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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Staying Safe and Warm in Winter

It's winter, and around here we've been breaking low-temperature records for at least a week. There's frost and snow in the Carolinas, the East Coast is gearing up for a blizzard, and there's even a snow forecast for Florida,

Staying warm is nice, but staying warm and safe at the same time should be your goal.
  • Every winter we hear of house fires started because of a “faulty” space heater.
  • Ice storms and blizzards tend to bring down power lines, causing people to use makeshift sources of heat, often without any forethought.
  • Candles being used for light during a power outage and kitchen stoves being used to warm a house when the furnace dies (gas stoves can usually be lit with a match if the electricity is out, but don't try the oven) are two other common causes of winter house fires. 
  • At least once a winter, the national news will cover the death of a family asphyxiated by carbon monoxide (CO) from a charcoal grill used as a source of heat inside a house. 

Safety is one reason to prep, so how do we stay safe in winter?

Christmas Decorations
  • Christmas is over, so everyone who used a real tree should get the dried up, dead, highly flammable tree out of the house by mid January at the latest. If not, keep watering it daily to reduce the drying.
  • Unplug Christmas tree lights when nobody is around to watch the tree, even if you use an artificial tree. Fire retardant doesn't mean fireproof, and those presents wrapped in thin paper will catch any sparks that may fall from a bad string of lights.
  • Check your strings of lights every year. Any cracking or fraying of wires means that string goes into the recycle bin or trash. Strings of lights are cheap; cleaning up after even a small fire isn't.
  • I've seen “retro” tree displays using real candles for lights. Unless you have a sprinkler system or other fire-suppression system installed in your house, this is a bad idea. It may look cool, but it's a disaster waiting to happen.
  • Watch the holiday plants. Poinsettias aren't as poisonous as once thought, but holly berries are toxic.
  • American mistletoe isn't poisonous, but its European cousin is. Pets and small children are the usual victims, since they'll eat anything they're not supposed to.

Emergency Heat
  • Keep flammables away from any source of emergency heat. Clothes, curtains, blankets, and paper should be kept at least three feet away from any heater.
  • If you have a wood stove or fireplace for back-up heat, treat it like any other prep you have by practicing its use before you need it. You're not going to reach for a book on first aid while someone is bleeding, so why would you try to run a wood-burner without practice? I covered wood heat 2 ½ years ago in two articles, and the basics haven't changed since then. 
  • Do not use any form of cooking grill inside an occupied building. Charcoal and propane can both produce dangerous levels of CO very quickly. Odorless and invisible, CO kills by blocking your blood's ability to transport oxygen. Even with a good furnace, CO alarms are cheap insurance and I highly recommend putting one next to each of your smoke alarms.
  • If you plan on using electric space heaters to warm a small area (keeping your feet warm under a desk, under a sink to keep water pipes from freezing, etc.), make sure you have a newer heater equipped with a tip-over switch. Usually a button on the bottom, the tip switch kills the power if the heater falls over.
  • Electric heaters draw a lot of power, so most of them will come with a warning against using extension cords with the heater. Common household extension cords are rated for about 5 amps, while most heaters will draw 10 amps or more. Pushing that much amperage through a too-small wire makes it get hot, creating another fire hazard.

Emergency Lighting
  • We've covered a lot of different forms of lighting on this blog. Use the search box in the upper right-hand corner and you'll find reviews and thoughts on flashlights, lanterns, and other forms of light.
  • Candles and kerosene lamps are common forms of emergency light, and they both generate a bit of heat. I covered lanterns in my “liquid-fueled light” series a few years ago.
  • Any time you are using flame as a source of light, you need to keep children, pets, and stupid people away from them. Kids playing with candles cause a couple of fires every year around here (rural towns in a county with a population less than 6,000).
  • Never go to sleep with a candle burning. The Army used to have a duty known as “fire watch” back when we lived in wooden barracks that were built before running water was common inside a house. Someone had to stay awake all night just to watch for fires that could take out an entire building in a matter of minutes. Not a bad idea if you're using open fire as a source of light or heat.
  • If you're using a battery-powered light for back-up, make sure you have plenty of spare batteries. I tend to buy AA and AAA batteries in bulk packs of 30 or more to save money, and the plastic boxes they come in keep them from being scattered in the junk drawer.

Prepping for winter is just another item on the list where I live, but I know some of you don't normally get temperatures below freezing and the rare winters when you do can be a bit of a shock. Stay safe when you prep for the out-of-the-ordinary weather.

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