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Preventative mainenance is key to avoiding residential fires during the winter months

Monday, November 20, 2006

SIKESTON -- If you haven't had your heating equipment checked for the winter season, then now is the time to do so.

Heating equipment is a leading cause of home fires during the months of December, January and February, and trails only cooking equipment in home fires year-round, the National Fire Protection Association said.

"The biggest energy consumer in a household is the furnace, and any time there's heat build up, there's potential for a fire," said Rick Leonard of Rick Leonard Heating in Sikeston.

Leonard said his employees are already busy performing maintenance checks on residential heating units so equipment performs as designed.

"Normally, a unit will operate more efficiently when you do regular maintenance," Leonard said.

But there are a lot of home owners who don't bother to keep up to date with their heating equipment.

"A lot of people think, if it's working, then it's good to go and they think it doesn't need to get done. But it's better to spend a little now than a whole lot later," Leonard said.

Most heating services offer preventative maintenance programs for their customers in the winter and summer, Leonard said. As a result, they receive preferential treatment when the time arrives.

"The best thing to do is call a professional company and have your electric or gas furnace checked to make sure it's safe to operate," Leonard suggested. "They'll make sure lines are tight and there are no gas leaks. They'll probably do a carbon monoxide test."

Sikeston Department of Public Safety Director Drew Juden said the Department responds to several structure fires each year that are caused by poor housekeeping in or around gas appliances.

The Department also responds to medical calls where the resident experiences symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, Juden said.

Most of these calls can be prevented by following a few simple steps to ensure that the appliance is operating as safe and efficient as possible. Among the No. 1 tip to ensure a fire-free and healthy heating season is to change the air filters, both Leonard and Juden said.

"When you change the filters, remove all combustibles such as clothes, paper, paint products and other supplies from the closet or vicinity of the appliance," Juden said.

Also don't store any items around the vents of a gas appliance because the area must be kept free so the appliance can vent the exhaust outside, Juden said. And make sure leaves and other vegetation do not clog roof vents, he said.

"Clean your fireplace chimney annually and make sure that it is drawing properly," Juden advised. "Don't burn paper, painted or varnished wood, cloth, garbage or any item other than seasoned, wood logs in your fire place."

Green wood or the above mentioned items will cause creosote build-up, Juden said. Creosote is a highly flammable, hot burning substance that is the cause for chimney fires.

"If you have a (creosote) fire, do not re-light the fireplace until a professional examines your chimney," Juden said.

Homeowners should also check the area around the chimney for signs of overheating or wear. Cracks, places that appear smoked or heat damage may all be signs the chimney has failed and a fire will occur, Juden said.

The area around furnaces, water heaters and fireplaces clean because dust will burn, Juden said. Do not use extension cords with electric space heaters. When extension cords are used, do not run them under rugs or set furniture on them.

Keep combustibles away from space heaters; follow the manufactures recommendations on what is considered a safe distance, Juden said. Never use charcoal, propane or other open flame heat without providing adequate ventilation.

"If you smell gas, call the department immediately," Juden said. "Go outside. Do not turn on or off any electrical switches, and just wait for the arrival of the officers."

Carbon monoxide poisoning, known as the silent killer because it's colorless and odorless, is a serious matter, Leonard said.

"It makes you feel like you have the flu, and when you lay down, it will either debilitate or kill you," Leonard said.

Other symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include unexplained headaches, nausea and pink splotches on the skin.

"If you have a gas appliance in the house or in the garage, get a carbon monoxide detector," Leonard said. "If the heating unit is 15 years or older, homeowners should also have a carbon monoxide detector."

Juden said do not request that the Department not send a fire truck.

"We know that this draws attention and may be embarrassing to some people," Juden said. "However, natural gas and the associated bi-products are very dangerous. The trucks carry the necessary air monitors, as well as the extinguishing equipment needed to handle such emergencies."