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Archive for Friday, January 3, 1992

WINTER CAUTIONS

January 3, 1992

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Old, dry Christmas trees may have been put out the door, but other potential winter hazards may lurk inside a home.

Now that the holidays are over, householders may want to take time for annual safety checks of furnaces and water heaters, both of which can be killers if malfunctions go unattended.

Kansas Public Service and most commercial firms that sell furnaces offer winter furnace checks designed to pinpoint potential hazards.

Bob Parish, KPS customer service manager, said furnaces are the "biggest ticket item this time of year" in terms of home safety simply because of the amount of gas they use.

Water heaters, which present the same hazards as furnaces but on a smaller scale, also should be examined because they represent householders' second ranking winter safety concern, he added.

IN EITHER CASE, Parish said, "the biggest clue (to trouble) is strange odors."

A smelly compound called mercaptan is added to odorless natural gas, which Parish said is used to fuel most furnaces and water heaters in this area, because it helps in the detection of gas leaks.

Even the electrical aspect of a gas furnace fits the "strange odor" criteria, Parish noted, because burning electrical wires have their own distinct odor.

Sewer problems and gasoline spills sometimes trigger false ``gas leak'' calls, Parish said, but trained personnel easily can detect the difference.

"We do have a means of checking," he said, referring to the equipment used. "We don't just use noses."

HE NOTED even carbon monoxide, a highly poisonous byproduct of incomplete combustion, takes on the smell of mercaptan when the compound is present. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, he added, are similar to the flu and include queasiness, throat dryness and eye irritation.

To avoid such trouble, Parish said, furnaces and water heaters should be examined for overall cleanliness, particularly to see that there is no rust on the burners.

Furnace motors that require oiling need two to three drops of oil annually, he said, and furnace filters, which cost less than a dollar at most hardware stores, should be changed regularly. Parish's preference is for monthly changes, he added, noting clogged filters inhibit proper flow of air and can cause furnace motors to overheat.

Furnace wiring also should be checked for signs of fraying, or scorching by the gas flame.

CHIMNEYS, TO which furnaces are connected, also should be checked annually to be sure they have a proper draft, which takes the byproducts of gas combustion up and away from the house. This, Parish said, is a job for a professional because of the potential danger in case of a problem.

Weather hoods on chimneys also should be checked visually to ensure they are intact. The hoods guard against drafts and keep nest-building animals, such as birds and squirrels, out of the chimney.

If an animal has blocked the airway with debris, Parish said, "You'll get those fumes back" into the house.

Another sign of blockage is black soot falling from either a furnace or a water heater.

Parish said water heaters collecting soot may not need to be replaced. They have center baffles and flues that simply may need cleaned.

ALSO, PARISH said, "People have to remember a flue has to be on a steady rise." The rule of thumb is -inch rise for every 12 inches of pipe.

Many older homes have water heaters without flue pipes, he said, noting such an arrangement was common 30 years ago.

No problems arise from water heaters without flues "as long as you could throw a cat through the wall," he said. In other words, the flueless water heaters aren't a problem as long as a home isn't well winterized, but when old homes are refurbished and made air-tight, "you start to get the smell."

Another dangerous situation often found in older homes, Parish said, comes from gas appliances in a bathroom.

"That's strictly a no-no," he said, noting there probably are still hundreds of them around. The danger is the gas flame could consume all the air in a small, weather-tight bathroom, go out and cause a person to pass out or maybe die before he or she is discovered.

"Again," Parish said, "be aware of any strange odors. That's the first key."

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