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Avoid These Dangers of Heating Your Home When the Power's Out

A woman holding a lit candle in the middle of a dark room; only half her face is in the light.

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Key Takeaways

  • The recent extreme cold weather and power outages in Texas combined to leave people freezing in their homes. Some people turned to dangerous heating alternatives that led to fires or carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Any device for heating, or a source like fire, needs to be used correctly and must be properly maintained.
  • Preparing for the worst-case scenario can help keep your home and family warm and safe during a natural disaster or other crisis.

In Texas, unprecedented cold weather has left people in homes without heat. While many wore double layers of clothes and huddled under blankets to keep warm, others took risks to heat their homes.

When a family in Houston left their car running for heat, a woman and child died of carbon monoxide poisoning. In Sugar Land, three children and their grandmother died in a fire thought to be related to the home's fireplace.

Dan Halyburton, American Red Cross Spokesperson

When you are cold and your children are cold, you are likely to do just about anything to take care of them.

— Dan Halyburton, American Red Cross Spokesperson

Desperate times can force people to make choices that are unsafe. They might not realize that what they are doing is dangerous. If the power goes out, you should know about the potential dangers of turning to alternative methods of heating your home.

The Dangers of Home Heating Without Power

Dan Halyburton, the lead spokesperson for the American Red Cross in North Texas and a volunteer with the organization, tells Verywell that Texans have unknowingly been taking dangerous measures to stay warm, like bringing a gas or charcoal grill into the house or burning charcoal in their fireplaces.

"When you are cold and your children are cold you are likely to do just about anything to take care of them,” Halyburton says. “That is why we are always preaching preparation and telling people to prepare for the worst situations out there."

Fires

“Home fires are often directly related to people trying to heat their homes, and in many cases doing so improperly,” Halyburton says.

Texas usually has only brief spells of cold temperatures—nothing like what was felt in February. Many residents simply were not accustomed to such weather and did not take proper precautions.

“They were not thinking about carbon monoxide poisoning or the risk of fire. If they had a fireplace in their home, they might not have used it often or maintained it," Halyburton says. "A lot of people think, ‘I can put a fire in there anytime.'"

According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, a dirty chimney or one that has not been maintained can lead to a chimney fire, which can burn explosively.

An unused chimney or the flue may get clogged without the homeowner knowing it; for example, with bird or animal nests. When a fireplace or woodstove chimney has not been cleaned for a while, the inside can become coated with a chemical called creosote, which can catch fire.

Creosote can build up if your chimney is not properly vented or if unseasoned wood is burned. A poorly maintained chimney or fireplace can also cause deadly carbon monoxide to build up in your home.

“You want to make sure that anything that has to do with fire or with heating not only has been used properly, but has also been properly maintained,” Halyburton says. He adds that furnace vents, chimneys, fireplaces, and woodstoves all need to be maintained.


Halyburton says that the number of home fires that the American Red Cross was called to help with increased by 200% in the Dallas area. In San Antonio, the figure went up more than 500%.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas that is given off whenever anything is burned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Halyburton says that there was also "an alarming number of carbon monoxide cases and deaths in Dallas County."

How to Spot Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. It can also produce a flu-like feeling.

You can't always spot the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning—especially if the gas is released into your home while your family is asleep. A sleeping person can die from carbon monoxide poisoning without ever waking up. That's why it's important to take steps to prevent carbon monoxide from being released into your home.

Car exhaust systems can be major sources of carbon monoxide. According to the CDC, you should never run a car inside a garage attached to your house—even if the garage door is open.

Because of carbon monoxide risks, if you have an emergency generator, you should never bring it into the house or an attached garage. You should also never use a generator less than 20 feet from a window into your house.

Never use a gas range or oven to heat your home. If you're using a fireplace, make sure that the room is ventilated by a window cracked open slightly.

The CDC advises that your home should have a battery-operated or battery back-up carbon monoxide detector installed to alert you if a high level of carbon monoxide is detected.

Learn About Home Heating Safety

The American Red Cross offers several free apps to help people prepare for emergencies, including natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods. There is also a website where you can learn how to use an emergency generator safely. 

The organization’s general Emergency App allows individuals to monitor for many types of severe weather or emergency alerts in a given location and information on how to prepare for many kinds of situations.“There are all kinds of preparedness steps for just about anything,” Halyburton says. "Except the Zombie apocalypse. That’s not in it.”

What This Means For You

If your home loses power during the winter months, keeping warm will be one of your main priorities. Planning ahead for extreme weather, disasters, or other crisis will help you make sure that your home is safe.

Ensure that anything that you use for heat, such as furnaces, chimneys, fireplaces, and generators, are properly maintained. You should also invest in a carbon monoxide detector.

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  1. Chimney Safety Institute of America. The Facts About Chimney Fires.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Carbon Monoxide Poisoning. Frequently asked questions. Updated July 17, 2020.