When nighttime temperatures start to dip, San Franciscans need to remember that turning up the heat should be done with safety in mind. While you may welcome the toasty temperatures that fires, furnaces, and space heaters bring to your home, it is important to remember that these heating measures might also be sources of deadly carbon monoxide (CO) if not used properly.
CO poisoning affects thousands of people annually, with most incidents occurring during the winter months. Alarmingly, an annual national average of more than 50 deaths and more than 2,100 nonfatal exposures occur each December, followed by an average of 69 deaths and more than 2,500 nonfatal exposures in January, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC also notes that deaths from unintentional vehicle-related carbon monoxide poisonings are higher during this time frame.
CO is colorless and odorless, making it impossible for humans to detect. For that reason, the California legislature enacted the Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Act, requiring all existing single-family dwellings containing a fossil fuel source or attached garage to be equipped with CO alarm devices for added protection from CO poisoning. Complying with laws such as this and taking other safety precautions can help prevent unfortunate accidents and save lives.
The CDC and the National Fire Protection Agency both recommend installing CO detectors on every floor of a home and near every sleeping area to ensure the best possible protection. First Alert, a leading producer of home-safety products, offers some additional suggestions for staying safe this winter when heating up every room of your home.
Bountiful, home-cooked meals with family and friends are fun, but stoves and ovens can pose potential danger if not properly used and maintained. A malfunctioning range or using foil on the bottom of a gas oven can lead to serious CO exposure in the kitchen. And when operating a stove and oven simultaneously, it’s a good idea to crack a window until all cooking equipment is no longer in use.
Though a warm fire might feel cozy, fireplaces are potential danger zones. Without proper cleaning and maintenance, soot and debris can build up in the chimney and lead to dangerous CO exposure. To keep the home fires burning safely, have fireplaces professional cleaned annually — ideally, just prior to seasonal use.
Fuel-burning space heaters often are used during winter to provide a little extra heat to colder areas of the home, such as bedrooms and home offices. While effective, these devices can be sources of CO if vents become loose or detached. Before turning on a space heater, check to see that all parts are intact and secure. And always make sure to turn off or unplug space heaters, heating pads, and other electrical heating devices before sleeping. Additionally, there are many energy-efficient space heaters on the market that do not require any type of fuel, and are probably a better choice for in the home.
Another common but dangerous practice during winter is “warming up” a vehicle before leaving the house. Exhaust from automobiles contains significant amounts of carbon monoxide that can wreak havoc when it is contained in an enclosed space or leaks into the main living areas of a home. If you are fortunate enough to have a garage, to ensure your family’s safety, never leave a car or other motorized vehicle running in a garage.
Proper care and maintenance will allow you to enjoy the benefits of using your fireplace, not only safely, but also economically. More than one-third of Americans use fireplaces, wood stoves, and other fuel-fired appliances as primary heat sources in their homes. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the fire risks when heating with wood and solid fuels. Often home fires from a fireplace are due to creosote buildup in chimneys and stovepipes. All home heating systems require regular maintenance to function safely and efficiently. Have your chimney or wood stove inspected and cleaned annually by a certified chimney specialist.
Each time a wood fire is burned, tar and creosote are formed. Creosote is unburned wood particles and condensed flue gases. With each fire these highly flammable substances build up on the inside of the chimney and must be removed to prevent a fire. The Creosote Sweeping Log is widely available and contains a mixture of minerals that are dispersed during burning to coat and adhere to the creosote. Over the next 14 days, the creosote becomes brittle and breaks away. This patented chimney sweep log is an alternative to mechanical cleaning and is one of the fastest, easiest, and most cost-efficient ways to clean your chimney. However, regular inspections of your chimney by a professional are still recommended.
Knowing how CO can enter your home is an important first step in avoiding problems, but no one is truly safe from harm without carbon monoxide alarms. Be sure to have these installed throughout your home, along with fire alarms, or combination CO/fire alarms.