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Home Heating Safety

During the winter months, many households depend upon supplemental heating sources to help keep warm and to offset high heating bills.

The Baltimore County Fire Department strongly urges caution when you use these devices. Space heaters, wood stoves and other supplemental heating sources are the leading cause of home fires during the winter months, and they trail only cooking equipment in home fires year-round.

Equipment is Leading Cause of Winter Home Fires

The National Fire Protection Association reports fixed and portable home heating devices account for two of every three home heating fires and for two of every three related deaths. In 2002, there were 45,500 home heating fires that caused 220 deaths, 990 injuries and $449 million in property damage.

Fireplaces and chimneys were involved in 43 percent of these fires and 11 percent of the deaths. Fixed and portable space heaters, including wood stoves, were involved in 25 percent of the heating fires, but in a whopping 74 percent of the fatalities.

By comparison, central home heating systems account for only a small percentage of heating-related fires and fatalities. Supplemental heating devices are more dangerous because they provide so many opportunities for error by the people using them. Here are some of problems:

  • Lack of regular cleaning, leading to creosote buildup in wood-burning devices, chimneys and connectors. (Creosote is a flammable, tar byproduct of wood smoke that builds up on the walls of a chimney or wood stove.)
  • Failing to give space heaters enough space.
  • Flaws in the construction or design of wood-burning equipment.
  • Fueling errors involving liquid- or gas-fueled heating equipment.
  • Improper installation.

If you use supplemental heating sources, follow these basic safety tips.

Portable Space Heaters

All types of space heaters need space! The biggest mistake people make with space heaters is placing them too close to flammable materials - draperies, upholstery, clothing. You need at least three feet of clearance from anything that can burn.

  • Make sure any new space heater carries the mark of an independent testing laboratory.
  • Always turn space heaters off when you leave a room or go to bed. 
  • If you use an electric heater, do not overload the circuit. If you must use an extension cord (and it's better not to), choose one that is the same size or larger than the appliance cord. Do not use electric heaters in bathrooms or other areas where they may come in contact with water; the danger of electrocution is too great.
  • If you're considering a kerosene heater, check with the Baltimore County Fire Department's Fire Marshal's Office first; kerosene heaters are not permitted in all types of residences. The Fire Marshal's Office can be reached at 410-887-4880.
  • If you use a kerosene heater, burn only kerosene! Gasoline, camp stove fuel or any other fuel except kerosene can be extremely dangerous if used in kerosene heaters. Make sure your kerosene is water-clear, not yellow. Refuel the heater outdoors.
  • Never use fuel-burning appliances such as kerosene heaters without proper ventilation. They generate deadly carbon monoxide fumes. Store flammable liquids in approved metal containers in a well-ventilated storage area outside the home.
  • Keep children away from space heaters, especially when they are wearing nightgowns or other loose clothing that could ignite.
  • When turning a portable heating device on or off, follow the manufacturer's instructions. If possible, buy devices with automatic shutoff features.

Fireplaces and Woodstoves

Wood stoves and fireplaces add cozy warmth, but proper maintenance, installation and use are essential for safety.

  • Wood and coal stoves, fireplaces, chimneys, chimney connectors and all solid-fueled heating equipment should be inspected annually and cleaned professionally each year, especially if they have not been used for some time. Remember, fireplaces regularly build up creosote that needs to be cleaned out.
  • Woodstoves should be UL listed and of solid quality and design. Install them with three feet of clearance from combustible surfaces and with adequate floor support and protection.
  • Never use flammable liquids to start a fire in a fireplace or woodstove. Do not use excessive amounts of paper to build roaring fires. Never burn charcoal indoors; it can generate lethal amounts of carbon dioxide.
  • Keep flammable material away from the hearth and mantel. Use a sturdy screen to keep sparks from flying into a room.
  • Before you go to sleep, be sure your fireplace fire is cold. Never close the damper with hot ashes in the fireplace; the fire will heat up again and toxic carbon monoxide can spread into the house.
  • Synthetic logs are increasingly popular, because they are so easy to use. Follow the directions on the package. Never break a synthetic log apart to quicken the fire or use more than one log at a time. This could release dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.

Central Home Heating Systems

 Of course, you also need to make sure your furnace is in good working condition. Have it inspected regularly, and leave repairs to professionals.

 For more information about home fire safety, call the Baltimore County Fire Department's Fire Marshal's Office, 410-887-4880. Or, visit National Fire Protection Association's Home Holiday Safety page.

Revised April 25, 2014

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