Basement Fire Safety Tips

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Cluttered, messy basement
A messy cellar is a dangerous cellar. Image credit: Rex Roof. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Out of sight shouldn’t be out of mind, so keep your basement, its contents and your family safe from fire. Tiny escape windows, engineered wood beams, combustible clutter and other issues can potentially turn it into a death trap. So, let’s look at how to properly use your cellar for household storage.

Fire Prevention

Think that basements in modern homes are safer than those built in your parent’s time? Think again.

Since the 1990’s, an increasing number of modern wood-frame homes use “engineered wood” products, such as plywood, to prop up basement ceilings. Lighter in weight and less likely to warp than the solid wood beams used in older homes, engineered wood is popular with home builders.

Unfortunately, these newer-style beams also burn faster, according to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety. As a result, ceilings tend to collapse more quickly during a fire. Firefighters working on the first floor are especially at risk, falling through the floor and into the fire below.

Develop an Escape Route

People who live in the home face an additional danger — getting trapped in the cellar when the stairway or door leading to the first floor is blocked or on fire, according to John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL, which develops product safety standards. “Many basements have just one stairway and the windows are too small for access,” he says. “How would you get out?”

Most basements should have at least one door, window or other emergency escape route that leads directly to the outside of the building. This is where modern homes may actually be safer. Older buildings may have smaller and less convenient exit windows.

Plus, even new homes may have, at some point in the past, been remodeled incorrectly. So, it’s in your best interest to take a closer look at the exits and enlarge them when necessary.

Hold practice drills to find out if you can easily get through the emergency opening. “If the windows are too small that you can’t get through, you can get stuck in the window, and that’s never good,” says Drengenberg. “Or, an elderly person might not be able to escape. So, perhaps that person shouldn’t spend a lot of time in the basement.”

Reduce Clutter

The best way to prevent a basement fire in the first place is by reducing combustible clutter, such as paint, oily rags, varnish, gasoline and cardboard boxes. “During summer, the furnace isn’t running, so people tend to pile up things like stacks of old newspapers or winter clothing,” says Drengenberg. “But the furnace might might come on while you’re away on vacation.”

He recalls the day that a television station in New Jersey gave him a tour of a “nice colonial home” while filming a news report on home safety hazards. When he poked is head into the cellar, he was shocked at what he found. “There were boxes of Christmas decorations piled right next to and behind the furnace,” he says. “That was a red flag to me.”

One more tip from Drengenberg. If you place smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in the basement, and you should, keep them at least ten to fifteen feet away from your furnace or gas water heater. “Otherwise you get nuisance alarms,” he says.

Proper Storage

Don’t stack your valuable possessions — or anything else — in the basement and just forget about them. What you store “down below” and how you store it can affect the safety of both your property and your family.

“You’re in other parts of your house routinely, but most people don’t visit their basement all the time,” says Drengenberg. “People notice when there’s a water leak in the bathroom, but you don’t always notice one in the basement.”

More on Clutter

Do you ever find yourself rooting around the basement jungle for last summer’s beach gear, or stumbling over last year’s artificial Christmas tree?

Clutter can be dangerous, according to Drengenberg. “One, you can’t find things. Two, you reach for things, then touch something else and get cut or injured. Three, it could hamper your escape from the basement in an emergency situation, like a fire.”

Keep clutter off the stairway leading out of the basement, so that you can get out safely in case of a fire. They also advise against storing trash in the basement.

Clutter can also fuel fires, especially stacks of papers. Clean up the basement, recycling papers that you don’t need to store. In addition, clutter provides nesting places for insects and rodents.

Be Careful with Flammables

When you’re not thinking about moisture, think about fire. Keep any items that can burn away from heat-producing equipment, such as the water heater, clothes dryer or furnace. The US Fire Administration recommends a minimum distance of three feet.

Keep paint thinner, varnish, paint and similar items stored in a metal cabinet that has been approved for flammable liquids.

“Certainly your furnace room is not where you should store your half-used cans of paint, paint thinner and turpentine,” say Drengenberg. “It happens all the time, the furnace overheats, the liquid container is leaking, then you could have fumes that could ignite, then you have a fire.”

Keep oily rags stored in airtight containers and kept away from any sources of heat. That said, Drengenberg cautions that oily rags can catch fire even without a nearby heat source.

“You don’t even need the furnace for oily rags,” he says. “Rags that are just thrown on the floor or not stored in a container that prevents combustion can spontaneously catch fire, especially if they are piled in a wad, because you have much more fuel,” such as petroleum or grease.”

Many experts recommend installing both a smoke alarm and a carbon monoxide alarm. The latter is especially important if your basement has equipment that burns gas, wood or oil, according to the US Fire Administration.

Be Very Careful with Gasoline

Take extra precautions with gasoline, which is highly flammable. The best policy is to never store it in the basement. If the fumes leak out of the container, they can drift toward heat-producing equipment and ignite.

Drengenberg takes a more measured view of gasoline, although he cautions that it’s safer to store it away from a house. “It’s not terrible if you are putting your lawnmower in the basement for the winter and you have a half-used can of gasoline,” he said.

He also advises that the type of storage container is more important than how much gasoline you keep in it. “You want to make sure that it is stored in a container with a UL certification that says that it is suitable for gasoline and is closed-up tightly. You don’t want the fumes to get out.”

Avoid Paper Products

Improper storage can also lead to damage unrelated to fires. “If your basement is prone to getting water in it when it rains, you’re going to have a lot of damage to those wedding pictures,” says Drengenberg. “Even a broken pipe is not uncommon. It could go for days with water dripping on something that you don’t want to get wet.”

The Library of Congress advises against storing books in basements or attics, even if you first place them in plastic containers. It won’t protect them from deteriorating in the relatively extreme environmental conditions, compared to the rest of the house. It can also promote mold growth, if the basement if humid.

The same goes for photographs. Damp photos tend to stick to each other and suffer from mold growth. Even a finished basement is usually too damp, unless you dehumidify it. Consider using a dehumidifier in the basement if the humidity there often tops fifty percent.


David Arv Bragi, profile picture

David Arv Bragi is a multidisciplinary journalist with experience in health, safety, personal finance, technology, arts and cultural topics. He is also a former team leader and volunteer in community/tower emergency response teams. He currently lives just outside of Bellingham, Washington.