Trailer fire caused by electrical malfunction, fire officials say

Monday, January 26, 2009 | 5:14 p.m. CST; updated 5:37 p.m. CST, Monday, January 26, 2009

COLUMBIA — A malfunctioning heat tape meant to keep pipes from freezing likely caused a trailer fire Saturday on Elm Grove Drive, according to a news release from the Columbia Fire Department.

Investigators said either the heat tape placed on a pipe near the home’s water heater or its extension cord ignited the fire that caused an estimated $50,000 in damages. 

The home’s resident, Peter Koenig, 24, awoke to find his trailer home on Elm Grove Drive, Lot 57, on fire. Koenig was able to get out of his home without injury because the fire was contained underneath the water heater.

“Electrical issues are in a number of fires throughout the year, but not necessarily directly with heat tape,” Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said.

While Sapp said there are no statistics on local electrical fires available, the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) 2005 study found an average of 21,000 home electric fires nationally resulting in 500 civilian deaths, 1,100 injuries and about $850 million worth of damages.

Sapp said heating tape is like an electrical blanket for pipes. It is supposed to shut itself off after reaching a certain temperature, but if not installed properly, it can get too hot.

A blog titled Significant Multiple Fatality Fires, authored by Ed Comeau, is regularly referenced by the Columbia Fire Department and reports that there have been 71 fire-related deaths of 28 adults and 43 children nationally so far this month. That is up from 42 deaths in January 2008 and 51 in January 2007.

The Missourian previously reported 16 percent of fire fatalities were due to home heating devices. Half of all home heating fires occurred in the months of December, January and February.

There are some common mistakes people can make that will increase the risk of electrical malfunctions, Sapp said. Manufacturers of home heating devices give specific instructions on installation.

Sapp said some common mistakes include using heat tape on thermal insulators and bending the tape 90 degrees or more, both of which lead to overheating. The latter can cause fractures in the wires.

Other safety tips include:

• Keep the device clear of combustibles and flammable materials.

• Do not overlap heat tape.

• Do not use heat tape on plastic pipes.

Columbia is dealing with cold temperatures, so make sure when installing home heating devices, to do it correctly. The NFPA Web site includes more information on electrical safety.

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