Flammable Liquids and House Fires: Prevention and Detection
household chemicals can cause destructive fires—here’s how to store and use
Someone sustains a burn injury that requires treatment approximately every 60 seconds in the United States. This is why the American Burn Association uses National Burn Awareness Week (February 2-8) to educate the public on preventing burn injuries and the fires that cause them. And one of the best ways to prevent household fires is to safely store and handle flammable and combustible liquids.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that these liquids were responsible for igniting an average of 43,620 home structural fires and causing 196 civilian deaths, 2559 civilian injuries, and $469 million in damages per year between 2007 and 2011.
Though we rarely give them much thought, homeowners often keep numerous combustible or flammable liquids on hand. These include:
Many of these liquids, like cooking oil, rubbing alcohol, and nail polish, are ubiquitous. Others, like gasoline and machine oil, are common in homes with yards. And some of the most flammable liquids, like ether and paint thinner, are only found in the homes of the handy or mechanically inclined.
In 2014, NFPA published detailed data on the role of flammable liquids in fires between 2007 and 2011. The report gives useful insight into what chemicals are most often involved in fires and how the fires are ignited.
NFPA groups flammable and combustible liquids based on their flashpoints and ignition points. Excluding fires ignited by unknown or unclassified flammable liquids, the report found that:
Cooking oil causes the most fires, the most injuries, and the most monetary damage.
Diesel, kerosene, paint thinner, and home heating oil cause the second most fires.
Gasoline ranks third as the cause of home fires but causes (by far) the most deaths.
Whatever flammable liquids you store at home, safety starts with awareness. In this article, we look at statistics showing which liquids most frequently cause fires and examine safe storage and handling practices for cooking oil, cleaning liquids, heating oil, and chemicals you keep in the garage or utility room.
safety with cooking oil
Cooking oils, lubricating oils, and motor oils were responsible for 65% of structural fires, 14% of deaths, 72% of injuries, and $222 million in property losses. This category represents the most injuries and most property losses of all types of flammable liquids.
Of these kinds of fires, 96% started in the kitchen—indicating that grease fires ignited by cooking equipment are by far the most common home structural fires caused by flammable liquids. Because grease fires are so prevalent and damaging, simple safety measures in the kitchen can greatly reduce the risk of fire in your home.
How to safely use cooking oil
Unattended cooking is one of the biggest causes of all types of fires in the home, not just those involving flammable liquids. And it’s crucial that you never leave hot oil unattended.
When you aren’t looking, hot oil can boil and splatter onto heating elements or open flames and ignite. It can also heat up to its ignition point and catch fire. Remember: first, oil boils. Then it smokes. Then it burns. Don’t let your cooking oil hit or remain at its smoke point. And by keeping an eye on hot oil, you can take it off the heat when it starts to smoke.
Always take care when cooking with oil and especially when deep-frying. Be gentle when adding food to oil so that it doesn’t splash. And make sure not to add water or wet food to hot oil to prevent it from splattering.
How to extinguish grease fires
There are some things you must never do in the event of a grease fire. First, never pour water on a grease fire, as water and oil don’t mix. Instead of extinguishing the fire, the water will splash burning grease everywhere, potentially burning you and spreading the flames.
Second, never try to carry a pan or pot of hot or burning oil. It might seem like a good idea to try to take a grease fire outside, but it’s more likely that you’ll splash burning grease on yourself or spread the fire to the rest of your house.
When extinguishing a grease fire, make sure to turn the heat off. Then, try to smother the fire—always keep a metal lid or cookie sheet nearby when cooking with grease. In the event of a grease fire, cover the pan with the lid or sheet to deprive the fire of oxygen and extinguish it. Keep in mind that a glass lid will likely shatter from the heat. Alternatively, small fires can be smothered with baking soda or salt. (But never flour or baking powder!)
Other options include:
Using a Class K fire extinguisher suitable for flammable liquid fires. These fire extinguishers are specially designed to extinguish fires that can’t be fought with other common types of fire extinguishers or water.
Fire blankets aren’t common in U.S. homes, but they are readily available and great for smothering small kitchen fires.
oil and house fires
Among flammable liquids, diesel fuel, kerosene, paint thinner, and No. 2 heating oil are responsible for igniting the second-greatest number of household structure fires. Of these fires, 79% were ignited in some way by equipment and 65% originated in the heating equipment room.
Unlike many other flammable household chemicals, fuel oil is not readily flammable. It has to be heated and sprayed/atomized before it will ignite. Thus, stored fuel oil won’t typically cause fires and NFPA reports that 72% of home structure fires ignited by liquids in this class involved equipment problems.
It’s important to keep all furnaces clean and well-maintained, no matter how they produce heat. Because oil-burning furnaces naturally produce soot, it’s recommended to have them serviced each fall and inspected and cleaned throughout the heating season. Maintenance of oil-burning furnaces, among other things, involves:
Removing soot and dust
Inspecting (and, as necessary, replacing) the oil nozzle, which sprays hot oil before it is burned
Checking and replacing the oil filter
liquid fire safety in the bathroom
Most people don’t think of the bathroom when they think of flammable liquids. But many households keep rubbing alcohol and nail polish remover—two highly flammable substances—in the bathroom. Make sure you store and use these chemicals safely to avoid burning yourself or starting a fire.
Nail polish and nail polish remover require caution
and safe disposal
Acetone is the main ingredient of nail polish remover and it is an extremely volatile and flammable substance. It evaporates at room temperature, and the fumes can catch fire easily. Alternative nail polish removers may use ethyl acetate, a common solvent, but it is also flammable.
The good news is that NFPA reports that acetone and similar liquids were responsible for an average of only 20 home structure fires per year. Nonetheless, you should properly store and dispose of nail polish and nail polish remover.
These substances should be stored in their sealed containers in cool places away from flame and heat sources—making the bathroom a perfect place for them. When using nail polish and nail polish remover, think twice about lighting a candle for ambiance. Keeping the candle away from the bottle won’t necessarily protect you. A Texas woman suffered severe burns and nearly died after the acetone vapors from her nail polish remover caught fire via a lit candle on the other side of her dresser.
Nail polish and nail polish remover are both household hazardous waste. This means that you can’t put them down the drain, nor can you simply throw the bottles away when you’re done with them. For safe disposal of nail polish, nail polish remover, and their bottles, take them to a municipal household hazardous waste disposal center.
Take the same precautions with rubbing alcohol that you would with nail polish remover. Keep it away from potential ignition sources, use it in a well-ventilated area, and dispose of it properly as household hazardous waste if you don’t use all of it.
liquid safety in the garage and utility room
Between your garage, shed, and utility room, you likely have some very flammable chemicals at home. These can include gasoline for the lawn equipment, acetone, paint thinner, ether, WD40, motor oil, and machine oil.
Highly flammable liquids such as acetone and ether did not, the NFPA found, cause very many home fires. But because of their volatility, they are still dangerous.
On the other hand, gasoline was responsible for an average of 7,960 fires at homes per year—the third-largest category of flammable liquids. However, it accounts for relatively few (6%) of all home structural fires. This is because gasoline tends to cause a large number of outdoor and vehicle fires. 30% of home gasoline fires were structural, 33% were vehicle fires, and 37% were outdoor fires.
To avoid burns and fires with the flammable liquids you keep in your garage or shed, do the following:
Use proper containers
Store them in well-ventilated areas away from potential ignition sources
Use them safely, and with well-maintained equipment
Use proper containers
The safe storage of flammable liquids starts with the proper container. It can be tempting to repurpose old containers like milk jugs but this is very dangerous. Containers not built for the purpose might not withstand the internal gas pressure, they might leak, or they might even “melt,” as some plastics dissolve in gasoline, acetone, or ether.
Instead, always transport and store fuel in approved containers. Approval for these containers is indicated by labels saying “FM Approved” or “UL Listed (or Certified)", indicating that they have been specifically tested and approved for use in storing fuel by these safety organizations. These gas cans meet certain standards, such as not leaking when inverted, resisting increased internal pressure, resisting drops, and not spilling their contents.
Store flammable liquids safely
All flammable liquid containers should be kept in cool, dry locations. This serves two purposes: First, lower temperatures discourage the excess buildup of flammable vapors. Second, dampness can corrode metal containers. Many flammable liquids—including paint thinner, acetone, ether, and others—are sold and can be safely stored in metal containers. But keep an eye out for rust, which can lead to holes.
Where possible, store fuels away from the home in a shed or fuel enclosure protected from the elements. Fuel should be stored inwell-ventilated areas free of potential ignition sources, including electrical equipment, heating equipment, open flames, or equipment that may cause sparks.
Use flammable liquids safely
Be careful when using flammable liquids. Keep them away from potential ignition sources, including electrical equipment and live wires—numerous explosions have been caused by simply touching WD-40 aerosol cans to live electrical sources. It hopefully goes without saying, but do not smoke around flammable liquids.
Some fluids, like lighter fluid and gasoline, are, of course, meant to be burned. But exercise some basic caution to ensure that they only burn where you want them to: Never add gasoline or other fuels to hot or running engines:
Also, keep flammable liquids away from recreational fires. When you use lighter fluid to help ignite charcoal or a bonfire, make sure you keep the containers far away when you actually light up. And please don’t follow the example of this woman, who poured gasoline on a bonfire. The fire traveled up the stream of fuel and the can exploded. She lived but was left with permanent burn scars and enormous medical bills.
prevention, detection is key
With the right precautions, the flammable chemicals that are common in homes are very safe. By storing them properly and using them safely, you can minimize the risk to yourself, your home, and your family.
But proper fire detection is critical, no matter how many precautions you take. Smoke detectors are vital equipment for all households because they give you precious time to escape in the event of a fire. And smart smoke and heat sensors improve upon smoke detectors by detecting smoke, high temperatures, and rapid changes in temperature.
When they are integrated with a monitored smart home security system, smoke and heat sensors can get help to your home faster. They will alert both you and a monitoring center when a fire is detected, and 24/7 monitoring personnel will immediately attempt to contact you twice before calling emergency services.
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