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Solid Fuel Guidelines

When temperatures drop, people turn up the heat at home. High gas and electricity costs are causing some to consider alternative heating sources—including space heaters, wood stoves, fireplaces, and generators. Forward Mutual would like to remind homeowners that these heating sources can pose serious risks if not used properly.


According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), the last peak in home heating fires occurred in the early 1980s during the energy shortage, caused by the “sudden increased use of alternative heating, particularly wood heating stoves and space heaters.”


Since then, the USFA reports a decline in the number of residential heating fires. The leading cause of nonconfined residential fires in recent years has been the misuse of material, including placing combustibles too close to the heating source. Experience and data from Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Company’s Special Investigations Unit supports the USFA’s findings.


“In 2009, we were four times more likely to investigate fires from solid fuel-burning appliances—like a wood burning stove or fireplace—than from a gas or electric furnace. Unlike furnaces, these appliances require more maintenance and are less forgiving if neglected,” said Alan Clark, the assistant vice president of special investigations. “The majority of the heating fires were caused by combustibles being too close to the heat source.”


Before pulling an old appliance out of storage or making a new purchase, Forward Mutual offers safety recommendations to prevent home fires and carbon monoxide poisoning, including our Safety Guidelines for Solid Fuel Appliances and Solid Fuel Checklist.


Space heaters

Space heaters are commonly used to cut heating expenses. Stay safe by placing space heaters at least three feet away from combustible materials, such as curtains or furniture. Always turn off space heaters if no one is in the room and never leave young children alone near a space heater.


“Sometimes space heaters are plugged in using inappropriate extension cords and then the cords are run beneath rugs. Cords wear down as people walk over them, increasing the chance of a fire. Other times towels catch on fire when people try to use their space heaters as dryers,” said Clark. “It’s important that people use appliances appropriately.”


Special precautions should also be taken with kerosene space heaters. Purchase kerosene heaters with an automatic shut-off feature, should the appliance tip over. Open windows to provide necessary ventilation. Extra fuel should be stored in sheds away from the home if possible and the heater should always be refueled outdoors. Some municipality fire codes do not allow kerosene space heaters.


Wood-burning stoves and chimneys

Solid fuel-burning appliances, such as stoves that burn wood, pellets, or corn, should be vented into a factory-built, solid fuel-burning chimney or a masonry chimney with a clay tile liner. Spark arrestors should also be used atop wood stove chimneys to prevent hot embers from falling onto the roof or nearby vegetation.


“Recommended chimneys help ensure that the gases are properly vented to the exterior of the building. This helps decrease carbon monoxide build-up within the home as well as the probability of a fire,” said Grinnell Mutual’s Director of Corporate Loss Control Larry Gallagher. “The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Grinnell Mutual do not recommend venting products of combustion from a solid fuel-burning appliance through a single wall vent pipe. In winter months, the low outside temperatures will cool the exterior walls of the single wall vent pipe, which in turns cools the hot gases within the pipe. The cooling of gases increases creosote build-up within the pipe, which also increases the probability of a chimney fire within the home.”


Burning charcoal or materials other than what a manufacturer recommends can lead to deadly carbon monoxide poisoning. Before lighting the first fire of the season, have the chimney inspected for missing tiles or cracked mortar and cleaned to remove creosote and bird nests.



With the memory of Midwest ice storms fresh at hand, some homeowners have purchased generators to provide emergency power. To provide a safe connection, generators should always be hard wired to the home.


“Using temporary wiring, such as lightweight extension cords, to connect generators to the home is both a fire hazard and it can cause appliances to burn out,” cautioned Gallagher.


Homeowners should also install a transfer switch so they can disconnect from their local utilities when their generators are running. Otherwise, they risk back-feeding power to the utility grid and electrocuting utility employees who are working on the power lines.


Keys to safe home heating

  • Only use heating appliances that have been listed with a nationally recognized safety organization, such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL) or Canadian Safety Association (CSA).
  • Choose a reputable contractor to install stoves or furnaces according to the manufacturer’s recommendation regarding the proper distance from combustible materials.
  • Vent appliances to the exterior of the building to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Inspect /clean chimneys and vent pipes annually. This service should be performed by an experienced contractor.
  • Place working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors on each floor of the home. Test them monthly and change their batteries twice each year.


“Insurance companies have guidelines for the types of heating sources they insure, so check with your insurance carrier before making a purchase,” advised Gallagher. “If you’re concerned about the installation of your heating system, contact your local insurance carrier to have a loss control representative evaluate the installation.”


Extended winter trips

Taking an extended winter trip? Homeowners should take the following steps to ensure their homes are in working order when they return:


  • Turn down the furnace (but don’t turn it off).
  • Shut off the water and drain pipes.
  • Ask a trusted neighbor or friend to periodically check on the house.
  • Contact your insurance agent to let them know your plans.


For more information about solid fuel coverage, please contact your local agent.