Monday, May 19, 2014

Keeping You and Yours Safe From Fire, Smoke, Carbon Monoxide and Flammable Gas

Keeping You and Yours Safe From Fire, Smoke, Carbon Monoxide and Flammable Gas while living Cuenca, Ecuador
(or anywhere on the planet)

I'm talking about some of the things you can do to protect your family in case of fire, gas leaks and carbon monoxide exposure (CO). I will discuss these items from my perspective as a US Fire fighter. I spent 31 years working for the Anne Arundel County(MD) Fire Department, retiring as a Division Chief. Two of those were spent overseeing the The Office of Fire Safety and Injury Prevention Education. While much of this information will come from that perspective and lacking any readily available Ecuadorian resource, all this information is highly applicable to our living situation here in Cuenca or anywhere else for that matter.

There are 3 things you can do to reduce your exposure to a hazardous condition:

  1. Isolate the hazard - If it is far away the chance of injury and death is reduced. How far will depend on the hazard.
  2. Protect or shield the hazard - The protection will depend on the nature of the hazard and it's container. Often this can be done via "brute force" ie. building an enclosure, storage away from potential impact etc.
  3. Detect and alarm - This is the case with Smoke Alarms. In our homes it would be difficult if not impossible to prevent every potential fire hazard, gas leak and or CO condition. So the prudent thing to do would be to install appropriate alarms to warn of the hazard before it becomes deadly.

Protecting you and yours from Fire and Smoke

Did you Know? …
Every day in the United States 1,500 homes catch on fire. Each year 4,500 people die and 280,000 are injured in residential fires. The majority of fire deaths occur at night, while everyone is asleep. Adequate smoke alarms along with an escape plan, are a necessity to provide sufficient early warning in case of a fire.

The rate of death in Ecuador is slightly higher then the US.
US - 0.9 per 10,000
Ecuador - 1.1 per 10,000

How do alarms operate?
There are two types of alarms:
  • Ionization - A radioactive material is used to ionize the air in the sensing chamber. Smoke entering the chamber activates the alarm.
  • Photo Electric - Works much like an electric eye on an automatic door. When smoke enters the chamber, the electric eye sees it, which activates the alarm.
How are they powered?
  • Battery – The easiest to install because they do not require any connection to the home’s electrical system. The challenge with these alarms is they require the battery to be replaced periodically for the unit to work.
  • A/C Hard Wired without battery – These alarms are wired directly to the homes electrical system. These alarms do not operate if there is a power outage.
  • AC hard Wired with battery backup – this is the best way an alarm can be powered. If the battery dies, it will still be powered by the home’s electrical system. And if there is a power failure, the battery will continue to operate the alarm.

How should they be installed?
Follow the manufacturers recommendations on proper placement. Avoid areas within 6 inches of where the ceiling meets the wall. The smoke will rise along the wall and curve to the ceiling delaying or never activating the alarm.

Proper Maintenance:
  1. Check the power supply once a month by pressing the test button
  2. Change the battery at least once a year
  3. Remove cobwebs, insect, or dust by vacuuming at least every six months

What is the life span of a smoke alarm?
Smoke alarms should be replaced every ten years. Smoke alarms should also be replaced when they beep periodically and cannot be corrected by replacing the battery or vacuuming to remove the dust and cobwebs. (Source: the Anne Arundel County(MD) Fire Department Web Site)

Additional information on this and other fire-safety topics can be found at:
  • USFA (U.S. Fire Administration)
  • NFPA (National Fire Protection Association)
  • CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission)
  • Wikipedia

Getting out and Staying out

When the alarm sounds it's vital to react, get out and stay out until the area is safe to return. Sounds simple, right? But let's add some real life here! We often put off things we should do until we feel an imminent pressure of some kind, particularly when we do not perceive a real threat. This seems to be the all too often case with preparing for a fire in our home. We'll just address the issue should the fire occur and figure it out then. This can be greatly exacerbated when levels of CO are present and affect our normal cognition to the point of no longer perceiving any danger. Basically - YOU DIE!

Every living space should have at least 2 means of escape. For most situations, one of those would be the normal way you enter and leave your home. But what if the fire is between you and that exit? What then? Are you going to "figure it out then"? or use your other means of escape. I can't tell you what that other means might be, you have figure that out yourself. But I can give you some ideas and let you apply as appropriate to your situation.
  1. Windows, can they be opened, big enough or breaking them (tell kids it's OK in an emergency)
  2. Escape ladder for use on floors above ground level
  3. Other doors/paths to the outside
  4. Fire escapes
  5. Protect in place maybe a possibility, keep the door closed, stay low and signal the outside, (sheet or towel out the window.)
  6. Elevators are NOT an option, many will take you directly to the fire floor (DEADLY)

If you get caught in a fire situation, survival is your top priority. You should:

  • If the door handle is hot, don’t open it
  • Go to a window and call for help
  • If the handle is not hot, open cautiously
  • Check for smoke or fire before going out
  • Don’t take time to phone before leaving
  • Get out and find a phone

  • Knock on doors as you leave
  • Yell “FIRE!” as you leave
  • Don’t hesitate or stray from your path as you leave
  • Thick smoke can make it impossible to see
  • Toxic chemicals from smoke can be deadly in minutes
  • You may help keep the fire from spreading
  • You may protect your possessions from fire and smoke damage

Plan your escape and practice it with the entire family.
Source: USFA

Some Smoke Alarms available at KIWI and other Cuenca stores

Propane Safety
Propane or LP gas is colorless and odorless. For safety reasons propane is required to be odorized as to indicate positively, by distinct odor, the presence of gas in air down to a concentration of not over 1/5th the lower level of flammability 0.4% in air. It is heavier than air and, without winds, will seek low areas and accumulate. Propane tanks should always be stored in a well ventilated area away from sources of ignition. (open flames, pilot light, sparks etc)

Propane tanks

In the US, OPDs(Overfill Prevention Devices) are required on all propane cylinders between 4 and 40 pounds propane capacity. These device prevent overfilling of containers and thus reduce the possibility of gas escaping should the pressure exceed normal limits. Pressure within the tank will increase when the tank is heated as when exposed to increases in ambient temperature (sunlight). THIS IS NOT the case in EC. It's up to the person doing the filling to avoid the overfilling Therefore steps should be taken to assure LP tanks are not exposed to excess ambient temperatures. Here in Cuenca the biggest issue would be storage in direct sun and should be avoided as much as possible.

All LP devices in the US are regulated and if properly installed and maintained are very reliable. Here in EC it has been my observation that the regulations and enforcement of such range from little to non-existent. So much is left up to one to be vigilant about the condition of your system.

Leaks, even small ones can cause fires and explosions. Most common leaks are found at the connection of the regulator to the tank. You can smell the odorant of most leaks but may not be able to locate it precisely enough to know what to fix or replace. You can use a soapy water mixture to apply to the suspected area and look for bubbles. I mix a 25/75 dish detergent/water solution and load it in a spray bottle and spray the area while looking for bubbles. Check all connections and areas where the hose passes through anything, abrasion can cause leaks as well. If I can't fix the leak, I shut down the system and call for a professional. 


Under some circumstances, you may not smell a propane leak. Propane gas detectors are designed to sound an alarm if they sense the presence of propane. Their operation does not depend on the concentration of odorant in the air, just the propane concentration at the detector.

We recommend that you consider installing one or more propane gas detectors. This is important if you or others in your home have difficulty smelling propane, or if appliances are in little-used areas in your home where the smell of propane might not be detected. Detectors can provide an additional measure of security.

DETECTOR QUALITY IS IMPORTANT. Be sure the units you buy are listed by Underwriters Laboratories (UL). To be sure propane gas detectors operate properly, install and maintain them as the manufacturer recommends.

TRUST YOUR NOSE. Never ignore the smell of propane, even if no detector is sounding an alarm to signal the presence of propane. However, if a detector is sounding an alarm, treat it as an emergency and act immediately, even if you do not smell the propane.

CHECK YOUR PROPANE SYSTEM. Even if you install gas detectors, have a qualified service technician inspect your propane system and propane appliances periodically.

Gas detectors are available at many stores in Cuenca

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
I'll discuss Carbon Monoxide(CO) here as well in that when using LP appliances CO will be produced. CO is an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas that is produce whenever a material burns without an adequate supply of oxygen. While many LP appliances burn relatively clean it is virtually impossible to prevent CO formation outside of a Lab. Therefore, all LP appliance should be considered to have a potential for creating conditions the can produce a deadly amount of CO.

CO will replace the oxygen carrying ability of your blood. This condition can and does cause death.

Because "Stuff Happens", it is wise to purchase and install appropriate detector/alarms for LP gas leaks as well as CO conditions.

The biggest culprit in Ecuador seems to be the calphones. Our "energy" saving water heaters. many are installed inside building to prevent theft. If not properly vented, CO will be released in the building and potentially reaching levels that can make you very ill or kill you. This appears to be what happen to a family in Quito recently and is the reason I am writing this blog.

What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?
The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. High levels of CO inhalation can cause loss of consciousness and death. Unless suspected, CO poisoning can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms mimic other illnesses. People who are sleeping or intoxicated can die from CO poisoning before ever experiencing symptoms.

How does CO poisoning work?
Red blood cells pick up CO quicker than they pick up oxygen. If there is a lot of CO in the air, the body may replace oxygen in blood with CO. This blocks oxygen from getting into the body, which can damage tissues and result in death. CO can also combine with proteins in tissues, destroying the tissues and causing injury and death.

Who is at risk from CO poisoning?All people and animals are at risk for CO poisoning. Certain groups — unborn babies, infants, and people with chronic heart disease, anemia, or respiratory problems — are more susceptible to its effects. Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning, more than 20,000 visit the emergency room and more than 4,000 are hospitalized due to CO poisoning. Fatality is highest among Americans 65 and older.

How can I prevent CO poisoning from my home appliances?

  • Have your heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Do not use portable flameless chemical heaters (catalytic) indoors. Although these heaters don't have a flame, they burn gas and can cause CO to build up inside your home, cabin, or camper.
  • If you smell an odor from your gas refrigerator's cooling unit have an expert service it. An odor from the cooling unit of your gas refrigerator can mean you have a defect in the cooling unit. It could also be giving off CO.
  • When purchasing gas equipment, buy only equipment carrying the seal of a national testing agency, such as the CSA GroupExternal Web Site Icon.
  • Install a battery-operated or battery back-up CO detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall.

How do I vent my gas appliances properly?

  • All gas appliances must be vented so that CO will not build up in your home, cabin, or camper.
  • Never burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn't vented.
  • Have your chimney checked or cleaned every year. Chimneys can be blocked by debris. This can cause CO to build up inside your home or cabin.
  • Never patch a vent pipe with tape, gum, or something else. This kind of patch can make CO build up in your home, cabin, or camper.
  • Horizontal vent pipes to fuel appliances should not be perfectly level. Indoor vent pipes should go up slightly as they go toward outdoors. This helps prevent CO or other gases from leaking if the joints or pipes aren't fitted tightly.

Safe Way to Connect Heating Equipment to the Chimney

How can I heat my house safely or cook if the power is out?

  • Never use a gas range or oven for heating. Using a gas range or oven for heating can cause a build up of CO inside your home, cabin, or camper.
  • Never use a charcoal grill or a barbecue grill indoors. Using a grill indoors will cause a build up of CO inside your home, cabin, or camper unless you use it inside a vented fireplace.
  • Never burn charcoal indoors. Burning charcoal — red, gray, black, or white — gives off CO.
  • Never use a portable gas camp stove indoors. Using a gas camp stove indoors can cause CO to build up inside your home, cabin, or camper.
  • Never use a generator inside your home, basement, or garage or near a window, door, or vent.

How can I avoid CO poisoning from my vehicle?

  • Have a mechanic check the exhaust system of my car every year. A small leak in your car's exhaust system can lead to a build up of CO inside the car.
  • Never run a car or truck in the garage with the garage door shut. CO can build up quickly while your car or truck is running in a closed garage. Never run your car or truck inside a garage that is attached to a house and always open the door to any garage to let in fresh air when running a car or truck inside the garage.
  • If you drive a vehicle with a tailgate, when you open the tailgate, you also need to open vents or windows to make sure air is moving through your car. If only the tailgate is open CO from the exhaust will be pulled into the car.

CO detectors are available at KIWI and other store in Cuenca. This one happens to do both CO and Gas detection.

That my story, hope this will assist you in making your Ecuador Home safer. I will gladly answer any questions you may have as best I can. I think you can find most answers in links I provided above.

Stay safe my friends!
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