This is National Fire Prevention Week, so it’s a good time for our annual review of the basic systems and procedures that keep your family safe.
• Smoke detectors. At a minimum, you need one on each level of your home to include all areas outside sleeping rooms — but of course, follow the maker’s specific recommendations for locations. Replace any smoke detectors over 10 years old. The newer dual-type detectors are the best choice. They combine the traditional ionization technology with a photocell to detect smoldering, smoky fires.
If your home is equipped with 110-volt built-in smoke detectors, you must replace like for like. That is, you’re not allowed to put a battery-only detector in a powered location. For houses built before the mid ‘70s, the only choice you have is to use the nonpowered devices, but make sure the batteries are replaced at least once a year. If your house has a high vaulted ceiling where the detectors are hard to reach, then check out the 10-year lithium 9-volt batteries available at any hardware store or online. Of course, like all safety systems, they are only effective when they’re maintained properly; push the TEST button on each detector at least once a month.
• Extinguishers. One “ABC” type (which means it’s good for the three basic types of house fires: electrical, paper and grease fires) on each level of the house and in the garage is a good idea (they’re cheap, too: about $20 each). If there’s a problem with extinguishers, though, it’s that they engender a false sense of security. Tell the family they must not delay calling the fire department to fiddle with an extinguisher
• Fireplaces. This pre-holiday season is the best time of year to have a chimney sweep clean out the flue and firebox of your wood-burning unit.
If you have an open gas log, then test the pilot occasionally — but only if you’re comfortable around gas appliances. Blow out the pilot light, and listen for a tiny “click” as the safety valve shuts off the gas. If it takes more than a couple of minutes, get a professional involved.
• Electrical. Lightweight extension cords (typically No. 18 wire gauge) used as permanent wiring can be dangerous—especially if they are snaked under rugs. Also, they are only for small loads, like lamps, radios and chargers. Heat-producing appliances — especially heaters and clothes irons — should always be plugged directly into the wall.
• Escape. As a general rule, the building code requires two ways out of every bedroom. At your house that means (1) down the stairs (or up for basement sleeping quarters) or (2) out a window. For second-story windows, install one of the chain or rope ladders available at the lumber yard or home center. They’re self-contained and simply screw to the window sill of an upper bedroom — ready to scramble down in an emergency.
If your house is too old to have those “escape” windows and wells in the basement, a second-best option to make basement sleeping safer is to screw a small wooden ladder to the wall under the largest window. Also, any grills or plastic weather covers installed over window wells must be easily removable and shoved out of the way. In all cases, provide a permanent tool for poking out screens.
A family escape plan is a must. Pick a rendezvous spot for the family and take the kids through drills at night. And emphasize that pets usually find their own way out of a fire — so no animal rescue attempts are allowed. Your neighborhood firefighters will be glad to go over these and other safety considerations with the family.
Dear Ken: I have a gas log in my fireplace. Sometimes it just quits for no apparent reason. Does it need to be repaired? — Wes
Answer: If the gas valve feeding the unit gets too hot, it will shut itself down. Start by rearranging the logs to deflect more heat away it. If it continues, then you’ll need a fireplace company to install a new one.
You didn’t say whether or not you have glass doors, but if you do, keep them open when you want to run the log for an extended time. By the way, glass doors on any fireplace — gas or wood —should be open either all the way or totally closed. Anything in between can act like a small chimney, sucking fumes into the house!
Dear Ken: The pilot light on my furnace keeps going out. We thought it was due to the wind, but then it went out on a calm morning. What do you think is going on? — Peter
Answer: Use a combination of a fine wire and a wire brush to remove built-up scale in and around the little flame tube. Also, the thermocouple — the tube and copper-colored wire assembly that the flame blows on — may need replacement. Finally, most gas valves have a pilot adjustment that can be tweaked. These last two I’d leave to a heating contractor’s good efforts.
Your question tells me that your furnace may be over 30 years old. It’s probably about 50% efficient, whereas a new one will be about 80%. I think it’s time to begin planning for a new unit.
Moon is a home inspector in the Pikes Peak region. His radio show airs at 4 pm Saturdays on KRDO, FM 105.5 and AM 1240. Visit aroundthehouse.com