Power For Your Life Podcast | Season 1 - Episode 4
Half of all fires occur in the home during the winter months. Space heaters are one of the major culprits in those fires. Learn the safety tips to keep in mind when using space heaters from expert guest Molly Hall from Safe Electricity.
Transcript – Power For Your Life – Season 1 | Episode 4
Original release date: January 1, 2020
Hi, my name is Lynette and I'm an employee of Associated Electric Cooperative. My favorite thing about being an employee at Associated is providing electric power to so many members at the end of the line. I love being at the cooperative because everyone here is working hard for our end of the line users to help save them money and provide reliable electric service. Also, not many people know, but every electric cooperative gives back to their local community through various channels.
Host: Welcome to the Power For Your Life podcast, where we focus on energy efficiency, the value of electric cooperative membership and safety around electricity. I'm Darryll Lindsey, your host and today's subject: Winter safety tips. With me by phone, today is Molly Hall, executive director of Safe Electricity. Safe Electricity is an award-winning multi-media public awareness program of the Energy Education Council. Established in 2001, Safe Electricity provides information to consumers and helps with safety education activities for utilities and educators. Molly let's get right to today's topic: Winter safety. I recently read an article that mentioned that half of all fires occur in the home during the winter months. And that space heaters are one of the major culprits of these fires. What are some safety tips for homeowners to keep in mind when using space heaters?
Molly: First of all, I would say it's really important to have a working smoke detector. You know when these fires happen, the tragedy is that sometimes they're fatal fires, and in most of those cases, the officials to discover there's no working smoke detector in the home. So, smoke detectors do save lives. You need to make sure that those batteries are changed twice a year. We always say, you know, when you're changing your clocks, spring forward and fall back. That's a good time to test those batteries or change them. So, let's start with those. Now space heaters can have some great value. That's a great way to you know, heat, uh, a small space if you want to, you know, close off some rooms and just heat a room or a small space they can come in handy. One of the main things to keep in mind is - is that space heaters need space all around them. You want to place them on a level surface and away from areas where they could be bumped or knocked over, and at least three feet away in all directions from anything that could be flammable, like drapes, furniture or clothing….papers, magazines and you never leave a space heater unattended or running while you're asleep. Before you even plug it in, you wanna check it. You know, we check those cords for any cracks or worn spots, and if any are found you want to replace the cord or the heater. And you avoid using extension cords. And if you have to use one, use a heavy-duty cord that's marked with the power rating that's at least as high as the heater. And you want to make sure that you're not overloading circuits by plugging too many things into one outlet. I remember when I was growing up we had a space heater that we used in a large bathroom area. It had a metal case…totally metal…had a metal grill and; now that I think about, and of course you could see the exposed elements on the other side of the grill… I'm sure little fingers could have gotten in there to touch those elements. Space heaters have come a long way in the safety improvements. So if you need to buy one, look for one that's been tested and labeled by a nationally recognized testing facility like the Under Writers laboratories. And you want to look for these safety features. A tip over switch--it automatically shuts off the heater if it falls over. A protective grill that prevents anyone from touching the heating elements. Sealed heating or sealed elements encased in metal or ceramic, you know, so that there's no way you can get to those elements. So they're much safer now today. But you do need to take care. Don't leave them unattended or running, especially while you sleep.
Host: Molly, I'm curious, are there any special considerations to remember when using a space heater around children, or pets?
Molly: Absolutely, you don't want to use a space heater in a play area. If you’ve got children in the home, you especially need to be vigilant. But you know, make sure that the kids play area is away and you know... If it's a child that's mobile and can understand you have to teach them, stay away from this. Pets…so the same thing. Make sure that puppy is in another room or maybe in its crate. But you want to keep animals and children away from space heaters, and if they're old enough to understand, make sure they said they know they just don't go near it.
Host: Let's talk a minute about winter storms. We usually have at least one major winter storm with snow and ice. So, what are the steps that we need to do before the storm hits and how far in advance should we prepare?
Molly: Oh, there are lots of them, You know, one of the things is. You know when there's ice involved or heavy wet snow that can turn to ice, your utility’s gonna be working as hard as it as it can to reconnect that electricity as safely and fast as possible. But let's face it, Mother Nature is unpredictable and it's in control in those situations. So, you could be without power for days. So, you need to think about that well in advance of the possibility of a winter storm. In order to keep your home as warm as possible when the power goes out, go ahead and caulk and weather strip any gaps or openings and insulate your pipes to keep those from freezing. That's an important consideration. And test your carbon monoxide detector…ensure it’s working properly and make sure you have one with a battery backup. That's a really good thing to have. You absolutely have to gather up supplies in case there's a prolonged outage. Your emergency kit should include flashlights with extra batteries; battery powered radio. If you want to have a portable charger for your cell phone but keep your cell phone charged at all times, you know just make sure that that you've got some power when you need it in those important electronics. You wanna have extra blankets, bottled water and non-perishable food and be mindful of each person specific needs like medication. If you have an important medication, keep an ample supply on hand. Have a first aid kit handy and don't forget to plan for your pets. If you've got cats or dogs or pets, make sure that you've got some extra food supplies and water supplies for them. Bottled water is very important. If those pipes were to freeze, your gonna need that liquid in a safe way. So, you definitely want to be prepared before… listen for those emergency weather alerts when those things are going to be happening that you, you are prepared in your home ahead of time. And it's a good idea to have this stuff in your car to you. You want to make sure you've got your jumper cables, some sand for traction, flashlight, batteries but you know some extra blankets? Bottled water and non-perishable snacks.
Host: Molly, What electrical hazard should I be aware of during the winter storm?
Molly: Obviously it's best to hunker down inside your home for the duration of a severe storm. But if you have to go outside, you have to be very careful of downed power lines. And they can be buried in snow and ice and still be energized because those are insulators. You want to if you see lines down, stay away, warn others to stay away. You have to treat them all as if they are live and dangerous and treat everything near a power line as possibly dangerous too. Because you don't know what that might be in contact with. So if you see sagging or down power lines, you're gonna need to alert the utility. Keep people away from those and you stay as far away as you can. If you can and stay inside your home and you don't go out, dress in layers and keep covered up in blankets. Keep your home as warm as possible by closing off unneeded rooms. Place draft blocks at the bottoms of the doors. Keep the windows covered at night. You know some people do have supplemental sources of heat. Maybe powered by propane or natural gas. If you're gonna use those, make sure that they're properly vented and again that you've got that carbon monoxide detector with a battery backup, and you also, I probably should have mentioned this. You may have a neighbor with a generator that doesn't know how to use it correctly. If you see a downed line and you are just positive that it's dead and they don't have to be arcing or sparking to be energized. But just be aware that a line can become energized even after it's lost power if someone uses a generator improperly. So just stay away from those power lines.
Host: So, as you mentioned, stay away from downed power lines and remain calm. Make sure your utility provider knows about the outage and be patient. So, let's take a short break, and when we come back, we'll talk more about electric generator safety.
Host: Back with the Power For Your Life podcast, visiting today with Molly Hall of Safe Electricity. And Molly, we've talked about the many ways to stay safe during the winter storms and safety around space heaters. And, as you eluded before the break, let's talk about portable electric generators and their use for the home during power outages. Nearly 70% of deaths caused by portable electric generators occur at the home. So how can I use one safely?
Molly: The first thing and I didn't know this was going to catch some folks is to read the operating instructions. That's something a lot of people don't do. “I know Motors. I know gas powered motors. I know everything about firing up something.” That that doesn't teach you everything that you need to know. But the main thing is, don't use your portable generator anywhere near the home where air intake could get those fumes inside the home. So not in the basement and which is where some inspectors have found generators. Not in the home; not even in the garage. Have that generator away from the home and use an extension cord from inside the home to connect your appliances to that generator. Before you even plug it in, check the cords for damage. Ensure it's able to handle the wattage or the amperage of the appliances you plan to use. Your generator should have more output than the wattage of whatever electric appliance or electronic you want to plug in. And you want to make sure that nothing is plugged into the generator when you turn it on. Turn on the generator first. Then you can plug things into it. Never plug your portable generator into a home outlet because that can energize your electrical system and send back feed through the electrical system. When that happens, you could kill a lineman, kill or injure a lineman who's working to restore power. You could hurt a neighbor or a pet that's near a down line. So, you need to make sure that anything that you want to energize with a portable generator gets plugged into the generator through an extension cord, not into the home outlet. One thing to keep in mind, as it needs to be dry and it needs to be on a flat surface. Only use a generator in moist conditions if you have to. And then, in that kind of situation you want to put it under a canopy like structure. Again, not in your garage. But you’ve seen the open-sided tents where you've got a canopy on top, but there's lots of air all around it. That's what you want to do, and certainly not in an area where it could puddle, or water could flow underneath the generator. You need to keep that dry. You want to make sure that you shut it down and give it time to cool before you add more gasoline. You do not add gasoline to a hot or running generator. You want to make sure that you don't operate it near flame producing devices. You know and don’t smoke near it. You know, don't light a cigarette or anything like that near your generator. I think it's really important to keep in mind that you want enough fresh air around that and away from the home to reduce the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is the number one killer of portable generator use because it's an odorless, colorless gas. You start to feel the effects and sometimes people get sleepy and they die. They are overcome by the carbon monoxide. So, you really have to make sure that that generator is away from the home, away from air intakes. And make sure that there's plenty of fresh air around it. Again, I'm gonna go back to that battery-operated carbon monoxide detector. You know you can have those that plug into an outlet but have that battery backup.
Host: Molly, is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners about winter storm safety?
Molly: You know what I probably should have mentioned that far more people have portable generators today than ever. There are millions of them out there. If you've been paying attention to weather patterns and so on, we’re having more severe weather more frequently throughout the year each year. And so, when these things happen, more people go out and get these portable generators. So, you just need to keep in mind that if you're outside and you're seeing those sagging or downed lines, a neighbor improperly using their portable generator could be sending energy back through that system, even if the power has gone out. So, you definitely want to use those very carefully and safely. You might want to check your cooperative website to check to see what kind of safety information they have there. We have just recently put out a winter storm safety video that many of them may have on their website, and we've got other types of videos that can really be helpful for you in winter time. I would encourage everyone to visit www.safeelectricity.org. And again, in many of your cooperative websites are going to have the link to Safe Electricity on their own websites. But you can watch videos. Kids can play games, interactive games, and there are activity sheets. Family safety checklist that parents and children can do together in the home… So, that's a great source of information, and it's not just articles, although we do have those in English and Spanish. It's just a great place to find videos that we've created that you can learn from-from other people’s experience with electrical incidents. But also keep in mind that your electric cooperatives are going to have videos that are not on our site that are available to them for their support of our program. So um, use both of those resources to help you to be safe and just always be aware electricity is a wonderful source of energy for our modern society. It powers everything around us. It makes this podcast possible. But we need to respect that power and understand that we need to be safe around it.
Host: Molly Hall, executive director of Safe Electricity and educational partner with utilities and schools across the country. Molly, thanks for joining me today.
Molly: My pleasure and any time. We always enjoy talking about electrical safety.