Staying Warm and Safe: Space Heater, Fireplace, and Central Heating System Safety

With the price of oil rising, homeowners who heat their homes with oil may be tempted to use supplementary heating sources to offset their high heating bills. These alternative heating sources, if not used properly, can contribute to an increased risk of fire, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.).

Space heaters, wood stoves and other supplemental heating sources are the leading cause of home fires during the winter months, trailing only cooking equipment. The National Fire Protection Association reports that fixed and portable home heating devices account for two of every three home heating related fires and two of every three related deaths. In 2008 (the most recent statistics available), heating equipment was involved in an estimated 66,100 reported home structure fires, 480 civilian deaths, 1,660 civilian injuries, and caused direct property damage of $1.1 billion.

Fireplaces and chimneys were involved in 43 percent of these fires and 11 percent of the deaths. Fixed and portable space heaters, including wood stoves, were involved in 25 percent of the heating fires, but resulted in 74 percent of the fatalities.

By comparison, central home heating systems account for only a small percentage of heating-related fires and fatalities. Supplemental heating devices are more dangerous because they provide many opportunities for error by the people using them. Here are some of the problems:

“Damage caused by fire and smoke are covered under standard homeowners and renters insurance policies,” said Loretta Worters, vice president of the I.I.I. “Homeowners are also covered for water or other damage caused by fire fighters working to extinguish the blaze.

To protect yourself from the economic consequences of fires and other disasters, the I.I.I. advises homeowners to purchase enough insurance to rebuild the home and personal possessions.

“Unfortunately, many consumers do not know what is in their policy until they have to file a claim and at that point it is too late to purchase the right amount of financial protection,” Worters explained.

If you use supplemental heating sources, remember to follow these basic safety tips.

Portable Space Heaters

The biggest mistake people make with space heaters is placing them too close to flammable materials such as bedspreads, draperies, upholstery or clothing. Space heaters need at least three feet of clearance from anything that can burn.

Fireplaces and Woodstoves

Central Home Heating Systems

Make sure your furnace is in good working condition. Have it inspected regularly, and leave repairs to professionals.

Get into good safety habits and teaching family members what to do in a fire or other emergency. Print a list of emergency phone numbers such as the police and fire departments and place them near the telephones in your home. Make sure that smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are in good, working condition. Install a sophisticated alarm system that rings at an outside service to contact the fire, police or local emergency medical service.

For more information on making your home safer, contact the United States Fire Administration.

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