Fires kindle new safety feature

‘Flame-arrestor’ can help prevent water heater fires.
Thursday, September 11, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:17 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Sept. 2 fire in the 2600 block of Quail Drive was one of about 800 water heater fires that occur in the United States every year.

The fire began after flammable vapors from the home’s sewer line entered the basement and were ignited by the water heater’s pilot light. No one was injured, but the blaze caused $75,000 in damages, according to Columbia Fire Department investigators.

New technology can help prevent flames

Such accidents may be preventable thanks to a new development made about a year ago called “flame-arrestor technology.” It is available in most water heaters made after July 1 for about $75 more than a conventional water heater, said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, which helps establish standards for manufactured products.

In conventional gas-fueled water heaters, oxygen and flammable vapors from sewer lines or chemicals are allowed open contact with the pilot light at the base of the heater, causing an explosion, Wolfson said. The flame-arrestor technology consists of a one-way vent for gases and vapors, plus a device to extinguish the pilot light automatically when a vapor fire is detected. The fire then burns itself out in the water heater, Wolfson said.

Flame-arrestor technology became a voluntary standard in July, thanks to efforts by the consumer safety commission, CSA International, a product testing and certification service, and the American National Standards Institute. The standard is accepted by 99 percent of the country, said George Gruss, an operations director for CSA International.

New water heaters on the market

Home Depot is one of several Columbia businesses phasing out conventional water heaters. Floor supervisor James McNamer said he felt the new water heater would be safer for his own home.

“Safety is one of the foremost things on my mind as I’m buying things for my home,” McNamer said. “I had debated about putting one of the older style units in my home, but I held off when I heard about the new safety feature.”

Ana Lopez, owner of Designers’ Plumbing and Hardware, said the new flame-arrestor technology is worth the extra money, although homeowners don’t need to immediately replace their water heaters. Lopez said conventional water heaters can be safe if used properly.

“It is a fantastic safety feature, but at the same time in the industry we don’t want to create a panic,” Lopez said. “It’s not that they aren’t safe. It’s that the consumer doesn’t always use common sense by putting household flammable liquids near and/or used them by a gas water heater.”

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