Wood stoves may help consumers save on their heating bills, but they are also leading to a sharp increase in residential fires.
According to a new study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission staff, the number of fires caused by just the stoves themselves nearly doubled in one year--from 11,200 in 1979 to 22,000 in 1980. Deaths and injuries from the stoves in 1980 totaled 800--a 64 percent increase over the previous year.
Overall, the increased use of wood as fuel--either in a stove or fireplace--led to a total of 112,000 residential fires in 1980, a 58 percent increase over 1979's total of 70,700. Almost half of those fires were caused by problem chimneys and connecting pipes.
The CPSC staff found that wood-fueled heating equipment accounted for more than half of all heating-equipment fires in 1980 and more than 40 percent of the resulting deaths. In 1980, deaths from wood-fueled heating equipment totaled 350, up from 210 deaths in 1979.
This sharp increase, coming at a time when fires caused by gas-fired heaters and other types of heating equipment are declining, has stirred great concern in the commission, which is now trying to figure out a way to reduce the risk from wood stoves.
One reason: A staff survey of more than 2,000 homes with wood stoves revealed that one in 10 stove users had some experience with fire, smoke or other hazards.
The problem, the staff noted yesterday at a commission briefing, does not lie primarily with the stoves themselves, but rather with their installation and the continued upkeep of the chimney and connecting pipes.
Consumers often install the stoves themselves, with little regard to local building codes and often too close to combustible materials, the staff said. But, the staff added, even consumers who have their stoves installed according to local building codes may run into trouble because many of these codes may be outdated and ineffective with the newer, more efficient airtight stoves that generate more heat.
Yet even correct installation does not diminish the risk. Consumers who do not inspect or clean their chimneys and connecting pipes to reduce the creosote build-up risk fire, the staff concluded. For heavy wood-stove users, chimneys and pipes should be checked at least twice a year, the staff advised.
Concerned that consumers do not know all the facts, the commission agreed to intensify its consumer education program. At the same time, the commission agreed with the staff's recommendation to actively work with the industry to develop voluntary safety standards to reduce fires.
A meeting with the Wood Heating Alliance, the trade association that represents manufacturers, distributors and dealers, is scheduled for early next week. Alliance Executive Director Carter Keithley said yesterday that he welcomed the CPSC's assistance.
The commission's commitment to reduce deaths from heating equipment was made clear earlier this week when the commission voted 4 to 1 to go ahead with its mandatory rule requiring new safety equipment on all unvented gas space heaters manufactured after Dec. 31. Designed to reduce deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning, the device will measure the level of oxygen in the room and shut off the heater when it gets to a dangerously low level.