One cold January day, Mark Scott brought his teenagers into the backyard, struck a match to their old, dried Christmas tree, and watched as it was set ablaze within six seconds. (Please, don’t try this at home.)
“Every year you see Christmas tree fires,” said the Cabin John, Maryland-based owner of Mark IV Builders. Throughout the season, cut trees dry out and become easily combustible. What starts as a small fire can ravage a home in a matter of minutes.
“That’s why we never leave any type of heater anywhere near the tree,” he added, driving the point home for his teens. That includes a space heater, a lantern or even a lit candle. Keep your tree a safe distance from the fireplace, too.
Christmas tree fires are just one mishap that can occur when heating your home during winter. Keeping warm doesn’t have to be daunting, but it can be dangerous, especially if proper safety precautions aren’t taken before you open the fireplace flue or light the furnace fuse.
To stay safe, use these simple tips to get ready for winter, no matter what type of home heat source you use.
1. Schedule an annual check-up for your furnace.
To keep carbon monoxide (CO) gas from leaking into your home, make sure your furnace is exhausting properly, warns Danny Lipford, home improvement expert and host of the Today’s Homeowner television and radio shows. CO can be fatal and, because it’s odorless, homeowners may not even know they have a problem until it’s too late.
Lipford notes that sometimes homeowners can “bump something loose” when moving stored items in or out of the attic, and roofers can inadvertently damage furnace exhaust vents. The moral? A CO leak can come from areas of the home many homeowners wouldn’t even think to consider.
Get your furnace cleaned and inspected annually by a knowledgeable technician who can make sure it’s running as safely and efficiently as it should. Make sure the technician inspects the vent pipe—both where it’s connected to the furnace and where it protrudes through your roof.
2. Have your fireplace cleaned and inspected.
Whether or not you’re using it for heat, it’s nice to cozy up to a fire. Before you do, though, make sure your fireplace has been cleaned and inspected within the past two years, suggests Lipford. “Most people don’t realize their gas unit needs just as much cleaning and inspecting as does a wood-burning stove,” he adds.
Rust build-up and cracks can lead to carbon monoxide and smoke leaks in gas units. And in their wood-burning cousins, creosote buildup can combust. Either scenario has the potential to dramatically damage or even destroy a home.
Survivors will tell you: a chimney fire is terrifying. “It sounds like a freight train in your house,” says Scott. “If you’ve survived a chimney fire once, you’ll pay a lot more attention after that.”
If your fireplace burns wood, it’s important to know what kind to burn—and what kind to avoid. Don’t throw that old wood from the deck you replaced last year into the fire. There’s a good chance that timber was pressure- or creosote-treated. “It’s tempting to use scrap wood, but if you do, you’re burning chemicals within the confines of your home,” says Lipford.
If you cut your own wood, choose hardwoods such as ash and oak. Make sure you let it sit for at least a year before burning. Improperly seasoned wood doesn’t burn very well and, even worse, often emits heavy smoke that can swiftly fill your living space.
Although a fireplace is great for ambiance, it’s often not the most efficient heating source for your home. Your chimney pulls “so much heat out of your home by exhausting the hot air you’re gaining by using the fireplace,” explains Lipford.
There are more efficient models—wood, gas, and pellet—that use a motor to circulate air behind the firebox and then blow it back out into the room. Check the efficiency rating on your fireplace to get a gauge on whether you’re losing energy.
3. Be careful with portable heaters.
A portable space heater can “potentially save you some energy, even though space heaters are pretty notorious for using a fair amount of electricity,” says Lipford. If you live in a large space and you’re home alone, or if your family is gathered together in one room, a space heater can give you the freedom to turn down the heat in the rest of the house. It can also be ideal for drafty rooms that don’t heat as evenly as the rest of the house.
When buying a unit, select one that’s been tested and certified by an independent laboratory, such as UL or ETL, and make sure it has an automatic shut-off option that kicks in when the heater is knocked over or hits a higher-than-normal temperature.
Also, keep a three- to four-foot radius around the heater clear of other objects and make sure there’s nothing combustible nearby. Always turn the unit off when you leave the room, whether or not you have pets or young children in the home. Accidents can happen, even if the unit isn’t bumped. Finally, don’t use an extension cord (this goes for any device that emits heat); instead, plug the cord directly into the wall outlet.
Some homeowners keep a kerosene heater around, in case there’s a power outage. Still, “most people don’t use these for very long because they find the fumes to be obnoxious,” notes Lipford.
In addition, most units require that you leave a door or window cracked when in use which will, obviously, allow cold air into the area you’re trying to heat. “To me, that makes no sense,” says Lipford. Homebuilder Scott agrees, and even takes his advice one step further. “I never advocate using kerosene heaters in the house,” he warns. “It’s just tempting fate.”
4. Snuggle up under an electric blanket.
Covering up with an electric blanket at night can “save you a lot of money,” when you also turn down the thermostat, says Lipford. He suggests setting a programmable thermostat to automatically set your home’s temperature to 65 degrees at bedtime, and to reset your preferred daytime temperature just prior to your normal waking hour.
The amount of energy your electric blanket uses is just a small fraction of what your furnace would use to run at full temperature throughout the night.
Newer blankets have a shut-off mechanism to keep them from overheating or catching fire. If you bought your blanket prior to 2001, it may be time for an upgrade. Also, “inspect your electric blanket periodically to make sure the wires are intact,” warns Scott.
To prolong the blanket’s lifespan, keep it completely flat when in use, suggests Lipford, and carefully folded when stored. If you have pets, cover it with another blanket so your cat or dog won’t be able to get to it and claw or chew through any of the wires.
5. Use monitors to keep your home’s air safe.
No matter what kind of home heat you’re using, you can increase you family’s safety by installing smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors throughout the house.
“Make sure you have carbon monoxide detectors outside every bedroom, on each level of your home and in your garage,” says Lipford. The same goes for smoke detectors. “They’re cheap, they’re easy to install and they can certainly do a lot to make your home safer for your family.”
While you’re at it, don’t forget to check the batteries and test your units at least a few times per year. The units can’t warn you of danger unless they’re in proper working order.
Remember, taking a few home heating precautions can prevent many potential problems as winter’s chill sets in.