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Heat Safely with Alternative Fuel Heating Systems

George Maher, Farm Safety Specialist

While natural gas, propane, electricity and fuel oil continue to heat most homes, many homeowners rely on wood, coal, and other more unusual fuel sources such as corn for winter comfort. Those fuels can provide abundant heat, but require some additional safety precautions, notes a safety specialist at North Dakota State University.

"Every heating unit that uses an open flame needs air for combustion," notes George Maher, farm safety specialist with the NDSU Extension Service. "Efforts to make homes more weather-tight with improved caulking, siding and/or insulation, and better windows and doors, may restrict the amount of combustion air available."

Maher says outside air should be provided for combustion through an air exchanger or vent that warms the air it enters the home.

"The addition of a wood stove, furnace, fireplace, gas clothes dryer, gas stove or gas water heaters increases the demand for combustion air," Maher says. If that demand is not met, there is a grave danger of carbon monoxide poisoning for the residents."

The chimney of an alternate fuel heating system needs attention every year before the heating season, he says. When wood or coal is used, preventing chimney fires should be a major concern. Soot and creosote can build up to dangerous levels. Wood stove and fireplace chimneys should be cleaned and inspected every year. Masonry chimneys should be inspected for cracks, crumbling mortar, obstructions, and creosote deposits. Prefabricated metal chimneys need to be inspected for corrosion, tightness of the joints, and creosote deposits.

"Chimney cleaning and inspection should be done by qualified, trained persons," Maher says. "It is not a job for amateurs or the average home owner."

He also recommends annual safety inspections for wood burning stoves and fireplaces. Cracks and other defects such as leaky door seals, broken or loose hinges, and faulty draft regulators are common problems. Examine the legs of wood stoves to make sure they provide a sturdy and secure base for the stove. If the wood stove has a cracked glass insert in the door, it should be replaced.

"If your older stove has major defects such as warped panels or other defects from overheating, replace the entire stove," Maher says. "Your life depends on the safe operation of that stove, so don't trust it for another year."

Home owners who have not used a woodburning stove or heater lately should review management and operation procedures before starting a new season. Check to make sure minimum clearances from combustible surfaces have been maintained? Make sure the stove is still on it's fire-resistant base. Remind youngsters that the hot stove should not be touched or played with. Consider how you will handle and dispose of hot ashes. Remember to use only metal containers.

"Remember that a slow burning fire creates more creosote than a faster one," Maher notes. "When creosote buildup occurs frequently, adjust the draft of the fire to provide more air and speed up combustion. An occasional faster burning fire can help to reduce creosote buildup when there isn't too much, be sure to check it first."

Maher also emphasized that every home needs to be protected with smoke alarms.

"It's not uncommon to find smoke detectors with missing batteries in homes heated with wood or coal," he says. "An occasional, accidental release of smoke sets off the alarm and soon the battery is disconnected or removed. Careful location of the detector and better management of the wood stove can prevent the false alarms and still allow the detector to provide protection."

Most insurance companies provide discounts on insurance premiums to clients who have smoke alarms in their homes. Test smoke alarms frequently and replace the battery whenever it becomes weak.

"Replace any alarm that doesn't function properly during a test," Maher says. "The price of a smoke alarm is cheap when compared to the cost of a house fire."

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