Home heating hazards: How to avoid fires

Whether you use a space heater to keep your urban apartment from getting chilly in the depths of January or a wood-burning stove to keep your country ranch toasty, it's important to understand the risks of home heating as well as the insurance implications.

Make no mistake: All home fires are extremely dangerous any time of year. According to the Insurance Information Institute, 377,000 residential fires took place in the United States in 2009, causing about $8 billion in damage.

Yet winter is a particularly dangerous time. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 54,500 heating-related fires occur each year, causing $286 million in property loss, 625 injuries and nearly 200 deaths on average.

Use of supplemental heating devices like fireplaces, stoves and space heaters) is a major culprit, according to the National Fire Protection Association. They cause roughly two-thirds of heating fires and two-thirds of those deaths.

Dangers specific to supplemental home heating devices include:

  • Space heater fire dangers. Heaters placed too close to upholstery, bedspreads, blankets or other flammable materials can cause these materials to ignite and start a fire. The industry standard is to leave at least 3 feet of space around the heater, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
  • Other fire dangers. Wood stoves, coal stoves and kerosene heaters can set off fires in various ways. Never operate a kerosene lamp indoors. If you smell a gas leak, air out the room, and don't light matches or cigarettes. Use a screen to keep sparks and fiery debris from landing on a carpet or other flammable surface. Other dangers may be less obvious. For instance, burning wood in a stove will lead to the emission of a chemical called creosote. This compound can build up in chimneys and ventilation ducts. Because creosote is flammable, if you don't clean your fireplace and ducts annually, you could create a fire hazard.
  • Inhalation dangers. Some space heaters consume terrific amounts of oxygen and simultaneously emit potentially lethal chemicals, such as carbon monoxide, an odorless gas.
  • Mold growth. Some propane heaters can lead to locally humid conditions, which can inspire the growth of dangerous molds.

To heat your home safely, observe these tips:

  • Read manufacturers' instructions carefully. Adhere to clearance, maintenance, inspection and installation recommendations.
  • Have a qualified technician inspect your kerosene or gas heater annually.
  • Clean your coal and wood stoves, chimneys and fireplaces annually to remove creosote and check for structural problems or hazards.
  • Any space heater should carry excellent ratings from an independent testing laboratory.
  • When you go to sleep or leave a room, turn off your space heater.
  • Insurers may provide discounts if you upgrade the wiring in your home; install a sprinkler system, smoke detector or fire alarm; or keep fire extinguishers handy.

Am I covered?

Standard homeowner's insurance and renter's insurance policies cover smoke and fire damage as well as any damage like water damage from hoses) caused by the firefighters who extinguish the fire, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

That said, exceptions abound in the world of insurance. For instance, if you intentionally light a fire in your house arson), this will almost undoubtedly negate your coverage. It's important to understand what's covered in your policy and what isn't -- the precious 17th century paintings hanging in your foyer, for example, may not be covered by a standard policy, and you may need special insurance endorsements for them.

See how much you could save today on your home insurance. Get your free home insurance quotes today!