Fires and Appliance Safety

The weather has definitely gotten colder and heating systems are being put to the test. There are different kinds of systems; electric resistance, gas-fired forced air, hot water, and steam to name a few.  Regardless of the type of system, the potential for accidental fire is part of all heating systems.   During this time of year, it not uncommon for problems to develop which, when left unattended, can result in significant damage to homes and businesses.  For example, furnaces, both gas and electric, should be cleaned at least once per year; at the beginning of the heating season.  Some people think that just because they change their air filters every once-in-awhile maintenance is complete.  NOT SO!  Depending on the efficiency of the filter in use, some dust particles will pass through the filter media and accumulate on blower blades, motors, and heat exchanger surfaces.  The burning smell often detected when the furnace is first started is the result of dust accumulation.  If the furnace is never cleaned, dust accumulation can ignite and spread outside of ductwork.  Similarly, if the controls area is never cleaned, burners can become clogged resulting in poor combustion and sometimes, delayed ignition.  Delayed ignition of gas/air mixtures can become explosive and when ignited, can release a tremendous amount of heat with deadly force.  Poor combustion can also produce carbon monoxide which when inhaled can be deadly, especially to elderly people and young children with respiratory problems.  Similarly, electric heating systems such as heat pumps should be checked for proper operation as well as components that are in good working condition.  One of the biggest problems that should be guarded against is the wiring insulation that becomes brittle with age and cracks.  Exposure of conductors can result in short circuiting leading to a fire which can then spread to the structure.  Just because a circuit is protected with a circuit breaker doesn’t mean that a fire can never develop.  Circuit breakers are current limiting devices NOT thermal limiting devices.  Heat exchange coils, motor, fans, and blowers in heat pumps should also be kept clean.  Heat pumps come in different configurations such as air to air, air to water, and air to ground.  In the last two configurations, a fluid such as water or glycol is circulated to transfer heat to or from the heat pump.  In order to do so, a pump is used to circulate the fluid and must also be serviced at certain times.  Failure to do so can result in pump motor burnouts that could result in fire.  Remember, the pump and its motor are usually two separate components unless intentionally manufactured as a single unit.  Lastly, there is not much that can be done with hot and steam boilers except to make sure that the wiring is in good condition, stack temperature is not excessive, and piping is also in good condition.  Also, remember that piping can also be a source of ignition.  Hot piping can ignite combustibles if contact is maintained long enough.  Maintenance is the key to preventing fires in heating equipment.

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I’m Not the Enemy!

Earlier this year, I was asked to investigate the cause of failure of a hot water line fitting in a commercial establishment.  As most of you know, I am an engineer who performs forensic analysis on failed products.  It so happens that the guy that installed the failed part was insured by the company that hired me.  As soon as I called him to find out what work he had done, he got very defensive saying that I was hired by the insurance company to deny the claim.  This isn’t the first time that this has happened to me.  In fact, this is more like “par for the course”.  I understand that when people submit a claim to their insurance company, they are worried about whether the claim will be covered.  And when a technical expert shows up, that scares them even more.  I have learned over the course of my forensic career to be patient with people.  Sometimes, all it takes is a little give-and-take for the insured to feel more at ease.  By that, I mean as the insured expresses their thoughts, I listen and then explain why I am involved and what I will be doing.  At other times, the insured isn’t willing to listen or just won’t cooperate.  It is in these instances that I am viewed as the “enemy” and I’m the one “out to get them”.  In reality, I am usually tasked to provide an explanation of what happened to cause the damage or injury that occurred.  Remember, insurance adjusters are not experts in everything and as a result, have to hire people with expertise in areas other than their own.  But, there are those that just don’t or refuse to understand.  I know that it can be scary to have a stranger come to your door and ask a lot of questions but, there really is a purpose to the method.  Unfortunately, there are those that will attempt to commit fraud and as a result, make it harder on everyone else who is trying to do things honestly.  As it turned out, the insured that I was dealing with appeared to have been doing work outside of the scope of his insurance policy.

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