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Getting Ready For Cold Weather

Release Date: October 12, 1988

As consumers prepare for winter's first cold spell, many are considering the use of supplementary heating appliances in an effort to avoid heating bills. These systems can help lower heating costs but can be very dangerous if installed improperly.

Home heating appliances, including supplemental heating and central heating systems, are estimated to be associated with 150,000 residential fires annually, or about 26 percent of all residential fires, killing an estimated 640 people. Hundreds of injuries from contact burns and about 200 deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning occur each year.

The U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is anxious to alert consumers about the potential dangers posed by home heating units. To that end, the commission has a few tips for using these units safely.

Here are some general tips:

-- Keep children and pets away from supplementary heating appliances.

-- Never use a space heater overnight in the room where you are sleeping. It should never be left unattended.

-- Place heaters at least three feet away from objects such as bedding, furniture, draperies, and other combustibles.

-- Always follow the manufacturer's instructions in installing, operating, and maintaining your heating appliance.

-- Keep a properly maintained smoke detector on all levels of your home and close to sleeping areas.

Kerosene Heaters

About 90 persons died in estimated 2,300 residential kerosene heater related fires in 1986.

"Flare-up" fires are responsible for the majority of kerosene heater fires. A CPSC analysis of kerosene related accidents concluded that flare-up (uncontrolled flaming: occurs as a result of several factors, including the use of improper or contaminated fuels. That investigation concluded that one method for substantially reducing the risk of flare-up is for consumers to make sure they use only 1K kerosene as a fuel-never gasoline or non-kerosene fuels.

In addition, kerosene heaters can emit air pollutants during operation. In an enclosed room, these pollutants can accumulate and prove harmful. This situation can be aggravated if the heater wick is lowered beyond the manufacturer's recommended setting. Therefore, before using a kerosene heater, the CPSC advises consumers to set the wick at the recommended height and make sure there is adequate ventilation.

Wood Stoves

Wood and coal burning have also been responsible for many home heating accident. Wood stoves, fireplaces, and their chimney assemblies are estimated to account for more than 100,000 residential fires every year, resulting in almost 200 deaths. The dangers associated with this type of heating system are fire and burns resulting from improper installation and creosote buildup.

Due to the number of accidents that have occurred, The CPSC has issued a labeling rule on wood stoves to provide a permanent reference to proper installation, operation maintenance procedures and to raise consumer awareness of these dangers.

When installing a wood stove, make certain that it is placed on the surface and at the distance from the wall recommended by the manufacturer.

Most wood heating fires have occurred in the chimney. Such fires can result from poorly constructed or damaged masonry chimneys, poor installation of factory built chimneys or the ignition of creosote, a tar-like residue which builds up in chimneys over time and is caused by low temperature fires.

To reduce the risk of fire, existing masonry chimneys should be inspected and repaired if necessary. Also, special care must be taken when installing a factory-built chimney to ensure it is kept the required distance from nearby combustible materials. The CPSC recommends that consumers have their chimneys checked by a qualified chimney sweep before, as well as during, the heating season to prevent a dangerous creosote buildup and resultant chimney fire.

At the say time, both the fireplace and chimney should be checked for structural integrity. And as a final precaution, never burn trash, charcoal or plastics in your wood burning appliance. These items can overheat you stove or fireplace causing a fire. They can also cause a buildup of pollutants when burned in a fireplace. Always make sure the area is properly ventilated.

Electric Heaters

Portable electric heaters, while seemingly harmless, are responsible for 2600 fires and 130 deaths annually. These heaters are not substitutes for central heating. Nor are they designed for extended use.

Electric heaters should not be located in heavily traveled areas or areas where children might touch them. Never use an extension cord with an electric heater. Finally, electric heaters should not be used near water because of the possibility of electrocution.

Gas Heaters

Gas heating equipment can also lead to tragedy if not installed or used properly. In 1986, an estimated 400 lives were lost and 18,600 fires occurred involving central furnaces, portable gas heaters, and other gas heating equipment. These products are associated with the twin dangers of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning.

All new unvented gas-fired space heaters are equipped with an oxygen depletion sensor (ODS). An ODS detects a reduced level of oxygen in the area where the heater is operating and shuts off the heater before a hazardous level of carbon monoxide accumulates. These heaters also have labels that warn users about the hazards of carbon monoxide.

If you have an older unvented gas fired space heater that does not have an ODS, consider replacing it with a new, ODS- equipped model.

If the pilot light of your heater should go out, remember these tips:

-- Allow five minutes or more for the gas to go away before trying again.

-- Do not allow gas to accumulate.

-- Light the match before you turn on the gas to the pilot. This avoids the risk of a flashback, which could occur if you allow gas to accumulate before you are ready to light the pilot.

-- IF YOU SMELL GAS, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO LIGHT THE APPLIANCE. Turn off all controls and open a window or door. Leave the area, and then call a gas service person. DO NOT touch any electrical surfaces.

If your space heater is meant to be vented, be sure the heater and flue are professionally installed according to local codes. Vent systems require regular maintenance and inspections. Vented heaters manufactured after June 1984 provide a thermal shut-off device if the appliance is not vented properly.

The CPSC reminds consumers this heating season of the need for accident awareness. With a few precautionary steps, such as checking the furnace to ensure it is properly vented, you can reduce the chances of an accident. Read instruction manuals and take time to get acquainted with the operation of your heating unit before starting it up. Let's make this winter an especially safe heating season.

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About the U.S. CPSC
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risk of injury or death associated with the use of thousands of types of consumer products. Deaths, injuries, and property damage from consumer product-related incidents cost the nation more than $1 trillion annually. CPSC's work to ensure the safety of consumer products has contributed to a decline in the rate of injuries associated with consumer products over the past 50 years. 

Federal law prohibits any person from selling products subject to a Commission ordered recall or a voluntary recall undertaken in consultation with the CPSC.

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