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13 Surprising Items in Your Home That Are Hidden Fire Hazards

Keep your family and property safe by being mindful of these hidden fire hazards in the home

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Be aware of fire hazards in the home

Fire safety has always been a concern, but modern homeowners have even more reason to take fire prevention seriously. The open floor plans in many of today’s homes allow more oxygen to fuel a house fire, and synthetic furnishings and building materials burn faster than the materials used decades ago. “Today’s home fires burn faster than ever,” says Susan McKelvey, communications manager of the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA). “In a typical home fire, you may have as little as two minutes to escape safely from the time the smoke alarm sounds.” Yikes! That’s why it is critical to know about fire hazards in the home.

Now, you might be thinking of the obvious stuff: Space heaters are a fire risk, for instance, and dirty chimneys and greasy cooktops are fire hazards if you don’t clean them. And you probably know that when you close your bedroom door, it gives you more time to escape a fire and that you should never ignore a funky smell in the house. But you might not know that most overlooked fire hazard items are right under your nose—and often things you use every day.

Keep reading to learn about the fire hazards in your home, what makes them dangerous and how to prevent them from catching fire.

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Smoke detector

Why it’s dangerous

You might be wondering how a smoke detector could be a fire hazard. After all, these devices are a critical element of home safety. But that’s only if they are functioning. Every year, people die because their smoke detectors didn’t go off during a fire. Maybe the batteries died—or maybe the homeowners removed them to stop false alarms. Either way, they couldn’t alert the household to a fire. In other cases, the smoke detectors were located where occupants couldn’t hear the alarm or were beyond their prime and not working.

How to make it less dangerous

Whether you have battery-operated smoke detectors or hard-wired ones, it’s essential that you test them twice a year. An easy way to remember is to test when daylight saving time rolls around in the fall and spring.

Food burning in pan on stoveAdam Gault/Getty Images

An unattended stove

Why it’s dangerous

As far as fire hazards in the home go, unattended cooking is by far the leading cause of U.S. home fires, McKelvey says. The NFPA reports that 31% of cooking-related house fires are attributed to unattended equipment. Leaving the kitchen while pots simmer is dangerous, especially when frying or sauteing with oil. Smoking oil is not just a cooking mistake that’ll ruin your food: When oil gets too hot, it starts smoking and then catches fire.

How to make it less dangerous

The solution seems blatantly obvious: Never leave the kitchen while cooking on the stovetop. Getting distracted by the doorbell and forgetting you have something cooking is a recipe for disaster. That’s sometimes easier said than done, especially when you get called away by one of your kids (or a mischievous pet) or you fall asleep while taking a cooking break. Memorize the steps to put out a grease fire, and keep a portable fire extinguisher stored in the kitchen at all times.

View of fresh squid rings cooking into the deep fryer. Food concept.aire images/Getty Images

Cooking equipment

Why it’s dangerous

All types of cooking equipment—everything from ranges, cooktops and grills to hot plates and deep fryers—have the potential to be a fire hazard in the home when not used safely. Use them too close to combustible things like clothing, for example, and you could end up with an inferno. And you already know what can happen when they’re left unattended.

Surprisingly, the open flame on a gas stove isn’t to blame for as many fires as electric stoves. In fact, the NFPA says households with electric stoves reported fires at a rate 2.6 times higher than those with gas stoves. That’s because it’s harder to tell an electric burner is on (when it’s not glowing red) than it is to spot a lit gas burner.

How to make it less dangerous

Keep combustible materials such as food packaging, utensils and oven mitts away from all cooking equipment. And use caution when you’re cooking and wearing a scarf or a shirt with long, flowy sleeves. Also clean up grease spills, crumbs and dust bunnies on and around cooking equipment to reduce fire hazards.

And though the NFPA says microwaves and ovens don’t pose as much of a risk because cooking is less likely to extend outside of the equipment, it is still important to clean your microwave and oven regularly. You should also avoid storing combustible things inside them—you might forget about them the next time you turn on the oven to preheat it.

Pile of junk in a house, hoarder room pile of household equipment needs clearing outcerro_photography/Getty Images

Hoarding

Why it’s dangerous

Apart from the mountainous piles of combustible fire hazards in the home, there is the risk of not being able to escape the home safely due to blocked exits. Residents may injure themselves when fleeing a house that’s packed to the brim, tripping over things in their rush to escape. Materials can also fall on them.

“Often, people die in home fires where hoarding has occurred,” says McKelvey, noting that fighting a fire is challenging enough for emergency responders without this additional issue. “Hoarding makes fighting fires and searching for occupants far more difficult.” Firefighters could be trapped when exits are blocked, and the excessive fire load from hoarding stockpiles can lead to a collapse.

How to make it less dangerous

The obvious solution is to get rid of the clutter and organize your house, but that advice usually doesn’t work with someone who has a hoarding disorder. Instead, make safety the primary focus. Install smoke detectors, help your loved ones (or yourself) create an escape plan and practice fire drills often, especially when new items are brought into the home. You might also want to reach out to the local fire department and share your concerns. They might be able to connect you to mental health professionals to help your loved ones.

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Home-heating equipment

Why it’s dangerous

“Heating equipment that hasn’t been properly maintained or cleaned, and leaving heating equipment unattended, are the among the leading causes of home-heating fires,” says McKelvey. In fact, home-heating fires are the second leading cause of home fires.

So, what items should you keep an eye on? Any type of equipment used to heat the home, such as boilers, wood stoves, space heaters and fireplaces.

How to make it less dangerous

“Heating systems should be inspected annually and cleaned by a qualified professional, ideally before the start of the heating season,” says McKelvey. That includes your chimney. Don’t depend on chimney-cleaning logs to do the trick. Hire a professional chimney sweep before lighting your first fire of the season.

Keep anything that can burn at least 3 feet from all types of heating equipment. Watch for sneaky flammable items, like dust bunnies and sawdust shavings, which can be dangerous in combination with a space heater.

Short on outlets? One of the things never to do with power strips is to use them to plug in a space heater, especially if it doesn’t have a surge protector. Plug space heaters directly into a wall outlet and turn them off when you are not in the room and before going to sleep.

Finally, practice fire safety when using your fireplace. Position a sturdy screen to keep sparks from flying into the room and igniting combustibles. And be sure the ashes are cool before removing them from the fireplace and placing them in a metal container.

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Electrical cords

Why they’re dangerous

Fires can start when heat builds up near things that burn. A cord running beneath a carpet is a hidden home danger because, if it gets too hot, it could trigger a fire. “NFPA’s most recent statistics show that electrical distribution or lighting equipment, such as wiring, lighting cords and plugs, were involved in an annual average of roughly 32,620 reported home-structure fires,” says McKelvey.

How to make them less dangerous

Use electrical components for their intended purpose only. For example, extension cords are intended for temporary use. Never use an extension cord or plug strip for major appliances; hire an electrician to install more outlets if needed. And don’t use electrical cords if they are damaged, have exposed wires or are loose.

Close up of Illuminated light bulb with copy space.Summer Photographer/Shutterstock

Exposed lightbulbs

Why they’re dangerous

They may not be as obvious a fire risk as lit candles, but lightbulbs can become fire hazards in the home. And a hot lightbulb placed near paper, cloth or other flammable items can catch fire. The NFPA names lighting-related items as culprits in thousands of fires each year.

How to make them less dangerous

For starters, avoid placing flammable things near an exposed bulb. And be sure to use the right wattage of lightbulb for your light fixture.

Dryer lint

Why it’s dangerous

The leading cause of clothes-dryer fires is built-up lint. When dryer lint accumulates near the motor, gas burners or heating elements can catch on fire, which can spread to ignite lint in the vent pipe.

How to make it less dangerous

Clean the lint filter before or after each load of laundry. Don’t forget to remove the lint that builds up around the drum and the space under the filter. Make an effort to clean the lint trap in your dryer and the vent pipe regularly.

Oil stain on white clothFSTOPLIGHT/Getty Images

Flammable clothing

Why it’s dangerous

Let’s say you’ve been doing DIY projects and got oil-based paint or paint thinner on your shirt and pants. Don’t toss them in the laundry pile! Flammable substances should never go into your washing machine. These substances release heat as they dry. If the heat isn’t released into the air as the clothing dries, it can build up and cause a fire.

How to make it less dangerous

Take clothes or rags with flammable substances like gasoline or paint thinner outside to dry. Keep them away from the house and other structures. Lay them on the ground and weigh them down so they don’t blow away, or hang them up to dry on a line. Be sure the clothing and rags are completely dry, then wash and dry as usual.

Hand of caucasian man charging battery pack on electric bicycle at garage. Transport concept.RUBEN BONILLA GONZALO/Getty Images

Electric bikes and scooters

Why they’re dangerous

The same type of battery that powers our laptops, phones and power tools also powers these trendy modes of transportation. And whether you’re storing an e-bike or e-scooter in your apartment, on your porch or in your garage, it can become a fire hazard. “When lithium-ion batteries are damaged, they can overheat, catch on fire and lead to explosions,” says McKelvey. And to make matters worse, lithium-ion batteries tend to burn very hot and can be difficult for firefighters to extinguish.

How to make them less dangerous

Don’t store lithium-ion batteries in direct sunlight, and keep them away from anything that can catch fire. Stop using them if they smell funny, change color, are hot to the touch, change shape, leak or make odd noises.

Mobile devices and laptop charging on office deskMoMo Productions/Getty Images

Laptops and smartphones

Why they’re dangerous

Like e-bikes and e-scooters, your trusty laptop and smartphone use lithium-ion batteries that pose major fire risks. If damaged, your laptop or phone battery can cause a fire. And remember: When burning, lithium-ion batteries are tough to snuff out.

How to make them less dangerous

Be careful about how you charge your devices. For starters, avoid charging your smartphone or laptop near things that can ignite. In other words, don’t charge your cell phone in bed.

And stick with the charger sold alongside your device. One of the phone battery myths you need to stop believing is that off-brand chargers are OK. That’s a no-no. “Only use the battery and charging cord that is designed for the device,” McKelvey says.

Ceiling Lighting FixtureAris Suwanmalee/Shutterstock

Antiques

Why they’re dangerous

We love the vintage look of old fans, lighting fixtures and radios, but they could be fire hazards in the home and may be safer for decorative purposes only. The wiring of antique appliances makes them a safety risk because the wires dry with age and become brittle, which could fuel a fire.

How to make them less dangerous

If you found a valuable antique in your attic and want to bring it back to life or repurpose it, you must find out how old the wiring is, if the wiring has been replaced and whether the wiring is European (and thus incompatible with U.S. voltage) or from the United States. Look for a UL (Underwriters Laboratories) label somewhere on the wiring for a quick reference to see if it’s safe. You might also want to enlist the services of an electrician to rewire it.

Young woman smoking a cigarette outdoors.VioletaStoimenova/Getty Images

Cigarettes

Why they’re dangerous

Lighting up in the house poses some pretty clear risks, and not just to your health. After all, you’re introducing a flame in the form of a lighter or matches, plus the burning cigarette. Smokers who aren’t allowed to smoke in the house will often seek refuge in the garage. But the garage is not a safe place to smoke because of the abundance of flammable items—everything from paint thinners to oil-based paints to sawdust, gasoline and batteries could catch fire.

How to make them less dangerous

Most deaths from cigarettes and other smoking materials start in bedrooms, living rooms, family rooms or dens. If you have to smoke, do it outside. Place the butts in a deep, sturdy ashtray, away from anything that can catch fire. And since it’s better to be safe than sorry, smoke only fire-safe cigarettes, which include a few bands of less-porous paper to slow down a burning cigarette.

The NFPA also emphasizes the importance of never, ever smoking near medical oxygen, which makes it easier for a fire to ignite and makes fires burn hotter and faster.

Sources:

  • Susan McKelvey, communications manager of the National Fire Protection Association
  • NFPA: “Home Cooking Fires”
  • NFPA: “Hoarding and Fire: Reducing the Risk”
  • NFPA: “NFPA urges added caution when using home heating equipment, the second-leading cause of U.S. home fires
  • NFPA: “Electrical Safety”
  • NFPA: “Safety with e-Bikes and e-Scooters”
  • NFPA: “Smoking and Home Fire Safety”

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a freelance writer covering pets, home improvement, and lifestyle. She loves that her workday is interrupted by muzzle snuggles and walks with Archer, her rescue pup. In her downtime, she's either studying for weekly trivia night, doing a jigsaw puzzle, or watching too much British TV.