“Silent slaves”

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Home heating equipment can be lethal when not properly maintained

By Carol A. Clark

Fire investigator Ed Hunter advises homeowners not to wait until their water heater starts blowing fire out the bottom and begins to eat away at the floor before checking it.


Hunter’s advice comes on the heels of a home fire in the La Mesa Trailer Park earlier this month. His investigation concludes that the cause was a corroded water heater.

The homeowner spotted the fire and firefighters from the golf course fire station knocked it down quickly, containing it to the area of origin and preserving the home, Hunter said.

Assistant Chief/Fire Marshal Michael Thompson explains that water heaters show a very large difference in risk for fires, deaths, injuries and damages and it’s time to raise the awareness on all “silent slaves” operating inside homes.  

“This is a good opportunity to remind people if they haven’t looked at their home heating equipment in a while they should check it out or call in a professional as soon as possible,” Thompson said. “Faulty home heating equipment is one of the major causes of home fires.”

Gas-fueled equipment shows a higher risk than electric-powered equipment, according to the Fire Analysis and Research Division of the National Fire Protection Association.

Two out of five home water heater fires begin in a designated heating equipment room or area. The other leading areas of origin are all popular locations for water heaters, including laundry rooms or areas, closets and garages.

By contrast, gas-fueled water heaters had two-and-a-half times as many confined and non-confined reported home fires, six times as much direct property damage, six times as many civilian fire injuries and 13 times as many civilian fire deaths.

Water heaters accounted for 4,250 injuries reported to hospital emergency rooms in 2008. In 1998, 2000, 2001 and 2003, there also were 2.5 electrocution deaths per year involving electric water heaters, according to the NFPA.

“Water heaters are like fire extinguishers, the general public tends to take them for granted. As water heaters get old they go downhill and start falling apart,” Hunter said. “Sediment and mineral deposits collect throughout the system and the pressure relief valve no longer works. Water heaters usually are good up to about 10 years and should then be replaced.”

Hunter has worked for the Los Alamos Fire Department for nearly 19 years and volunteered for the Española Fire Department for 21 years. He has been a fire investigator for 15 years.

He advises that anything with a heat source operating in the home should be routinely maintained to ensure safety.

In 2007, home heating equipment was involved in an estimated 66,400 reported structure fires, 580 civilian deaths, 1,850 civilian injuries and $608 million in direct property damage.

Space heaters also pose a much higher risk of fire, death, injury and loss per million users than central heating.

In 2003 through 2007, 79 percent of home heating fire deaths, 62 percent of injuries and 49 percent of associated direct property damage involved stationary or portable space heaters.

“The repair bill is a drop in the bucket compared to a burned home and the anguish that brings,” Hunter said.