A Smart Fire Safety Plan

Tips for Safer Living Rooms and Basements

In The Living Room

Don't overload power strips and extension cords. When Captain Picard mentioned the dangers of frayed wiring, I immediately pictured the tangle of plugs I had jammed into one power strip in my living room. At last count it was supplying juice to a DVR, a DVD player, a broadband modem, a TV, a cordless phone, and an Xbox. (Now I only plug in what we need.) But our worst offender has to be the old cord from an antique brass standing lamp I bought at a flea market, which I've since gotten rewired.

Hide matches and lighters. According to the National Fire Protection Association, firefighters responded to nearly 45,000 blazes in 2010 caused by someone playing with fire, and most of them were started by kids. Keep matches and lighters out of reach and make sure that all cigarette lighters are child-resistant.

Understand wattage. Most appliances are rated for wattage, and some require high-wattage extension cords. Extension cords can alter the power supply, so don't use them if you don't have to -- and never attach them to high-wattage appliances like electric space heaters, says Sanderson.

Get the safest equipment. When you're buying items like extension cords, night-lights, and power strips, look for ones that have been tested to meet federal safety standards. (UL is the best known testing company.)

Place cords properly. Don't run them under carpets or rugs, or around doorways. When cords are subjected to excessive force from doors opening and closing or from people walking over them, they can become damaged and can overheat, possibly starting a fire.

Have chimneys and vents checked and cleaned once a year. An inspector will look for creosote, a flammable, oily buildup in chimney walls and wood- and pellet-stove vents, as well as other hidden dangers, such as squirrel nests.

Check your cooling systems. An air-conditioning unit should be plugged directly into an outlet, not an extension cord or a power strip, says Sanderson. To make sure it's not overheating, check the outlet and the cord after it's been running for an hour or so. If either feels excessively hot, unplug the unit and contact the manufacturer; you can also report it to the CPSC.

Be careful with candles. If you use them, make sure they're in sturdy, noncombustible containers and never leave them unattended, within a child's reach, or near any furniture that could easily catch on fire, such as upholstered sofas or chairs (which are far more likely to light than wooden furniture and spread the fire more quickly).

In The Basement

Have your furnace and water heater inspected annually. It's critical to make sure all fuel-burning appliances are wired and operating properly.

Be vigilant about combustible liquids. These include oil-based paints, paint thinners, and home heating oil. Keep them in a cool, well-ventilated area.

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