Safely Battle Old Man Winter

On a frigid Wisconsin morning one January, Josh Massart zipped himself into his down parka, locked his two-story, 150-year-old home and headed for work.

Three hours later, a neighbor noticed something no one ever wants to see—smoke pouring from the eaves of Massart’s home. The home was engulfed in flames by the time the fire department arrived. Everything was lost.

Like many winter warriors trying to combat the cold (this past Wisconsin winter was particularly fierce), Massart had turned on an electrical space heater to help keep warm.

When he’d left that morning for his day job at his father’s auto body shop, just a mile down the road, he’d forgotten about the space heater. The house’s wiring system, although it had been updated, was not strong enough to support the draw from the powerful heater. The overload sparked a fire.

Tragically Common
Unfortunately, Massart’s story is not uncommon. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that space heaters are associated with about 21,800 residential fires every year.

Other statistics from FireSafety.gov about fire safety are just as startling:

  • Four thousand people die each year, or one person every three hours,
    in home fires.
  • Deaths from fires and burns are the third leading cause of fatal home injury.
  • Most residential fires occur during winter months.
  • More than 40 percent of home fire deaths occur in homes without smoke alarms.
The Aftermath
Long before the fire, Josh’s Agent at N.E.W. Insurance Concepts in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., had helped him insure his home in case something like this ever happened. ERIE was quick to respond to his claim—a claims specialist met with Massart the day after.

But, while insurance helped in the aftermath, it didn’t remove the trauma from the tragedy. In this case, the house could not be repaired. Many of Josh’s belongings were also unsalvageable.

“I lost a lot of NASCAR memorabilia in the fire,” he says. “After racing for 10 years, that was irreplaceable.”

There were also family photographs and a gun collection—all had been destroyed. Massart’s house, which had been in his family for four generations, had four smoke alarms—two upstairs and two downstairs.

Today, when Massart talks to friends about the event, he offers advice on how to prepare for a possible fire in the home.

“Take photos of everything you own,” he says. “Record current prices of valuables, especially collections. Videotape the contents of each room of the home, then store the tape in a bank deposit box.”

ERIE also recommends keeping receipts for your most valued items in a safe place outside the home.

Best Defense: Efficiency
Alternative home heating options like space heaters, wood pellet stoves and fireplaces seem like they may help cut energy costs. However, home owners could save more money by improving the performance of their existing systems, says Jennifer Amann, director of the Buildings Program
at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

“Consumers can get the best bang for their buck by taking low-cost steps to run their homes more efficiently before investing in big-ticket items,” she says.

Here are some steps Amann encourages for home owners:

  • Replace air filters monthly
  • Seal up air leaks and add insulation
  • Clean registers and make sure they’re not blocked by furniture,
    carpets, or drapes
  • Bleed trapped air from hot water radiators
  • Tune up your system
  • Seal your ducts

Finally, Rittich also advises home owners to have their electrical systems inspected before using space heaters or other devices that require electricity.

“If you don’t know what kind of electrical system you have in your home and what kind of draw the wiring takes, check it out. In 99 percent of the situations, the wiring will be fine. But that one percent could be a large loss.”

How Safe is Your Heating?

The best defense when fending off Old Man Winter may be maintenance of your home’s heating system. But, if you decide to give alternative heating a try, make safety a top priority. The Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) suggests:

◊ Look for products tested by Underwriters Laboratory (UL).

◊ Buy models with automatic
shut-off features and heat element guards.

◊ Maintain a 36-inch clearance between the heater and combustible materials, such as bedding, furniture, wall coverings or other flammable items.

◊ Do not leave a heater unattended.

◊ Check every electrical cord for fraying and cracking. If one looks worn, replace it before using.

◊ Install carbon monoxide detectors in several parts of
the house.

Other Safety Suggestions:

◊ Never use a kerosene heater indoors.

◊ Never use electric or gas stoves to heat the home. They are not intended for that purpose and can cause fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.

◊ If using a wood fireplace, have
it inspected annually by a professional chimney sweep.

When using a gas fireplace, keep the glowing embers and logs clean; inspect and clean the air circulation passages and fan; avoid obstructing the vents.

Go to disastersafety.org for more.

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