Damaged, deteriorated or dirty chimney's are one of the most common things I find on a home inspection in this area. It is almost like a horror show where people forget to look up, except faulty chimneys can lead to an all too real tragedy. Damage to the chimney structure or liner, and cracked or missing mortar can allow high temperatures, sparks and embers to escape to combustible areas in wall, roof or attic structures. Another concern is the creosote debris that can build up in a chimney from normal fires. If not cleaned out on a regular basis, this highly flammable buildup can turn into a super heated chimney fire that can lead to heat failure of the protective chimney flue and raise the temperatures in surrounding materials (i.e. walls, roof and attic structures) to the point of combustion. The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends having your chimney checked out and cleaned at least once a year to help prevent fires from happening.
If you have ever seen a light bulb explode you are aware of one of the hazards that are common to light bulbs, but did you know that just by leaving them on you are risking another danger? Pacific Lamp and Supply states that a 100 watt incandescent light bulb has a filament temperature of approximately 4,600º F and that the surface temperature of the light bulb can reach more than 250º F. Bulbs that are in enclosed fixtures or surrounded by combustible materials cannot dissipate this heat properly, which can melt the fixture socket, leading to a fire in the structure. Bulbs that are not the proper wattage have an increased potential for overheating as well. An estimated 12 % of all house fires start in a clothes closet due to closet light bulbs. Think LED's are safer? Think again...According to Consumer Reports, more than 200,000 LED nightlights were recalled in 2012 because they overheated. So what can you do? Unplug any unnecessary lights, turn off lights and lamps when not in the room. Install sensor controls so that lights only turn on when needed and shut off when not. Don't leave your porch lights on during the day. ( I am guilty of this lol ) Make sure that bulbs used in enclosed fixtures are rated to be used in these locations.
The Spokane Fire Department states that one of the most common types of spontaneous combustion fires are those caused by improperly disposed of oil and stain soaked rags. Examples can include oil-based paints and stains, varnishes and polyurethane, paint thinners, etc. Spontaneous combustion of oily rags occurs when rag or cloth is slowly heated to its ignition point through oxidation ( a process that changes the chemical composition of the substance) . A substance will begin to release heat as it oxidizes. If this heat has no way to escape, like in a pile, the temperature will raise to a level high enough to ignite the oil substance and then ignite the rag or cloth. The fire from this can spread quickly to other combustibles and cause significant damage to a residence or property. To properly dispose of oil or stain soaked rags, you should lay them out flat to dry completely in a well ventilated area, do not stack them on top of each other. Once completely dry they should be stored in a small, airtight, non-combustible (like a metal paint can) container with a tight-fitting lid. The rags should be completely covered with a solution of water and an oil breakdown detergent. Do not add any other combustible material (stuff that can catch fire). The user should then dispose of the rags at the hazardous waste collection available at the Spokane County Regional Solid Waste Disposal sites. For more information please see the following link.
Flammable or combustible liquids cause more than 43,000 home fires each year, resulting in 200 deaths, 2,500 injuries and $469 million in property damage, according to estimates by the National Fire Protection Association. It isn't actually the liquids themselves that initially cause the fires it is the vapors they give off that start the fires. When these liquids are not store properly the vapors they give off travel near heat sources, such as electric outlets, light bulbs, candles, furnaces, and water heaters causing the vapors to ignite which then allows the flames to travel back to the flammable liquids or catch other materials on fire. If these items are improperly stored in garages or sheds that overheat due to lack of ventilation the potential for vapor build up is increased. Take care to ensure that combustible liquids such as nail polish, rubbing alcohol, gasoline, turpentine and paint thinners are store in a UL approved air tight container at cooler room temperatures and that these containers are stored away from locations that have heat sources.
When is the last time you completely cleaned the lint out of your dryer and dryer exhaust ducting? If you are having to think a bit it has been too long. The U.S. Fire Administration states that failure to clean the dryer is the leading cause of home clothes dryer fires, causing an estimated 5 deaths, 100 injuries and $35 million in property loss in the U.S. alone. More home clothes dryer fires occur in the fall and winter months, peaking in January. To prevent fires from happening they recommend that people do not use a dryer without the lint trap, making sure to clean the trap every time the dryer is used. Cleaning maintenance at the back of the dryer where lint can build up and of the interior of the ducting should be done at least once a year, if the ducting is vertical in nature or long this may need to be done more frequently. You should also check the venting system behind the dryer to make sure it isn't crushed or damaged and that the outdoor vent cover is opening properly and not clogged by debris. While foil or plastic flexible ducting is common, these types of materials contribute to lint build up so consider upgrading to a solid metal ducting to make it easier for the dryer to vent and easier for you to clean.
There are many reasons that fires start, some few we have no control over such as lightning or wildfires, most others like those in this list are completely preventable if we make the time to maintain and/or use the items appropriately. Knowledge is half the battle... actually following through with what we know is the other half and is seemingly the hardest part. Realistically it takes 2 seconds to shut off a light when it is not being used, cleaning up our work spaces and storing liquids properly take less time that watching a movie typically, and making a call to a qualified chimney cleaner to schedule a cleaning and inspection once a year takes about 10 minutes. Making sure that smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are in good working order, less than 10 years of age and have good batteries takes less time than an oil change.
We tend to downplay things that can happen to us or our families. Last winter I drove past 5 houses here in Spokane that had chimney fires on my way to inspections. The faces on the families as they removed stuff from the homes to take with them will be forever burned into my memories. I am sure that they never thought it would happen to them.
As the winter months head our way, I hope that everyone out there takes a few minutes to check their homes out for potential fire hazards, and remedies the situations they find. I am starting on my list this weekend. Please let me know what you find in your home, it may help someone else check something in their home as well!