Combustion Safety 101: Three Types of Problems
We are now ten short days from the winter solstice and many of us in the Northern Hemisphere have been in heating season for a while. That means there's a lot more combustion happening in homes than there was in the summer. We humans have millennia of experience with burning stuff in our homes, and we've developed a lot of knowledge about how to do it safely. Unfortunately, many homes still have combustion safety problems, so I'm going to do a little series on some the most important things you should know about this topic.
Let me say right up front, though, that I have a definite bias regarding combustion in homes. If you saw the articles about the improvements I've made in my house over the past year, you know that I ripped out the gas furnace and water heater and even had the gas meter removed. I like electricity because it's a great way to move energy and, even better, it keeps getting cleaner.
So, my first recommendation for combustion safety is usually to get rid of the combustion appliances. I realize, however, that not everyone can do that, so let's talk about what you can do to keep your house from burning down or your family from being poisoned by carbon monoxide. Last week I was part of a discussion of combustion safety, and you can see where I'll be going with this series by watching the video of the BS + Beer Show, where Ross Tretheway and I discussed this topic for an hour and a half.
Three types of combustion problems
Living safely with combustion appliances in your home means paying attention to three general types of combustion safety issues.
1. Fuel problems. This could be anything related to the fuel being used for combustion:
- Gas leaks
- Oil spills
- Coal dust
- Termites or other critters in firewood
The safest situation is when all the fuel is kept outdoors, as with a propane tank or woodshed. The most prevalent issue in this category is gas leaks. People who do a lot of combustion safety testing tell me that a really high percentage of the homes they test have gas leaks. Like 80 to 90 percent high.
2. Combustion problems. The second type is when the combustion itself is poorly contained. Any combustion appliance with open flames inside the house requires caution. Fireplaces and gas cooktops are the primary places where you might encounter open flames in a house, but some gas furnaces and water heaters have flames that could escape. Be careful with flammable materials near any combustion appliances. Keep the area around the base of your gas water clear. This is another reason that getting your house checked for gas leaks is a good idea.
Preventing a house fire is something you can do by paying attention to your combustion appliances. Sometimes, though, combustion problems occur because of the gas company. This happened in Massachusetts in 2018, when the pressure in the gas lines was too high, and 40 homes exploded or caught on fire.
3. Venting problems. Burning a fuel produces a variety of different combustion products, from soot (carbon) to carbon monoxide. Even when the combustion process works as designed, it still produces water vapor, which goes into your indoor air if it's not vented to the outdoors. In winter, that could be a problem in some houses, unless you like water dripping down your windows or mold growing on your walls. The problems here stem from stupid design (e.g., unvented fireplaces), stupid building codes (e.g., allowing natural draft water heaters in conditioned space), and stupid installations (e.g., vents that don't draft because of insufficient rise, like the one below).
Any of the three types of problems listed here could be really serious, and you should do what you can to avoid them. Aside from gas leaks, though, most of the combustion safety problems in homes are related to venting. When products of combustion get into the indoor air in your home, whether intentionally or unintentionally, they can make you sick and damage your house. In the next article in this series, I'll cover the products of combustion.
Allison Bailes of Atlanta, Georgia, is a speaker, writer, building science consultant, and founder of Energy Vanguard. He is also the author of the Energy Vanguard Blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.
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