As the weather turns cooler and days get shorter, you may be taking steps to stay warm and cozy this winter — from stocking up on firewood to pulling the electric blanket out of the closet.
Staying warm doesn’t have to be daunting, but it’s important to keep safety top of mind as you crank up the heat. Heating is the second most common cause of home fires and home fire injuries, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). In fact, heating causes over 44,000 U.S. home fires every year. These blazes injure over 1,350 people a year and cause over $1 billion in property damage.
But taking the time to learn a few tips for safe home heating and scheduling a few easy heating action items can keep you warm and safe. And by being savvy about energy use, you may even be able to save money — without sacrificing comfort. (No, we won’t tell you to put on a thicker sweater and sit there with your teeth chattering).
Want to learn how to heat your home safely and efficiently this winter? Here are five steps for safe home heating, with action items for each.
Five Tips for Safe Home Heating
Do you fire up a fireplace, wrap up in an electric blanket or keep space heaters in every room? Or all of the above? To stay safe, use these simple tips to get ready for winter, no matter what type of home heat source you use.
1. Make Sure Your Furnace Is in Good Working Order
To keep carbon monoxide (CO) gas from leaking into your home, make sure your furnace is exhausting properly, says Danny Lipford, home improvement expert and host of the Today’s Homeowner television and radio shows. CO gas can be fatal and, because it’s odorless, homeowners may not even know they have a problem until it’s too late.
Safe Home Heating Action Items for Your Furnace:
- Get your furnace serviced by a professional: Schedule a furnace cleaning and inspection with a knowledgeable technician who can make sure your system is running as safely and efficiently as it should. The pro should follow a furnace inspection checklist to make sure your furnace is in good working order. Items on the list include looking for leaks and blockages, examining electrical connections and checking the system’s air filter.
- Make sure the inspector checks for leaks: Ask the tech to inspect the vent pipe — both where it’s connected to the furnace and where it protrudes through your roof. If any of the deadly gas has built up in your home, the tech should release the gas. For that, they’ll need access to your attic.
Homeowners can “bump something loose” when moving stored items in or out of the attic and roofers can inadvertently damage furnace exhaust vents, Lipford says. The moral? A CO leak can come from areas of the home many homeowners wouldn’t even know to consider.
2. Make Fireplace Safety a Priority
When temperatures drop, it’s nice to cozy up to the fire with a warm beverage in hand. But it’s important to do so safely — whether your fireplace burns wood or gas. Regular safety inspections and cleaning are key for both types of fireplaces.
Rust buildup 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 could cause a chimney fire.
A chimney fire can be scary and dangerous. “It sounds like a freight train in your house,” says Mark Scott, owner of Mark IV Builders in Cabin John, Maryland. If you’ve ever been in that situation, he adds, “you’ll pay a lot more attention after that.”
Safe Home Heating Action Items for Your Fireplace:
- Get your fireplace cleaned and inspected: Before you snuggle in by the dancing flames, make sure your fireplace has been cleaned and inspected, 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.
- Know your wood: If your fireplace burns wood, it’s important to know what kind to use. If you cut your own wood, choose oak and avoid pine. Let it sit for at least a year before burning to avoid heavy smoke. And don’t throw that old wood from your deck project into the fire as it’s probably been 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.
- Get a fuel-friendly fireplace: Is it time to swap out your old fireplace for a new one? Making a good choice can save you money. 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.
While 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,” Lipford says.
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,” Lipford says.
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. But an improperly used portable heater can be unsafe.
Safe Home Heating Action Items for Portable Heaters:
- Use only safer space heaters: Make sure all the portable heaters in your home have been tested and certified by an independent laboratory like UL (Underwriters Laboratory), ETL (Intertek) or CSA (Canadian Standards Association). Also, be sure your heaters have an automatic shut-off option that will kick in if the heater is knocked over or hits a higher-than-normal temperature.
- Take steps to avoid heater fires: First, keep a three- to four-foot radius around the heater. Make sure there’s no combustible material, like curtains, blankets or furniture, 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. Instead, plug the cord directly into the wall outlet.
Pro tip: Avoid kerosene heaters altogether. Most units require that you leave a door or window cracked when in use which will, obviously, bring 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 says. “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, Lipford says. He suggests you set a programmable thermostat to automatically lower your home’s temperature to 65 degrees at bedtime and raise it to your preferred daytime temperature just prior to your normal waking hour. You may be able to save 10 to 15 percent on your energy bill every year just by turning the heat down by 10 to 15 degrees for eight hours a day, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It certainly makes sense to do that at night while you’re curled up under a warm blanket.
Safe Home Heating Action Items for Your Electric Blanket:
- Replace old and worn electric blankets: Newer electric blankets have a shut-off mechanism to keep them from overheating or catching fire. If you bought a blanket before 2001, it’s time for an upgrade. Also, “inspect your electric blanket periodically to make sure the wires are intact,” Scott says.
- Store electric blankets properly: To prolong the blanket’s lifespan, keep it completely flat when in use, Lipford suggested, and then 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.
If you use an electric blanket properly, you can stay toasty while saving energy. The amount of energy your blanket uses is just a small fraction of what your furnace would use to run at full temperature throughout the night.
5. Use Monitors to Keep Your Home’s Air Safe
No matter what kind of home heat you’re using, you can increase your family’s safety by maintaining the right mix of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors throughout the house.
Safe Home Heating Action Items for Air and Fire Safety:
- Take one simple step to keep your home safe: Place carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors outside every bedroom, on each level of your home and in your garage. “They’re cheap, they’re easy to install and they can certainly do a lot to make your home safer for your family,” Lipford says.
- Set a reminder to perform basic maintenance: Put an alert on your phone or a note on your calendar to remind you to check the batteries and test your detectors at least a few times per year. The units can’t warn you of danger unless they’re in proper working order.
As the chill sets in, make a plan to complete these action items to keep your home nice and warm, safely. A little safe home heating precaution can prevent many potential problems during the cold days of winter.
Are you excited about cooler temperatures? How do you keep your home feeling cozy, warm and safe as winter approaches? Let us know in the comments.