Most of us seem to get through the winter season and holidays without experiencing a safety-related incident in the home. I’d chalk this up to common sense, and some good old-fashioned luck. Despite less daylight, hectic end-of-year schedules, and packed social calendars, we generally tend to do OK.
However, this is the time of year when safety-related incidents tend to increase, and home fires grow in number and impact.
Read on for a brief holiday and winter season home safety refresher.
Festive celebrations, flickering lights and winter greens are hallmarks of the holiday season, but they also present fire risks that can quickly turn this festive time of year into a devastating one.National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
‘Safe’ is implied
The holiday season must be safe…in order for it to be happy. With higher risks come more incidents, so pay special attention to common issues.
Some of the more frequent causes of home fires during the holidays – directly responsible for the overall increase in frequency – include:
- dried-out cut Christmas trees
- overloaded electrical outlets
- space heaters
- flammable decorations near open flames such as candles and fireplaces
Don’t overlook the importance of the basics; doing so can put the things that matter most at risk. Safety is everyone’s responsibility, and this time of year it is especially important.
Tree hydration = much safer
I know the argument – “I’ll only have it for a few weeks, why should I keep watering it?” Sure, watering can help the tree stay fresh and aromatic longer. That’s the mainstream mindset. But the benefit of watering goes well beyond looks and smell – it is about life safety.
Below is a brief but impactful video below courtesy of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The video on the right is what can happen when we let a cut tree dry out. Before you swear off cut trees altogether, note the video on the left shows that same electrical fault occurring in a watered tree – with no fire spread at all.
The reduction in risk keeping your cut tree watered can’t be understated. So, to reduce the chances of your cut tree serving as ‘fuel’ for a fire, make it a ritual to top off the water at the base of your cut tree every day. If you will be out of town for a few days, top it off before you go. You can find more helpful tips on tree safety below courtesy of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
One last note on decorative trees: if you If go with an artificial tree, which is a great alternative to cut trees, make sure it’s labeled “fire-resistant.”
Electrical decoration safety
We all love holiday lighting and decorations – from traditional icicle or netting lights and lighted garland, to more modern LED string sets and motorized displays. Closely inspect these before you decorate – most are not designed or priced to last for a long time. Replace worn, broken or loose bulb connections. When you’re hanging outdoor lights, be sure to use a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet.
Make sure each device or string of lights has UL Approval. While checking for that, get familiar with the fine print on the tags – look for amps, voltage, and/or wattage. LED sets will draw much less amperage than traditional incandescent sets, so it is safe to string more of them together. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations, and don’t overload your power strip, extension cords or outlets.
UL (Underwriter’s Laboratory) approval is not a legal requirement, but most reputable companies who manufacture or sell electronic devices – like us at Whisker Labs – seek the UL certification.
Also, inspect your extension cords and accessory plugs; if you’re like me you rely on these when staging your ‘envy of the neighborhood’ display. These items can wear over time, especially if used outdoors (make sure they are rated for outdoor use!). Look for corroded metal, cracked insulation or other damage – don’t use it if you find damage.
Once your job is done decorating – if any time during their use they blink or go out unexpectedly, this could be the sign of an electrical fault.
Practice Safe Climbing
This is also a great time of year to cover other common precautions, such as ladder safety. Whether outside or inside, exercise care when choosing to use a ladder: follow guidance printed on the ladder, make sure it is properly rated and in good shape; and for taller ladders or locations where you don’t believe the footing is ideal, have someone attend to the ladder when you are on it.
Common sense outlet usage
Not every outlet is created equal. Older homes may be wired with 15 Amp-rated outlets with thinner gauge conductors. Newer homes will normally have 20 amp outlets.
Regardless, the number of outlets on a given circuit can impact what you can plug into any given outlet on that circuit. Put another way, when there are only a few outlets available in a given area, a circuit can get overloaded fairly easily.
Overloading leads to overheating, which can lead to compromised insulation, short circuits, and fires. When in doubt, don’t plug it in.
This leads us to a cautionary note about space heaters.
Safe space heater practices
Space heaters can be effective tools for providing added warmth at home, but it’s critical that people follow basic precautions to ensure that they’re used safely.”NFPA
While it is easy for many of us to dismiss the importance of space heaters, we don’t always have a good alternative for keeping loved ones safe and comfortable. With that, there are some very basic rules that – if followed -will help keep you and your loved ones safe when using a space heater.
More than half (53 percent) of all home heating fire deaths resulted from fires that began when heating equipment was too close to things that can burn, such as upholstered furniture, clothing, mattresses or bedding.NFPA
Don’t place a space heater within 3 feet of any flammable object, including bed sheets, curtains or upholstered furniture. Never leave a space heater unattended, and keep children and pets from getting too close. If electric, don’t use an extension cord and don’t overload an outlet or circuit (if you’re not sure if it will, don’t plug it in – ask a family member or the local fire department for guidance). A guide from the NFPA is posted below for your convenience.
Candles can be beautiful and safe
The National Candle Association says it succinctly: There is a special beauty to candles, but a lighted candle is also an open flame, and a potential fire hazard if not carefully monitored. An estimated 8,200 home fires are started by candles each year according to the NFPA.
A study by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission suggests that 85 percent of candle fires could be avoided if consumers followed three basic safety rules: Never leave a burning candle unattended. Never burn a candle on or near anything that might catch fire. Keep candles out of the reach of children and pets.National Candle Association
Only use candles if you have a few feet of separation from anything that could ignite – all the way around, including above it. This includes curtains, paper, wood, clothing, and decorations.
All too often a candle is lit on a bookshelf or decorative corner shelf with little attention paid to the shelf above.
Whether you have a traditional wood-burning fireplace, gas insert or pellet stove, there are a number of common-sense precautions that go along with each. These include using the right ‘fuel’; protecting from high heat and flames with proper protection such as screens; allowing the device to ‘breathe’ while burning fuel, and proper maintenance.
Similar to the candle concept above, maintain proper clearance for things that can burn and for kids and pets.
This article by This Old House – you know, that show that has been around for 40 years on PBS and first hosted by Bob Vila (if you are not familiar, it’s worth a look), touches on the basics of fireplace and chimney maintenance.
A final note
This winter season, before you retire for the evening or leave the home, put it out, blow it out, and/or turn it off.
It goes without saying, please take the time to establish a home safety plan, which includes working smoke and carbon monoxide sensors, and charged fire extinguishers.
If you’re stuck on a holiday gift for a family member who just moved into a new home – or who is older and living independently, consider getting them Ting for their home. Eliminate your worry about what electrical issues might be in the walls. Ting provides long term peace of mind and makes a great gift. You can also learn more here: we’ve provided a quick read about Ting’s recent performance and how support for this groundbreaking service is growing.
Have a very happy [safe!] holiday season from all of us at Whisker Labs!