The Tao of safety: Home heating hazards

December 23, 2014

How is safety for a topic to ho-ho-ho up your holiday season? But this time of year presents some challenges around electricity and home heating.

Electrical circuits run through your home at limited amperage to protect you from overloads by providing an intentional weak point that will cause a controlled failure in the event of a power surge or excessive current demands made on your power system.

What that boils down to is your circuits will only take so much before they shut down. For example, if you put too many plugs in an outlet, you will experience a cut-off of circuit breakers or blown fuses.

Improper plug-ins or misused multi-taps can spark and ignite a fire. Christmas lights are a good example. For one season, you use them every evening to brighten your home, and the rest of the year they lie tangled in knots.

Before you plug them in, untangle them and inspect the wires for wear, weathering, and moisture. If you spot frayed wires, a nick in the line, condensation, or even corrosion, repair or replace the lights before applying power.

When stringing several lights together back-to-back, remember that at some point you must make a judgment call as to whether or not to keep going or tap another circuit.

Unless you are specifically certain otherwise, the lower plug on a dual receptacle is not tapping a different circuit. Do not assume that if you have one socket free, you still have plenty of power at your disposal.

Check out your circuit panel or fuse box and locate the one controlling your chosen plug. It will have the amp rating on it—for example, “20A.” In a typical 120-volt AC (alternating current) power scheme, that means you have 2,400 watts to work with. Do not test this limit.

Opting for energy efficient LEDs will reduce the burden on your circuits, but even LEDs can overheat.

If you are counting watts and doing the math, [total watts divided by voltage (120) = Amps of usage], do not forget to factor in anything else on that circuit, such as lamps, appliances, and even electric home heating.

The effectiveness of central heating is dependent on the output strength of your unit and its ability to move warm air through your home, so proper ventilation is important.

Check air ducts, interior and exterior vents, and all filters for blockages. Heavy snowfall can block your exterior vents. For vents with moving parts, make sure they are clear of ice that might prevent them from operating.

If your vent system has insulation issues, such as torn fiberglass covering, holes, or none at all, you will need to patch these uncovered areas for better efficiency.

If you are using a fireplace or wood-burning stove, clean out the stack routinely and check for anything from excessive soot build-up to animal infestation.

Heating with flame can be beautiful, romantic, and environmentally sustainable, but fire is unpredictable and unruly. Make sure the area around your wood-burner is clear and the shields closed appropriately.

If you are using a gas heater, make sure the pilot light has plenty of gas and oxygen. If it runs out of air, the flame will go out, but the gas might also keep coming out.

Know what gas smells like so you can recognize a leak. ComfortSystems in Duluth provides scratch-n-sniffs to familiarize you with the odor of natural gas.

If you smell gas faintly, your pilot light may be out. Open nearby doors and windows, and relight it according to the manufacturer’s instructions for your heating unit.

If the pilot is lit and you continue to smell gas, or if the smell is strong, leave the building and call for a service technician—ComfortSystems at 218-730-4100; Superior Plus Energy Services at 855-588-4326.

If you experience a heat outage but still have power, space heaters can be a godsend. They have their hazards though. Single room units should be placed in a location free of debris, with adequate ventilation, and where no one will trip over the cord. Place them only on the floor.

Turn off the unit when you go to sleep. Yes, that means it will get cold overnight. But space heaters cause 25,000 home fires a year and 6,000 visits to the emergency room. Pile on another blanket and warm up the room again when you are awake to supervise the unit.

The Tao of Do-It-Yourself is intended to de-mystify simple home and auto maintenance projects. It is not a substitute for professional repair services. If you cannot identify the problem you are trying to fix, refer to the proper specialist right away.

A.T. Miller is an electrician’s apprentice who builds and wires control panels for power systems. He is also a cartoonist, writer, and web/graphic designer. At home, he is an amateur repairman, plumber, electrician, carpenter, and auto mechanic. His most important job is that of husband and father.

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