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Home Heating Safety Important in Winter

As temperatures begin to drop, Oklahomans start looking more closely at heating options such as wood-burning stoves. Many fires involving alternative sources are a direct result of improper operation.


Oklahoma State University Extension offers guidance for a wide range of related topics, including how to start a fire, remove ash and avoid dangerous fuels for an uneventfully safe winter. For example:


  • Carefully inspect wood stoves for cracks or bulges before each use. Check the legs, hinges and door seals, and clean out the stove.
  • Once a wood stove is installed correctly, open the damper completely. 
  • New cast-iron parts need to be seasoned and should have only small fires built the first few times to avoid cracking. Stoves without an ash pit should have two inches of sand insulating the bottom of the firebox. 
  • Kindling or paper should be placed over the entire bottom of the box to achieve an evenly burning fire. Use of flammable liquids to start a fire can cause explosions. 
  • Slowly add seasoned wood to lit kindling, being careful not to smother the fire. Wood should be stored dry for at least six months.
  • Make sure dampers are open before lighting the fire; afterward, leave them open until the ashes have cooled. 
  • Avoid burning cardboard, trash or other debris in a fireplace or wood stove. Do not use flammable liquids.
  • When fireplaces and wood stoves are in use, children, pets and flammable materials such as holiday decorations should be kept at least three feet away. Fireplace screens should cover the width of the fireplace and be sturdy enough to block rolling logs.
  • When a fire needs more fuel, the draft controls should be opened for a couple minutes for the stove pipe and flue to heat up, which will increase the draft and help prevent smoke from entering the room.
  • If a chimney fire is detected, shut off the air supply – closing glass doors and vents – and safely extinguish the main stove fire. A multipurpose dry chemical fire extinguisher should always be within easy reach. Prepare to call the fire department for help.


Continued vigilance is vital even after the desired level of warmth is reached, according to Scott Frazier, associate professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering.


“One of the most common causes of wood stove fires  in the home is leaving the fire untended,” Frazier said. “Whenever someone must leave the house while a fire is burning, take the necessary precautions to prevent the possibility of an uncontrolled fire.” 


Frazier said that when a stove is left unattended, fire can burn out of control or a spark might escape through a draft inlet. Opening the stove pipe damper and closing air inlet dampers can help avoid problems.


Older stoves that are not airtight are more difficult to control. The best thing to do is to make sure the fire has died down before leaving the house. 


Upon returning home, dampers should be opened and the fire stoked to burn off creosote. Creosote is a tar that forms on the inside surfaces of stoves and chimneys. This unwanted, flammable byproduct comes from smoke and water and mainly occurs when using green wood or fires below 250 degrees Fahrenheit. 


“Another alternative to reduce creosote buildup is to deliberately have a hot fire for 15 to 30 minutes each day,” said Frazier. “This will tend to burn off creosote in small amounts to reduce buildup problems.” 


All stove pipes and flues should be inspected regularly. One simple test is to tap on the pipe with a metal object – the sound will change from a ping to a dull thud as creosote builds up on the inside.


A flashlight can be lowered down a chimney flue to see any buildup. Frazier said 110-volt electric bulbs should not be used unless the bulb is protected in a wire cage. Mirrors also can be used to look up a chimney.  Ideally, the chimney and stove pipe should be inspected once a month during heating season, Frazier said. 


While ash buildup is typically not a major problem, a stove that is functioning around the clock will need to have ashes removed once every seven to 10 days. Keep in mind that ashes may be hotter than they appear and should not be shoveled into a paper bag, cardboard box, plastic container or any other combustible material. Field fires have been started from ashes that were several days old, he said.


Simple maintenance and proper usage of a wood burning stove will result in a warm and cozy winter, without the hundreds of dollars lost on gas and propane.


Most of the same rules apply to other fuel-burning appliances, according to Gina Peek, interim associate dean of Extension, Engagement and Continuing Education. For aexample, chimneys should be checked for obstructions and cracks, and dry, seasoned wood should be used in pellet stoves.


“As tempting as a large, roaring fire might be on an especially cold evening, build small fires that burn completely and generate less smoke,” Peek said. “Fuel-burning appliances should be inspected and cleaned every fall by a professional.”


Electric space heaters

Electric space heaters are also a good option when families are trying to ward off the winter chill in specific parts of their home. 


“Space heaters aren’t designed to replace your home’s heating system, but they can provide plenty of supplemental heat for contained spaces in your home,” Peek said, adding that electric heaters should also be thoroughly inspected, including the cord and plug. If there is any damage, do not use the appliance.


Families should look for electric heaters with the Underwriters Laboratories certification mark that will include the most up-to-date safety standards and features. 


The following are safety guidelines for electric space heaters:


  • Do not use space heaters in damp, wet areas, such as outdoors or in bathrooms. 
  • Plug heaters directly into the wall. 
  • If the heater’s plug gets hot, it could be a sign the outlet may need to be replaced. Contact a qualified electrician for assistance. 
  • Unplug space heaters before leaving home or going to bed.
  • Only operate those appliances when an adult is in the immediate area.
  • Heaters should be placed on a level, hard, nonflammable surface, such as a ceramic tile floor.

“Electric heaters can do a great job of keeping small areas warm and toasty,” Peek said. “Following a few safety precautions means you can take advantage of that warmth without worrying about fire, electrocution or other hazards.”


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