From Rags to Ruins

As the weather gets warmer across much of the United States, the winter snow starts to melt, crocuses bloom and many homeowners are reinvigorated to tackle spring cleaning and home improvement projects. Yet oily rags and other items left at a worksite can quickly lead to spontaneous combustion—a cause of major fire losses each year. Fortunately, these losses are easy to prevent.

Picture this:
A contractor is hired to power wash and refinish a wood deck. Oily rags are left in a pile at the end of the workday for use the next morning. Within minutes, the stain-soaked rags spontaneously combust in the warm spring sun, igniting the deck and engulfing the home in flames.

What’s wrong with this picture?
Rags, drop cloths, towels and paintbrushes used during deck staining and other home improvement projects are highly combustible—even under normal weather conditions.  Spontaneous combustion is the outbreak of fire without application of heat. This happens when a flammable material like oil or stain comes into contact with a combustible object. The object slowly heats to its ignition temperature through a reaction with oxygen in the air, until fire starts.

Many house fires are caused by a third party working in the home
Although spontaneous combustion isn’t a common occurrence, it happens more often than you might think, and the results can be disastrous. Homeowners are often unaware of the added risk associated with hiring contractors and household staff.

  • Consider the scenario below:
    • After priming walls with oil-based paint, a painter stacks wet drop cloths in the garage.
    • A carpenter leaves newly stained hardwood floors to dry for the night, along with a heap of stain soaked towels.

Rags and other items should never be piled up around a house or construction site.  Instead, homeowners and their contractors and staff should store and dispose of them properly in a metal container of water with an airtight lid, especially at the end of each workday.

Other causes of house fires
Additional scenarios that are likely to happen during spring cleaning and can also result in the rapid outbreak of fire include:

  • After sweeping the fireplace, a housekeeper dumps ashes into a plastic bucket on the porch.
  • A landscaper disposes of cigarette butts in the kitchen trash.

Situations such as these are easily avoidable. Dispose of fireplace ashes and other flammable items in a sealed metal container kept outside the home and away from flammable items. Enforce a “no smoking” policy on the property, and be sure fireplace extinguishers are easily accessible.

Educate yourself before a loss
Now is the perfect time to get educated about spontaneous combustion and other fire risks during spring-cleaning and home-improvement projects. Click on this Chubb link for Home Tips and Tools.

Concerned about your personal insurance coverage? At Cleary, our experienced Personal Lines department will work with you to evaluate your insurance needs, identify exposures, and create a customized insurance portfolio. Give us a call today at 617-723-0700.