This time of year brings thoughts of holidays, family gaterings, special recipies, and gift giving.

Another topic to be considered, as the weather cools down, is the proper use and maintenance of heating equipment. It is extremely important to ensure the safety of homes and families.

Stephenville fire marshal Gary Nabors said home heating equipment is often the cause of home fires in the United States.

“The primary culprits in home heating fires are open-flame space heaters, portable electric heaters, and wood-burning fireplaces and stoves,” Nabors said. Central heating equipment is sometimes also involved in starting fire, he said, although not as often.

The fire marshal suggests a few simple precautions to be certain families don’t experience a home heating tragedy, either by fire or deadly carbon monoxide.

Open-flame space heaters:

Maintain at least three feet of clearance from the front and sides to any combustible materials, such as curtains, drapes, furniture, and bedding. Make certain they burn with a clean blue flame across the entire burner. If they don’t, a plumber or heating expert should clean the burner and adjust the flame. If any type of unvented fuel burning heating device is used, it is wise to install a carbon monoxide detector.

Portable heaters:

They are always to be placed on the floor, not in a chair or on other objects. The portable electric heater should have a shut-off device to turn it off if tipped over. Fire places and wood heaters: The same clearance from the front and sides to combustibles should be maintained as would be for an open-flame space heater. The flue or chimney should be checked periodically (at least once a year) for creosote buildup, cracked, or broken flue tiles, loose mortar joints, and corroded or leaking flue pipes. The flue or chimney should be checked before use to be certain it isn’t blocked. These are excellent places for birds and squirrels to build nests. Some fresh air should be allowed into the area where the stove or fireplace is in use. A lack of fresh air can cause incomplete combustion and/or interfere with the unit’s ability to draft properly, either of which can cause carbon monoxide to accumulate in the home.

Central heating furnaces:

The proper clear space must be maintained from the front, sides, and rear of the unit to combustible materials. Refer to the unit’s instructions for the proper clearance. If instructions are unavailable, 6 inches is the usual rule of thumb, particularly from the front and sides. Filters should be changed often to prevent the furnace and its motor from laboring more than necessary. If the furnace is fired by natural gas or propane and is over five years old, a carbon monoxide detector is a smart purchase. Fresh air ducts or openings and the vent pipes must be unobstructed. Obstructions can produce large amounts of carbon monoxide.

According to Jeff Swartz, owner of Stephenville Fireplace Shop, the kind of wood

burned in a fireplace or free standing woodstove is important.

“Your best bet is to use hardwood, such as oak, maple, beech, or ash,” Swartz said. “It should be properly dried or seasoned for about one year.”

His advice includes removing ashes regularly for maximum air flow and disposed of in a non-combustible contained such as a metal bucket. An example of the danger is that coals can smolder for days. If placed in a cardboard box, the results can be disastrous Swartz said that homeowners should avoid burning items such as trash or Christmas wrapping paper. Also, he said that when leaving a room and a fire is burning, a fireplace screen or glass door should be closed to protect the room from sudden spark sprays.

Swartz also cautions that an annual inspection and cleaning by a retailer or a chimney sweep is highly recommended.

“If a chimney fire occurs, temperatures over 2,000 degrees are possible,” he said. “Identifying any real or potential problems will help avoid serious damage to your home.”

Many people are looking forward to cooler weather. If the precautions offered by the professionals are noted, as well as others already on the winter’s to-do list, it will be a warm, safe season for everyone.

SHERRY BOARDMAN is a staff writer for the Empire-Tribune and can be reached at or 254-965-3124, ext. 229.