Thursday, December 29, 2011

CT tragedy draws attention to loose home safety habits; what about faulty surge protectors?

The tragic house fire in Stamford, CT brings up a lot of material regarding home safety. 

The most complete story seems to be in the New York Daily News, (website url) here

My father preached about my learning to do the “chores” as a boy, and about correct form in doing these tasks; but he never made me learn to set a pilot light or to discharge fireplace embers as I remember. I don’t recall his trying to teach me how to start a fireplace, by opening the updraft first.

We used the living room fireplace a lot.  The dual basement fireplace was sometimes used (but not during my Science Honor Society “initiation” on home turf December 9, 1960).  Logs would take about two hours to burn completely. I used to have to fill the woodshed near the basement steps (using the embers there until the next morning, with the glass cover closed.  I think Mother disposed of the ashes the next day (12 hours later, at least).  There is flue downstairs.

So it sounds odd that a contractor friend would put the ashes in a mudroom shortly after the fire stopped.

Even so, it surprises me that ashes stay warm enough to ignite a house. It’s scary how easily this can happen.
We used to put a 6-foot Christmas tree in the dining area, around Dec. 21, and always took it down before New Years.  Father said “There is no connection between Christmas and New Years”.  We had old 1940’s light strings, where individual bulbs could burn out. It probably wasn’t safe.  The colors were very “pure”.  Some friends had all blue lights, and that fascinated me (years before Facebook).  My color vision is normal.

One year we tried to put the tree in a sand bucket and it kept falling down. 

How careful were we about turning off lights before leaving for outings or Church?  I wonder.

Appliances were not as safe then, in the 50s.  We had a Roper gas stove, only recently replaced to have “safer” electronic ignition (so gas can never build up when one is away for a long time and not available to relight a pilot; but even some older apartments have all-gas stoves).  The water heater and furnace now all have modern electronic ignition, which makes it power-dependent, but much safer.  Bray and Scarf says the manufacturing standards are much “stricter” because of house fires over the years, even if many of the appliances come from China (which I fear they may).  Likewise, most electrical outlets have been replaced with three-hole grounded outlets.  Funny, the cable box and cable modem doesn’t fail when you have the outlets (even for the surge protector) grounded correctly, in an old house.  With the generator came a master electrical control switch panel with modern, stricter fuses. As a result, a couple of light fixtures and switches then tripped and had to be replaced with modern equipment.

There have been other home tragedies around. In May, 2011, a house in Rockville MD exploded after a botched do-it-yourself gas clothes dryer installation (story).  So  I guess contractors who come and work in homes have a lot of responsibility.

Our parents  and grandparents just did not live that safely.   They were handier about doing things themselves than today’s yuppies.  If you have (buy or inherit) an old house, expect to spend $20000 on safety replacements by professionals. Even if you live in Massachusetts, watching “This Old House” isn’t enough education as to how to “do it”.

Here's another thing: faulty (or worn) surge protectors are said to be fire hazards.  This has been reported since the 1990s.  Here's a Consumer Watch story. It's a good idea to replace them every few years.  

Picture: The "Hot Sticks" were purchased at a 7/11 before a 2010 blizzard, before the generator. The chimney actually had some damage from the earthquake in August, about $3000 in repairs.  

What about smoke detectors? Yes -- have them as part of your security system. (I had one in Dallas send false alarms in 1987, though.)  Sprinklers?  I'd be afraid they would go off on false alarms and do property damage.  But I had one in New York City as early as 1974 without problems.  It wasn't a choice in a rental. 

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