Fire Risk: Magnification of light

No doubt, one of the most petrifying things we can encounter is fire in the home. Having our family put in harms way can keep us up at night. This blog series give its readers an understanding of fire hazards that are encountered in the home, some that people may be aware of, while others not so much.

The unique properties of a magnifying glass have long been known to have the ability to create fire. As it were, all glass can start a fire if the sun rays pass through it, concentrating the light, directing onto flammable materials, causing ignition.

So, when you think of household items which pose a fire risk in your home, mirrors or windows may not come immediately to mind. Yes, leaving glass objects close to windowsills can cause fire. The images attached to this blog post have been donated as an excellent example of the risks caused.

The sun’s rays constantly bathe the earth with thermal energy. While this tends not to be strong enough to ignite paper, wood or other combustible substances, if the rays are focused, the flow of energy becomes concentrated enough to exceed the threshold for combustion.

Rays from direct sunlight (typical heat flux of 1 kW/m2) are not intense enough to ignite common fuels. If they are concentrated or focused by a transparent or concave object (such as a mirror or the bottom of some aerosol cans, they can reach 10 to 20 kW/m2 at the focal point of the light path. If a cellulosic fuel is located at or near that focal point, the fuel can be heated to its ignitable temperature and catch fire.

From the images attached, the householder left her property for a 50 minute run. When re-entering her home, she noticed that her dressing table was smoking. A make-up mirror positioned in such a way, reflected the afternoon sun, and began to burn the hairdryer nearby. Thankfully, this incident was discovered before fire could occur.

Thankfully, this incident occurred when the householder was nearby, as you would be surprised of the extent of fire damage that can be caused if such a fire had developed undetected. This mirror did have instructions highlighting the dangers of sunlight magnification.

So, if you are lucky enough to have a room which has great sunlight beaming through, carry out a risk assessment to make sure any glass objects cannot re-focus the sunlight, causing a fire. Be aware of free-standing magnifying mirrors, glass ornaments, magnifying glass, paperweights or certain aerosol cans, that could pose a potential fire risk in your home.

Fires can and do happen in the home, and as I have highlighted here, can occur due to uncommon methods. Be safe and prevent the chances of such fires occurring. Fit smoke alarms on each level of your home – it’s the simplest step you can take to cut the risk of dying in fire.

Electronic charging devices: The fire risk

Image from http://www.electriciancourses4u.co.uk

Mobile electronic devices such as phones and laptops, have become the norm in today’s modern living. The ability to enclose sophisticated technology in small portable devices enhances our lives tenfold. We have become accustomed to these devices, carrying them around without much concern.

The first thing we do in the morning is take our phones off charge before beginning our day. The increase in portable devices in our home, brings an increased risk of fire, short circuiting and electric shock. Many tend to charge devices in a haphazard way, unbeknownst to the user. Problems include over-charging, using counterfeit chargers, and charging devices whilst in the bed.

The biggest risk is the availability of cheap knock-off chargers to the public.  Counterfeit chargers are available everywhere at a fraction of the price of the branded one. The problem with these chargers is that most have been wired using sub-standard components, in turn failing to meet the safety requirements of the UK Electrical Equipment Safety Regulations Act 1994.

Cheap chargers can be bought online with many purchased for individual use. Others are bought and mass distributed, ending up in stores around the country. So, why are we risking the lives of our families in order to save a few pounds? Many of us are blissfully unaware of the danger posed by counterfeit chargers.

Knock-off chargers are advertised as being compatible with several devices. However, why do you think these chargers are so cheap? Knock-off chargers can indeed charge your phone, but they can continue to charge the phone after it has fully charged, causing it to overheat. Unlike legit chargers which would cut off at this point.

Other problems include a lack of voltage filtering and a sub-standard circuit board. So yes, the reason these chargers are cheap is because safety has been compromised. Genuine product chargers carry their logo printed on the charger, not on a sticker, so don’t be fooled when purchasing.

Image from http://www.edmonton.ctvnews.ca

Genuine or fake, chargers can overheat if overcharged. Over-charging your devices, can not only degrade the life of the battery, but it can also cause overheating and the risk of fire.

An increasing number of fires in the home have been caused by charging devices. A house fire which killed five people in Sheffield was said to have been caused by a faulty phone charger, plugged into a socket in the living room. A family member spotted flames sparking by the sockets in the living room as she went to retrieve her phone.

A report from the British Consumer Safety Group has found that 63% of children and teenagers leave their phone to charge over-night, and thirty-eight percent say they keep their phone charging under their pillow while they sleep.

Image from http://www.fox61.com

The problems arise when the phone is left on your bed, laid out on the combustible surface, especially under your pillow. The heat generated cannot dissipate and the charger will become hotter and hotter. Likely resulting in the pillow and bedding catching fire. When charging your devices, make sure to place the charger and device on a cabinet or dresser.

We have grown to realise that it is wrong to leave a candle burning, or the stove lit, so why are we so complacent about our chargers. You should never priorities cost over life safety. Going for the cheaper option can cause you your life. Always use the charger that came with the device, as the branded charger is less likely to cause a fire.

Lastly, make sure your children are aware of the dangers that the improper use of chargers can pose. These are modern times. Our parents may not have had to deal with such hazards, but our children will continue to face these hazards in the future.

COOKING APPLIANCE FIRES: HAZARDS AND PREVENTION

Following on with the theme of common residential fire hazards, fires caused by cooking appliances have an important place on this fire prevention blog series. It is widely known that cookers cause more damage and fatalities than any other home appliance.

Taking the appropriate safety measures when using oven and hobs can help reduce the risks of cooking fires in your home. So, keep reading this blog post as it outlines the substantial fire hazards that cooking appliances have on fire statistics. It will also outline the preventative measures that you can put into place to keep your family safe.

Open flames from gas hobs and ovens, common in kitchen cooking appliances, pose a hazardous source of ignition. A common example is the ignition of discarded cooking oils and grease by the open flames.

The effects that over-heated pans have on grease can be seen in the following image. Once the grease reaches its autoignition temperature, it can ignite to cause widespread damage to the kitchen and the rest of the home.

Cooking fires are often traced to people engaging in unsafe behaviour. A large proportion of fire deaths have been caused to the consumption of alcohol. Coming in from a night out, turning on the cooker to make food and falling asleep is a statistic seen all too often in fire deaths.

So, what do you do if a kitchen fire occurs in your home?

  • The most important thing is to prioritise your own safety. If you cannot carefully extinguish the fire, leave the property and call the fire brigade.

Life preservation over bricks and mortar!

  • If a grease fire starts in a pan, smother the flames by sliding the lid – over the pan. Never throw water on it. The water would only increase the dangers involved, as water can boil and change to steam. Not only can this steam burn, it can also cause the fire to spread.
  • If a fire starts in the oven, keep the door closed and turn off the heat supply. Keeping the door closed will help smother the flames. Don’t open the door until the flames have gone out.

How can we prevent such fires occurring in the first place?

  1. I am going to start this section with a simple one. Turn your pot handles inward and out of harms way. Especially away from young children who may not know the hazards involved.
  2. Keep your hob free from combustible materials, including rags, curtains, etc. If something catches fire on the stove, it is less likely to spread if there are minimum flammable materials nearby.
  3. This next one may seem obvious but contributes to many cooking appliance fires. Never leave your cooking unattended. If you must leave the room, turn off the cooker.
  4. Something that I was once partial to, is taking the battery out of the smoke alarm if my cooking caused it to go off. I am not alone in this either. National Fire Protection Association reported that 29 percent of consumers reported to have disabled their smoke alarms while cooking. Yes, the sound is annoying, but what happens if we forget to replace the battery.
  5. I have been involved with several scenes were the homeowner’s cooking has ignited their clothing. It may be common sense but wear tight-fitting clothing. Loose clothing can hang down onto hot surfaces and can catch fire if it meets a gas flame.
  6. Always keep hobs and ovens clean from grease spills. Built-up grease can concentrate in both and catch fire.
  7. You should have a fire blanket in the kitchen, somewhere where it is easily assessible.
  8. Hot grease should never be thrown into the bin, let it cool first. This grease can ignite combustible materials in the bin.

We have enough to be worrying about in our daily lives without having to worry about the stress of fire. Take time to understand the fire dangers related to cooking, learn how to prevent them and what actions to take if a cooking fire starts. If we teach our kids of the importance of fire prevention, we may see fewer fire deaths in our homes.

Portable heaters: The fire risk

Image from http://www.criticalshots.com

The use of portable radiators to heat the home is a universal practice. These heaters are loaded with oil and have heating elements that gently warm and circulate the oil through the radiator chamber. While they can pump out an incredible amount of heat, some consideration and care are needed around these appliances.

Simply put, you need to perform safe working practices with the use of this kind of heater. After all, we are talking about incredibly hot oil here. A spill or accident with this substance carries a potential risk for serious harm or danger. This blog will be providing easy and straightforward safety tips for the safe use of such appliances.

To get started, we need to understand how common portable heater fires are. In fact, in 2018, portable heaters have accounted for approximately 40% of home heating fires. Fires occur when the user places combustible materials too close to the heaters, causing ignition of upholstery furniture, clothing, mattress, or bedding, which remains the leading factor contributing to ignition in fatal house fires.

It may be of no surprise that nearly half of home heating fires occurred within the winter months, no doubt due to the turn in the weather. However, there are accidents with these kinds of heating elements all year round.

I have been involved in cases where portable heaters were used to substitute for mains central heating. A cost-effective technique, by only heating one room, brings the costs down. But all it takes is for the user to fall asleep, leaving the heater unsupervised and making it highly probable for ignition to occur.

Fires occur when the oil leaks or is accidentally spilled from a crack onto the floor. This oil can not only ruin porous surfaces, it can also catch fire if it’s close to heating elements, resulting in a potentially dangerous fire.

Portable radiators come in various brands. Delonghi heaters have hit the headlines in recent years due to defective components within the appliance. Certain types of heaters produced by the Italian manufacturer have been known to cause fires, deaths and several lawsuits. You only need to enter “Delonghi heater fires” onto YouTube and you will be bombarded with fire related videos.

It is important to note, however, that Delonghi is not the only manufacturer that has been affected by such problems, which is why I am bringing this information to your attention. If you are worried that you may have a defective heater in use in your home, a simple online check can put your mind at ease.

Portable heaters can be a great asset to the home, whether you want to heat a room or a small house. There are several safety tips which if followed, will minimise your chances of fire occurring in your home.

  1. Only power your portable heater into mains wired sockets which can handle the load from the heater. Never use an extension cord or wiring that cannot handle the required radiator load.
  2. If your portable radiator has wheels, secure it to a place where it cannot be easily knocked over. While portable heaters are generally safe, its best to check if they have overheating protection such as tilt switches, that automatically turn off if anything happens to the heaters.
  3. Although radiators heat indirectly through oil, and don’t glow red like other space heaters, they can still get very hot. Keep the unit at least one foot away from all combustible materials, including walls and furniture.
  4. Keep pets and small kids away and prevent them from touching hot surfaces.
  5. Manufacturers warn against keeping portable radiators in damp places, bathrooms, etc where there is poor ventilation.
  6. Turn heaters off when you leave the room, and never leave a heater unattended.

On closing, portable heaters can provide a cost effective and efficient heating system for rooms and small homes. When maintained and operated correctly, portable heaters are safe to use. If we all know the potential risks faced with the appliances, we can avoid the dangers and provide a safe home for the family.

Fire cause: Electrical fault or rodent activity

It may be a bit strange, writing about rodents on a fire blog, but the two come hand in hand quite often. It may be alarming to know, but it has been estimated that half of unknown origin fires may be electrical fires due to rodent activity. So yes, not only can our four-legged friends cause rampant disease, they can be unintentional arsonists too.

As their teeth continually grow, rodents gnaw on various objects to keep their teeth in shape. Rodents, such as rats, mice and squirrels, tend to have a fondness to sharpen their teeth on electrical cables. It is believed that they like the texture of the PVC against their teeth.

Rodents are flexible, and can get into tiny places, including cavities where cables have been installed. They often expose current and thus heat to the wood beams in the attic, and this is a genuine fire hazard. Once the protective insulation has been chewed off the power cable, we are left with exposed, live wires, carrying electricity around the home. Due to the internal cavities of your home often holding flammable insulation materials, ignition is possible.

Rodents can cause electrical shorts within electrical circuits, or cause fire alarms to activate. Issues that I have come across in both my firefighting and investigation career to date. A simple short, across the exposed conductors will be very unlikely to ignite a fire rather than simply trip the circuit protector. If foreign materials (from saltwater to portion of animal’s anatomy) can sustain circuit flow, the heat generated can degrade the insulation and lead to ignition of the insulation and other fuels in the vicinity.

Image found on: https://mydesultoryblog.com

Tenants may notice that power has mysteriously stopped working in their property, or they may hear a popping noise when flipping the light switch. Both signs may indicate that an electrical fault has occurred, due to rodent activity.

It is important to note that chewed wiring does not usually mean you have mice in the house, although they have been known to feed on PVC cables. If you spot damaged cables within the attic space in your home, it may mean that you have a bigger rodent squatting in your roof space, a rat or a squirrel for example. It is quite easy to spot a rodent bitten PVC cable – as you can see in the image above, tooth marks are clearly noted.

Rats leave behind calling cards of their appearance, including rat droppings. Mice have similar behaviour traits; however, their droppings are no larger than a grain of rice. Squirrel dropping are like rats; however, squirrels are not as isolated as rats, and may make their presence known by entering properties by doors or windows. So, the chances are, if you have found rodent bitten cables and droppings in your attic, you have rats on the property.

I have been directly involved in the investigation of a large fire which destroyed a factory, with that, a 6-figure financial loss. On attendance to the scene, the large steel structure was heavily fire damages, with roofing structure collapsing in. At the area of origin, by a three-phase roller door switch, the remains of a large rat, which bit through its final cable. The rat bit through a 400 v cable. The spark formed, ignited combustible materials within the locale, which ignited the property.

So how can we prevent such incidents occurring in our own homes? The first thing to know, is which rodent you have on your property; as different rodents have a different type of extraction methods to get rid. I personally would not condone killing the rodents when there are devices out there that can get rid of the rodents humanely. Pest control cages can trap the rodents, with the use of peanut butter and cheese, the rodents can be removed from the property and relocated somewhere exterior.

It is no longer acceptable to run electrical cables in wall cavities of a house due to such problems. Cables should be housed within protective compartments; attic spaces should be kept clean and rodent free. Any holes or crevices in the attic space should be sealed, and rubbish build up around the property to should be kept to a minimum.

In summary: rodents are known to chew on live electrical cables, either short circuiting them directly or leaving the exposed conductors awaiting some other contact. This mechanism probably represents the single most significant contribution to fire causation by animals.  The problem with identifying such fire causes as rodent activity, is the destruction of the scene, many fires of this type are misidentified as electrical in origin. We can minimise the chances of such incidents occurring by providing a pest free environment.

Tumble dryer fires: The potential ticking time bomb in your home

Image from of express newspaper online

We are all aware of the fire risks caused by cooking, smoking or the use of candles in the home. Many consumers are not aware of the fire risk which can be caused by household appliances. Tumble dryers are heat-producing appliances, which can cause fire for several reasons, just two being manufacturer defects and the lack of care on the part of the user. By highlighting the potential threats faced by tumble dryer fires, it is hoped that potential tumble dryer fires can be prevented.  

As someone who attends fire investigations on a frequent basis, I understand all too well the ignition potential faced by tumble dryers and the damage caused. In an efficient tumble dryer, the inlet air temperatures may exceed 350°C in the heater box but drop quickly to operating ranges between 50°C and 80°C within the drum. Tumble dryers have several safeguards, such as high-limited thermostats to ensure that the laundry load is not overheated, but if the appliance is exposed to multiple failures or poor installation/maintenance practices, there exists the potential to exceed these normal ranges, and a fire can ensue.

However, many fires involving tumble dryers occur where these engineering safeguards operate properly, and the fire appears to have been caused by ignition of the load in the drum. See image below for a fire occurring within the drum space.

Self heating Events

Laundry contaminated with drying oils, cooking oils and massage oils have been revealed to lead to self-heating of washing loads. Self-ignition (spontaneous ignition) is defined as the delayed ignition of a pile of solid combustible materials due to internal heat generating processes. Self-heating is caused if the combustible load generates more heat than it loses to the environment, the temperature may rise high enough to initiate smouldering combustion that can lead to fire.

Linseed oil is one of the most widely known oils that exhibits self-heating behaviour. Many fires are caused when oils are cleaned up in rags and placed into the tumble dryer.

Lint build-up

Probably the most well-known cause of fire from tumble dryers is the build-up of lint from within the tumble dryer casing. This accumulation of lint can get forced through the air distribution system, if it reaches the heater system, it can ignite. For condenser tumble dryers, the condensing chamber needs to be cleared out and free from obstruction.

PRODUCT RECALLS

Some 5.3 million tumble dryers under the Hotpoint, Creda, and Indesit brands, all of whom are manufactured by Whirlpool, have been recalled due to a potential fire risk. Whirlpool has estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 fault affected tumble dryers could still be in consumers’ homes today. This is a frightening thought and something you should think about.

A major recall issue has been reported to include poorly designed printed circuit boards. This is possibly as a result of cost cutting and cheaper materials used. PCB’s are not built to a high enough standard to effectively carry the high currents associated with heater elements. Such faults can result in electrical failures originating at the PCB with fire spread at that location.

Problems have been reported with door switch assemblies on some brands. This can be caused when the user opens the door before the cycle finishes. Other recall faults include compactor failure, lack of ventilation and lint build-up in areas where it shouldn’t be.

So how can we prevent such fires from occurring in our homes

Many fire have occurred when the user leaves the machine unattended during the drying cycle or after the machine has finished. We can all be guilty of adding a load of laundry to a drying cycle, sit down and forget about the clothes after the cycle has finished.  Clothing should not be left in the tumble dryer after the drying process is finished but should be unloaded immediately. This will prevent heat build-up and allow the clothing to aerate. Laundry should also not be over-dried in the tumble dryer.  Not only are you wasting electricity, you are increasing the chances of the load igniting.

Image from http://www.cheshirefire.gov.uk

As we have seen, tumble dryers are a credible fire ignition risk. I would urge people not to leave tumble dryers turned on unattended when they leave the house. Never add a load to the tumble dryer before bed – if you do, make sure you have an operational smoke alarm. After every use, clean the filter on your tumble dryer and minimise the chances of ignition occurring. For condenser tumble dryers, clean the condenser chamber.

Avoid placing clothes covered in oils into the dryer without first washing thoroughly as they are known to pose a risk of spontaneous ignition when soaked onto rags. If any of you are worried that your tumble dryer may be affected, check out https://www.uk-afi.org/product-recall and check your tumble dryer model number against the recall database.

Carelessly Discarded Cigarettes; A significant risk factor for fire deaths

As a firefighter in a previous life, and a fire investigator at present, I have witnessed the destruction of fire, from extinguishing to investigating it. A major factor contributing to death in house fires is smoke inhalation. Cigarettes are a common cause of fires in your home, and with that, brings a high risk of death. Is it a lack of fire prevention training or do people underestimate the risk that a lit cigarette has as an ignition source? This blog will set out the risks associated with cigarette smoking and its potential of fire from a carelessly discarded cigarette.

For those who smoke out of habit, may find it the norm to smoke in the house. From my experience, smokers tend to be predictable. Those who usually partake in smoking activities in their home, will often smoke while sitting on the sofa or smoke in the bed. But what do these places have in common, they are saturated with highly combustible materials.

A cigarette falling on a sofa or bed could smoulder unattended for 10 to 20 minutes, with others known to have ignited up to an hour after. Exposure to air currents tends to accelerate the rate of burning. There have been cases where smokers have fallen asleep with a lit cigarette in their hand. Those who were lucky, awoke, witnessing their beds smouldering, but for others, have not awakened at all.

In another case that I have been involved in, a young woman had lit a cigarette while getting ready to leave the house. Before exiting, she entered the ground floor storage cupboard to get her handbag. As it transpires, an ember dislodged from the cigarette, fell and burnt its way through crumpled paper in a waste bin. Here, the embers lodged where there was thicker fuel (and ventilation), and then ignited. The lady left the property. Fire burnt through the storage cupboard ceiling and caused severe fire damage throughout the property. Neighbours contacted fire control an hour later when the smoke alarm was heard in the property.

How many of you have spent a night socialising, getting merry and blacking out? No doubt, quite a lot, with myself included. Well how many of you smoke cigarettes while getting merry? Again, quite a lot, and the statistics are there to prove it. The combination of smoking and drinking can elevate risk due to increased opportunity of fire ignition. In-fact, most smoke-related fire fatalities in Ireland and the UK show some direct connection with alcohol consumption.

Thankfully, cigarette manufacturers have realised the link to cigarettes and fire deaths. The introduction of RIP strips near the base of the cigarette is designed to allow the cigarette to self-extinguish if left unattended. However, I have tested several cigarettes with RIP strips, and I have found that they can burn to completion too.

So, as you can see, dangerous habitual behaviours as cigarette smoking is a significant risk of fires in domestic dwellings. As an added risk factor, alcohol intake even in moderation can affect a person’s ability to awaken to their smoke alarm. So, for those unlucky enough to fall asleep, having dropped cigarette onto bedding, have an even greater risk of not waking up.

Before I go, and depress you even further, the purpose of this blog post is to make you think carefully of the importance of extinguishing your cigarettes properly. Accidents can happen, and they do happen every day. Even if you yourself are not a smoker, your loved ones may be. Highlight the dangers and make them aware. Who knows, you may prevent a fire occurring in the future.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I will see you next Sunday for the second blog post in this fire prevention series.