupants time to escape the home or building.
Why are garages (both attached and detached) fire hazards?
- Oil or gasoline can drip from cars. These fluids may collect unnoticed and eventually ignite.
- Flammable liquids, such as gasoline, oil and paint, are commonly stored in garages. Some other examples are brake fluid, degreaser, motor oil, varnish, lighter fluid, and fluids containing solvents, such as paint thinner. These chemicals are flammable in their fluid form, and some may create explosive vapors.
- Heaters and boilers, which are frequently installed in garages, create sparks that can ignite fumes or fluids. Car batteries, too, will spark under certain conditions.
- Mechanical or electrical building projects are often undertaken in the garage. Fires can easily start while a careless person is welding near flammable materials.
The 2006 edition of the International Residential Code (IRC) states the following concerning doors that separate garages from living areas:
R309.1. Opening Penetration:
Openings from a private garage directly into a room used for sleeping purposes shall not be permitted. Other openings between the garage and the residence shall be equipped with solid wood doors not less than 1-3/8 inches in thickness, solid- or honeycomb-core steel doors not less than 1-3/8 inches thick, or 20-minute fire-rated doors.
In addition, homeowners can check for the following while inspecting the door that separates their garage from the living areas:
- While not required by the IRC, it is helpful if there is at least one step leading up to the door from the garage. Gasoline fumes and other explosive gases are heavier than air, and they will accumulate at ground level. Their entry beneath a door will be slowed by an elevation increase.
- Doors should have tight seals around their joints to prevent seepage of fumes into the living areas of the house. Carbon monoxide, with the same approximate density as air (and often warmer than surrounding air), will easily rise above the base of an elevated door and leak through unsealed joints.
- Doors should be self-closing. Many homeowners find these doors inconvenient, but they are safer than doors that can be left ajar. While this requirement is no longer listed in the IRC, it is still a valuable recommendation.If the doors have windows, the glass should be fire-rated.
- Pet doors should not be installed in fire-rated doors. Pet doors violate the integrity of a fire barrier.
Walls and Ceilings
The 2006 edition of the IRC states the following concerning garage walls and ceilings:
R309.2. Separation Required:
The garage shall be separated from the residence and its attic area by not less than 1/2-inch gypsum board applied to the garage side. Garages beneath habitable rooms shall be separated from all habitable rooms above by not less than 5/8-inch Type X gypsum board or equivalent. Where the separation is a floor-ceiling assembly, the structure supporting the separation shall also be protected by not less than 1/2-inch gypsum board or equivalent. Garages located less than 3 feet from a dwelling unit on the same lot shall be protected with not less than 1/2-inch gypsum board applied to the interior side of exterior walls that are within this area. Openings in these walls shall be regulated by Section 309.1. This provision does not apply to garage walls that are perpendicular to the adjacent dwelling unit wall.
In addition, homeowners can check for the following while inspecting walls and ceilings:
- In garages that have access to the attic, a hatch cover made from an approved, fire-rated material should protect this access at all times. Missing or opened covers should be noted, as should covers made from flammable materials, such as thin plywood. Garage attic doors must be constructed such that the 45-minute rating is maintained; any drywall edges on both the hatch and the surrounding area exposed to physical damage are protected. The cover or door is installed so that it is permanent (non-removable) with hardware to maintain it in a closed position and with latching hardware to maintain it in a closed position. This could be accomplished by the use of spring-loaded hinges, a door closer, or hardware that will not allow it to be left in an open position when not in use. A single bolt-type or hook-and-eye hardware does not provide a positive closure, since these would allow the door to be left open. Likewise, drywall screws are "fasteners" and not hardware, so they cannot be used as the only means of keeping access doors closed.
- The living space is separated from the garage by a firewall that extends from the floor to the roof. If the ceiling material is fire-rated, the firewall can terminate at the ceiling.
- Drywall joints should be taped or sealed. Joints should be fitted so that the gap is no more than 1/20-inch, with joints backed by either solid wood or another layer of drywall such that the joints are staggered.
The 2006 edition of the IRC states the following concerning ducts that penetrate garage walls and ceilings:
R309.1.1. Duct Penetration
Ducts in the garage and ducts penetrating the walls or ceilings separating the dwelling from the garage shall be constructed of a minimum No. 26-gauge steel sheet or other approved material, and shall have no openings in the garage.
Dryer exhaust ducts that penetrate garage walls are serious fire hazards. These ducts are generally made from plastic and will easily melt during a fire, creating a large breach in the firewall.
The 2006 edition of the IRC states the following concerning floors in garages:
R309.3. Floor Surface
Garage floor surfaces shall be of approved, non-combustible material. The area of the floor used for parking of automobiles or other vehicles shall be sloped to facilitate the movement of liquids to a drain or toward the main vehicle entry doorway.
Homeowners may also want to check for the following:
- A curb is present along the perimeter of the garage floor. This curb is designed to prevent fluids from entering the living areas of the house. Curbs are often useful barriers for melted snow carried into the garage by automobiles, but curbs can also keep chemical spills contained in the garage.
- Water heaters should be elevated above the floor by at least 18 inches. A pilot light may ignite spilled fluid or floor-level flammable fumes if the water heater is placed at floor level.
Concerning items placed on the floor, homeowners should check for the following:
- All flammable liquids are stored in clearly labeled, self-closing containers, and in small amounts. They should be stored away from heaters, appliances, pilot lights, and other sources of heat and flame.
- Propane tanks should never be stored indoors. If they catch fire, a serious explosion may result. Propane tanks are sturdy enough to be stored outdoors.
- The floor should be clear of clutter. Loose papers, matches, oily rags, and other flammable items are dangerous if they are strewn about the garage floor.
General Safety Tips for Attached Garages:
Use light bulbs with the proper wattage. Do not overload electrical outlets.
Tape down all cords and wires so that they’re not twisted or accidentally yanked out of the outlet.
In summary, attached garages should be sealed off from the living space so that fire may be contained.
A room must conform to specific requirements in order for it to be considered a bedroom or sleeping room. The reason for this law is that the inhabitant must be able to quickly escape in case of a fire or other emergency.
Why would a homeowner use a non- conforming room as a bedroom?
Some of the reasons include:
- to earn money from it as a rental. While they run the risk of being discovered by the city, landlords can profit by renting out rooms that are not legally considered bedrooms;
- to increase the value of the home. All other considerations being equal, a four-bedroom house will usually sell for more than a three-bedroom house; and
- lack of knowledge of code requirements. To the untrained eye, there is little obvious difference between a conforming bedroom and non-conforming bedroom. When an emergency happens, however, the difference will be more apparent. If you have any questions about safety requirements, ask your Certified Master Inspector® during your next scheduled inspection.
Homeowners run serious risks when they use a non-conforming room as a bedroom. An embittered tenant, for instance, may bring their landlord to court, especially if the tenant was forced out when the faux bedroom was exposed. The landlord, upon being exposed, might choose to adjust the bedroom to make it code-compliant, but this can cost thousands of dollars. Landlords can also be sued if they sell the home after having advertised it as having more bedrooms than it actually has. And the owner might pay more than they should be paying in property taxes if they incorrectly list a non-conforming bedroom as a bedroom. Perhaps the greatest risk posed by rooms that unlawfully serve as bedrooms stems from the reason these laws exist in the first place: rooms lacking egress can be deadly in case of an emergency.
For instance, in January 2002, four family members sleeping in the basement of a Gaithersburg, Maryland townhome were killed by a blaze when they had no easy escape.
The following requirements are taken from the 2006 International Residential Code (IRC), and they can be used as a general guide, but bear in mind that the local municipality determines the legal definition of a bedroom. Such local regulations can vary widely among municipalities, and what qualifies as a bedroom in one city might be more properly called a den in a nearby city. In some municipalities, the room must be above grade and equipped with an AFCI or smoke alarm to be considered a conforming bedroom. Ceiling height and natural lighting may also be factors. The issue can be extremely complex, so it’s best to learn the code requirements for your area. Nevertheless, the IRC can be useful, and it reads as follows:
EMERGENCY ESCAPE AND RESCUE REQUIRED SECTION: R 310.1. Basements and every sleeping room shall have at least one operable emergency escape and rescue opening. Such opening shall open directly into a public street, public alley, yard or court. Where basements contain one or more sleeping rooms, emergency egress and rescue openings shall be required in each sleeping room, but shall not be required in adjoining areas of the basement. Where emergency escape and rescue openings are provided, they shall have a sill height of not more than 44 inches above the floor. Where a door opening having a threshold below the adjacent ground elevation serves as an emergency escape and rescue opening and is provided with a bulkhead enclosure, the bulkhead enclosure shall comply with SECTION R310.3. The net clear opening dimensions required by this section shall be obtained by the normal operation of the emergency escape and rescue opening from the inside. Emergency escape and rescue openings with a finished sill height below the adjacent ground elevation shall be provided with a window well, in accordance with SECTION R310.2.
- MINIMUM OPENING AREA: SECTION: R 310.1.1. All emergency escape and rescue openings shall have a minimum net clear opening of 5.7 square feet. Exception: Grade floor openings shall have a minimum net clear opening of 5 square feet.
WINDOW WELLS: SECTION R310.2. The minimum horizontal area of the window well shall be 9 square feet, with a minimum horizontal projection and width of 36 inches. The area of the window well shall allow the emergency escape and rescue opening to be fully opened. Exception: The ladder or steps required by SECTION R 310.2.1 shall be permitted to encroach a maximum of 6 inches into the required dimensions of the window well.
LADDER AND STEPS: SECTION R 310.2.1. Window wells with a vertical depth greater than 44 inches shall be equipped with a permanently affixed ladder or steps usable with the window in the fully open position. Ladders or steps required by this section shall not be required to comply with SECTIONS R311.5 or R311.6. Ladders or rungs shall have an inside width of at least 12 inches, shall project at least 3 inches from the wall, and shall be spaced not more than 18 inches on-center vertically for the full height of the window well.
BULKHEAD ENCLOSURES: SECTION R 310.3. Bulkhead enclosures shall provide direct access to the basement. The bulkhead enclosure with the door panels in the fully open position shall provide the minimum net clear opening required by SECTION R 310.1.1. Bulkhead enclosures shall also comply with SECTION R 3220.127.116.11.
BARS, GRILLES, COVERS AND SCREENS: SECTION R 310.3. Bars, grilles, covers, screens and similar devices are permitted to be placed over emergency escape and rescue openings, bulkhead enclosures, and window wells that serve such openings, provided the minimum net clear opening size complies with SECTIONS R 310.1.1 to R 310.1.3, and such devices shall be releasable or removable from the inside without the use of a key, tool, special knowledge, or force greater than that which is required for normal operation of the escape and rescue opening.
EMERGENCY ESCAPE WINDOWS UNDER DECKS AND PORCHES: SECTION R 310.5. Emergency
escape windows are allowed to be installed under decks and porches, provided the location of the deck allows the emergency escape window to be fully opened and provides a path not less than 36 inches in height to a yard or court.
- MINIMUM OPENING HEIGHT: R 310.1.2. The minimum net clear opening height shall be 24 inches.
- MINIMUM OPENING WIDTH: R 310.1.3. The minimum net clear opening width shall be 20 inches.
- OPERATIONAL CONSTRAINTS: R 310.1.4. Emergency escape and rescue openings shall be operational from the inside of the room without the use of keys or tools or special knowledge.
In summary, non-conforming bedrooms are rooms that unlawfully serve as bedrooms, as the occupant would lack an easy escape in case of emergency.
A window well is a semi-circular excavation that surrounds a basement window. It is typically constructed from a solid barrier made from corrugated galvanized metal, masonry, plastic, or pressure- treated wood.
Window wells are usually installed for the following purposes:
- emergency egress. If the window serves a living area -- as opposed to an unfinished basement with exposed utilities -- emergency escape at a minimum of two locations is required. Window wells allow windows to be used by escaping occupants and emergency crews attempting to enter the house;
- to prevent moisture damage to basement windows that are at or below grade. The window wells keep the soil away from openings in the foundation walls while still allowing proper grading and drainage away from the house; and
- to allow sunlight into a below-grade room that would otherwise rely solely on artificial lighting.
Window wells are often covered to prevent falls, as well as to discourage small children, pets and wild animals from entering the wells and becoming trapped. For instance, a deer fawn made the news in Utah after it was recovered safely after falling down a 12-foot-deep uncovered window well. Covers will also prevent the accumulation of twigs, grass, mulch, and blowing snow that would obscure sunlight and complicate emergency escape through the well. Covers may be locked from the inside to prevent unwanted intrusion.
Window well covers, however, can block sunlight, ventilation, and emergency egress, especially if they become covered with snow and ice. It is the homeowner’s responsibility to make sure that the cover is cleared of snow and has not been frozen shut from ice. No items, such as garden hoses, potted plants or tools, should be placed on top of window well covers. Note that covers that are locked from the inside to prevent unlawful entry will be inaccessible to fire crews and first-responders.
Regarding their strength and operability, the 2007 edition of the International Code Council (ICC), Section 3.4, states that window well covers shall support “
a minimum live load of 40 pounds per square foot. The cover shall be operable from within the window well without the use of tools or special knowledge, and shall require no more than 30 pounds of force to fully open.”
Additional safety concerns include the following:
The minimum horizontal area of the window well shall be 9 square feet, with a minimum horizontal projection and width of 36 inches.
- Size. According to the 2006 edition of the International Residential Code (IRC), Section R310:
Even if the well seems large enough for members of a particular household, it might be a tight fit for a fully equipped firefighter.
- Structural damage to the barrier. Hydrostatic pressure and freeze-thaw cycles can exert a great deal of pressure on window wells and, over time, cause masonry to bend or crack. Check for:
- spalling, bowing,
- cracking or leaning in concrete;
- cracking or bowing in plastic;
- rust, bowing or ruptures in metal; and
- insect damage or cracks in wood.
- Improper drainage. Waterlogged window wells can easily leak through a window into the basement, especially following a heavy rain. Water intrusion can cause a variety of undesirable conditions, such as mold growth, wood decay, corrosion, and insect damage. Check for a lack of sufficient cleaning and maintenance both in the window well and elsewhere. Homeowners should first make sure that gutters and downspouts are clear of debris, which can force water to overflow from the gutters and collect in the window well and other low areas. Dirt and debris should also be collected from the well. A qualified professional may be required to correct structural sources of drainage issues, such as soil erosion, insufficient or settled drainage stone, or the pulling away from the foundation of the barrier.
- Lack of a ladder. The 2006 IRC, Section 310.2, states:
Window wells with a vertical depth greater than 44 inches shall be equipped with a permanently affixed ladder or steps usable with the window in the fully open position
Additional Tips for Homeowners
- Window well covers can be screened or barred to provide pest-free ventilation.
- Teach children to avoid window wells, even if they are covered and appear sturdy.
- Practice exiting the window, window well and window cover so that any previously unnoticed obstacles can be removed. Repair or replace any equipment that does not function properly.
- Speak with your local building department if you are unsure whether a window well is required in your home. Your jurisdiction may mandate special size restrictions.
- Metal window wells can have rolled edges for safety against cuts.
- Consult with your Certified Master Inspector® if you have additional concerns regarding window wells, covers, moisture problems, or emergency egress.
In summary, window wells are installed to allow emergency egress and to protect windows from damp soil, but improper installation and maintenance can lead to moisture damage and safety hazards, especially in an emergency.
Fire extinguishers are devices commonly found indoors and are used to douse fire and prevent its spread. They are small metal canisters that contain compressed gas (usually nitrogen) that, when activated, propel a directed spray of flame-retardant chemicals. Fire extinguishers are effective only if the users understand where and why they are used.
Fire extinguishers are distinguished based on the types of fires on which they are effective. These fires are classified by their fuel source and assigned identifying letters as follows:
- A class: fires that result from ordinary combustibles, such as wood and paper.
- B class: fires that result from combustible liquids, such as kerosene, gasoline, oil and grease.
- C class: fires of an electrical nature. These result from the combustion of circuit breakers, wires, outlets, and other electrical devices and equipment. Extinguishers designed to handle this type of fire cannot use chemicals that are conductive, since conductive agents increase the risk of electric shock to the operator.
- D class: fires resulting from combustible metals, such as sodium, potassium, titanium and magnesium. These fires occur mostly in chemical laboratories and are rare in most other environments.
- K class: These types of fires consume vegetable oils and animal fats, and generally happen in kitchens.
NOTE: Although, technically, the letter rankings listed above refer to fire types, these symbols can also be used to identify the extinguishers themselves. For instance, an extinguisher that uses CO2
can be called a “CO2
extinguisher” or a “BC extinguisher."
No fire extinguisher can be safely and effectively used for every type of fire. Some contain chemicals that are ineffective in certain situations and can even cause harm to the operator if misapplied. To prevent confusion, extinguishers are classified by the type of chemical agents they contain.
A few of the most common extinguisher types are listed below:
- Dry Chemical: There are two types of fire extinguishers that use a dry chemical. One is called multi-purpose dry chemical and uses ammonium phosphate as the extinguishing agent, which is effective on A, B, and C class fires. This chemical is corrosive and must be scrubbed from surfaces after use.These types of extinguishers are very common and are found in schools, homes, hospitals and offices. Sodiumbicarbonate is used in extinguishers known as regular dry chemical, which are capable of handling B and C class fires. These extinguishers are found in garages, kitchens and laboratories. Sodium bicarbonate is easy to clean and non-toxic.
- Carbon Dioxide: These extinguishers contain liquid CO2 that is expelled as a gas. They are effective against B and C class fires. Unlike other chemicals, CO2 does not leave a harmful residue and is environmentally friendly. It also poses very little danger to electronics and is effectively employed in laboratories, computer rooms, and other areas with sensitive equipment.
- Water Extinguishers: These extinguishers are most suited for A class fires. However, they cannot be used in B, C or D class fires. In B and D class fires, the water will spread the flames. In a C class fire, the water is conductive and poses a risk of electric shock to the operator.However, the misting nozzle of a water mist extinguisher breaks up the stream of de-ionized water so that there is no conductive path back to the operator. Since the agent used is water, these types of extinguishers are inexpensive and environmentally friendly.
- Wet Chemical Fire Extinguishers: These devices are designed to combat K class fires and commonly use potassium acetate. They are appropriately employed in commercial kitchens and restaurants, especially around deep fryers. The chemical is emitted as a fine mist that does not cause grease to splash onto other surfaces. They can also be used in A class fires.
Extinguisher Testing and Replacement
The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) recommends that extinguishers be tested every five or 12 years, depending on the type. The standard method of testing—hydrostatic—is conducted underwater where the cylinders are subjected to pressures that exceed their ratings. Vessels that fail the test are condemned and destroyed, while the rest are reassembled and put back into service.
According to the NFPA, extinguishers should be destroyed if any of the following conditions are present (and they should not be tested):
- if repairs by soldering, welding, brazing, or the use of patching compounds exist;
- if the cylinder threads are worn, corroded, broken, cracked or nicked;
- if there is corrosion that has caused pitting, including pitting under a
removable nameplate or name band assembly;
- if the fire extinguisher has been burned in a fire;
- if a calcium chloride-type of extinguisher agent was used in a stainless steel fire extinguisher;
- if the shell is of copper or brass construction joined by soft solder or rivets;
- if the depth of a dent exceeds 1/10 of the greatest dimension of the dent if not in a weld, or exceeds 1⁄4-inch if the dent includes a weld;
- if any local or general corrosion, cuts, gouges or dings have removed more than 10% of the minimum cylinder wall thickness; and/or
- if the fire extinguisher has been used for any purpose other than that of a fire extinguisher.
When should a fire extinguisher be used?
Small fires can be controlled through the use of household or commercial fire extinguishers. A household extinguisher can often completely douse a very small fire and prevent the need for professional assistance. Even if a fire cannot be completely doused, a homeowner can potentially control a blaze long enough with an extinguisher for firefighters to arrive. Fire extinguishers should not be used if the operator is not sure if they have the proper type of extinguisher, if they are not sure how to use it, or if they cannot avoid smoke or are in imminent danger. If the operation of an extinguisher may place other people in danger, they should evacuate the building and wait for fire crews to arrive.
What is on an extinguisher’s label? You'll find:
Do fire extinguishers expire?
- essential information about the types of fires they can combat. Newer devices have pictures on their labels that correspond directly to the fire types listed previously. Older models have letters that serve the same purpose;
- a numerical rating that designates the extinguishing potential for that particular model (Class A and B);
- instructions for operation;
- a tag that indicates if and when it was inspected.
Fire extinguishers expire and they do this for a few different reasons. One common reason is that, over time, the seal on the neck will weaken and allow compressed gas to escape. Extinguishers that have lost much of their pressure will not operate properly. Pressure within an extinguisher can be conveniently checked through a pressure gauge. ABC-class (ammonium phosphate) extinguishers have the tendency to fail due to solidification of the chemical in the canister base. Homeowners can delay this process by periodically shaking the extinguisher. Expensive extinguishers that have expired, especially those designed for commercial use, can be refilled and resealed by companies that specialize in this service.
Inexpensive models are disposable.
Unfortunately, an expiration date cannot be fully trusted, and there is no foolproof way to know if an extinguisher is no longer functional. Due to the extremely destructive potential of fires and the relatively low cost of extinguishers, it is advisable to replace or recharge questionable extinguishers.
In summary, extinguishers are classified based on their chemical ingredients, all of which have their own strengths and limitations. It is important to know what type of extinguisher combats what type of
fire. Fire extinguishers are critical indoor safety devices that must be maintained and checked regularly.
A smoke alarm, also known as a smoke detector, is a device that detects smoke and emits an audible sound and/or visual signal to alert residents to a potential fire.
Facts and Figures
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission:
- Almost two-thirds of reported deaths caused by home fires from 2003 to 2006 resulted from fires in homes that lacked working smoke alarms.
- Older homes are more likely to lack an adequate number of smoke alarms because they were built before requirements increased.
- In 23% of home fire deaths, smoke alarms were present but did not sound. Sixty percent of these failures were caused by the power supplies having been deliberately removed due to false alarms.
- Every year in the United States, about 3,000 people lose their lives in residential fires. Most of these deaths are caused by smoke inhalation, rather than as a result of burns.
Smoke Alarm Types
Ionization and photo-electric are the two main designs of smoke detectors. Both types must pass the same tests to be certified to the voluntary standard for smoke alarms, but they perform differently in different types of fires. Detectors may be equipped with one or both types of sensors -- known as dual- sensor smoke alarms -- and possibly a heat detector, as well. These sensors are described as follows:
- Ionization smoke sensors are the most common and economical design, and are available at most hardware stores. They house a chamber sided by small metal plates that irradiate the air so that it conducts electricity. When smoke enters the chamber, the current flow becomes interrupted, which triggers an alarm to sound. These sensors will quickly detect flaming-type fires but may be slower to react to smoldering fires.
- Photo-electric smoke sensors use a light-sensitive photocell to detect smoke inside the detector. They shine a beam of light that will be reflected by smoke toward the photocell, triggering the alarm. These sensor types work best on smoldering fires but react more slowly to flaming fires. They often must be hard-wired into the house's electrical system, so some models can be installed only in particular locations.
While heat detectors are not technically classified as smoke detectors, they are useful in certain situations when smoke alarms are likely to sound false alarms. Dirty, dusty industrial environments, as well as the area surrounding cooking appliances, are a few places where false alarms are more likely and where heat detectors may be more useful.
Individual authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) may have their own requirements for smoke-alarm placement, so homeowners can check with their local building department if they need specific instructions. However, the following guidelines can be helpful.
Smoke alarms should be installed in the following locations:
- on the ceiling or wall outside of each separate sleeping area in the vicinity of bedrooms; in each bedroom, as most fires occur during sleeping hours;
- in the basement, preferably on the ceiling near the basement stairs;
- in the garage, due to all the combustible materials commonly stored there;
- on the ceiling or on the wall with the top of the detector between 6 to 12 inches from the ceiling; and/or
- in each story within a building, including basements and cellars, but not crawlspaces or uninhabited attics.
Smoke alarms should not be installed in the following locations:
Power and Interconnection
- near heating or air-conditioning supply and return vents;
- near a kitchen appliance;
- near windows, ceiling fans, or bathrooms equipped with a shower or tub;
- where ambient conditions, including humidity and temperature, are outside the limits specified by the manufacturer's instructions;
- within unfinished attics or garages, or in other spaces where temperatures can rise or fall beyond the limits set by the manufacturer;
- where the mounting surface could become considerably warmer or cooler than the rest of the room, such as an inadequately insulated ceiling below an unfinished attic; or
- in dead-air spots, such as the top of a peaked roof or a ceiling-to-wall corner.
Power for smoke alarms may come from being hard-wired directly into the home’s electrical system, or it may come from just a battery. Hard-wired smoke detectors are more reliable because the power source cannot be removed or drained, although they will not function in a power outage. Battery- operated units often fail because the battery can be easily removed, dislodged or drained, although these units can be installed almost anywhere. Older buildings may be restricted to battery-powered designs, while newer homes generally offer more options for power sources. If possible, homeowners
should install smoke alarms that are hard-wired with a battery backup, especially during a renovation or remodeling project.
Smoke alarms may also be interconnected so that if one becomes triggered, they all sound in unison. Interconnected smoke alarms are typically connected with a wire, but new technology allows them to be interconnected wirelessly. The National Fire Protection Agency requires that smoke alarms be AFCI- protected.
Tips for Homeowners:
- Parents should stage periodic night-time fire drills to assess whether their children will awaken from the alarm and respond appropriately.
- Never disable a smoke alarm. Use the alarm’s silencing feature to stop nuisance or false alarms triggered by cooking smoke or fireplaces.
- Test smoke alarms monthly, and replace their batteries at least twice a year. Change the batteries when you change your clocks for Daylight Saving Time. Most models emit a chirping noise when the batteries are low to alert the homeowner that they need replacement.
- Smoke alarms should be replaced when they fail to respond to testing, or every 10 years, whichever comes first. The radioactive element in ionization smoke alarms will decay beyond usability within 10 years.
- Smoke detectors should be replaced if they become damaged or wet, are accidentally painted over, are exposed to fire or grease, or are triggered without apparent cause.
- Note the sound of the alarm. It should be distinct from other sounds in the house, such as the telephone, doorbell and pool alarm.
- If you have any questions or concerns related to smoke alarms or fire dangers in your home, consult with your Certified Master Inspector® during your next scheduled inspection.
In summary, smoke alarms are invaluable, life-saving appliances when they are installed properly and adequately maintained.
In a growing trend that many say will save even more lives than smoke alarms and carbon-monoxide detectors, fire sprinklers are now available for residences.
Every year, residential fires destroy lives and property. In 2007 in the U.S., there were 414,000 residential fires that caused:
- 2,895 fire deaths;
- 14,000 injuries; and
- $7.5 billion in property damage.
Residential sprinklers, listed by the Underwriters Laboratories (UL), are now available to homeowners. The development of chloro-polyvinyl chloride and other listed non-metallic pipe has simplified installation, making sprinkler systems more cost-effective. Because of their improved sensitivity, they are designed to respond to fires much faster than standard commercial and industrial sprinkler systems.
Here are a few facts you might not know about fire sprinklers:
- On average, they use significantly less water to extinguish a fire than would be required by the fire department. Sprinklers use just 10 to 26 gallons per minute (gpm), while fire crews use 125 gpm per hose.
- Insurance premiums are often lower for homes that are equipped with fire sprinklers, which help pay for the systems.
- In houses equipped with sprinklers, 90% of fires are contained by the operation of a single sprinkler head.
- Newer fire sprinkler heads are designed to activate independently of one another, leaving unneeded heads in reserve, and sparing water-sensitive items.
- Fire sprinklers are triggered only by temperatures that surpass a certain heat threshold, making it practically impossible to trigger them accidentally.
A recent study conducted by the UL found that house fires are getting worse; the time needed to escape some types of fires has been reduced from approximately 17 minutes to as little as three minutes, in some situations. According to the study, this change is largely due to the disuse of natural fabrics for furnishings, such as wool, cotton and rayon, in favor of more flammable synthetics, such as polyester and plastic. Sprinkler systems are thus becoming increasingly more important in residences, just as they have been relied upon in commercial buildings for decades.
Sprinklers respond to fires immediately and automatically from locations that may be dangerous for firefighters to reach. In contrast, fire departments can be quite slow to respond, given the following potential delays:
- In rural areas, it may take a long time for fire trucks to reach their destination.
- Calls made at night are responded to more slowly than calls made during the day, as most career and volunteer firefighters are asleep.
- If the 9-1-1 call comes from a cell phone, the dispatcher will have greater difficulty pinpointing the fire’s location than if the call comes from a landline.
- While some fire departments are always well-prepared, in many areas, the firefighters require time to assemble, get suited up, and prepare the fire truck.
- Fire trucks can be slowed by traffic, and they can even get lost en route.
In residential applications, sprinklers are smaller than traditional commercial sprinklers, and they can be aesthetically coordinated with any room décor and mounted flush with walls and ceilings. They are also inexpensive, relative to the value of the structure and the potential damage inflicted by a fire. Presently, the cost of a home sprinkler system will add 1% to 1.5% to the cost of new construction, and the price will probably come down in the future. Although more expensive, it is possible to retrofit existing homes with sprinkler systems.
Tips for Homeowners:
- Always make sure control valves are in the open position.
- Always report damage to any part of a sprinkler system immediately. Never paint a fire sprinkler.
- Never stack items close to fire sprinklers, as this may reduce their heat sensitivity. The tops of stored items and furniture should be at least 18 inches below fire sprinklers, according to the National Fire Sprinkler Association.
- Never hang anything from any part of a fire sprinkler system.
In summary, residential fire sprinklers are a valuable, cost-effective safety addition to any home, although they require periodic maintenance.
House numbers should be clear enough so that police, the fire department, paramedics, etc., can quickly locate properties in an emergency. House numbers are often the only way that first-responders can identify their intended destinations. A number of jurisdictions have begun enforcing laws through strict fines for homeowners who do not comply with laws that impose requirements for house numbers.
Many municipalities and counties have implemented ordinances requiring property owners to standardize the display of house numbers on buildings. The city of St.
Martinville, Louisiana, for instance, is considering requiring its citizens to display street numbers in block numbering that is at least 4 inches tall and is either illuminated at night or has a reflective finish. If the ordinance is passed, the city will fine offenders $200, plus hundreds more in court fees. In Florida, the cities of Clearwater, Largo and St. Petersburg have begun enforcing their own municipal codes that regulate the visibility of house numbers, imposing fines for violators.
In order for house numbers to be visible from the street, Certified Master Inspectors® advise that they should:
- be large. Jurisdictions that regulate the size of street numbers generally require them to be 3 to 6 inches tall. Many jurisdictions require that the numbers be of a certain thickness, such as 1/2-inch, as required by New York City;
- be of a color that contrasts with their background. Reflective numbers are usually helpful because they are easier to see at night than numbers that are not reflective;
- not be obscured by any trees, shrubs, or other permanent objects;
- face the street that is named in the house’s address. It does emergency workers no good if the house number faces a different street than the one the workers are traveling on;
- be clearly displayed at the driveway entrance if the house is not visible from the road.
According to 6.5.12 of the International Standards for Inspecting Commercial Properties, inspectors should:
Inspect the address or street number to determine that it is visible from the street with numbers in contrast to their background.
Even if a house number is currently adequate, it might need adjustment in the future. The following are common reasons for future adjustments:
a. The numbers assigned to houses by the municipality occasionally change, and homeowners must adjust their house numbers accordingly.
b. The trees or shrubs in front of the house have grown so much that the number is no longer visible. House numbers installed in the winter may be visible during that season but become blocked by budding vegetation by spring or summer.
c. House numbers will require maintenance when they get dirty. Numbers may not be reflective or contrasting if they are covered in mud.
d. Snow piles created by snow plows during the winter may be high enough to cover the number. If this happens, the number should be raised so this situation does not repeat.
In summary, house numbers serve a critical function for emergency personnel and should be clearly displayed.