2008-01-11 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Commentary By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

AUDREY PHEFFER AUDREY PHEFFER With the warmth of summer behind us, it is important to take a moment and consider three potential dangers that are unique to the winter months. In addition to the annual threat of frozen pipes, consumers who use space heaters to keep their homes warm or certain deicers to keep their driveways and sidewalks clear of snow and ice may inadvertently put themselves and their families at risk from fire and poisoning. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from these hazards and stay safe during the colder months.

Space heaters are one of the leading causes of house fires when proper safety precautions are not followed. These heaters can be an affordable and useful alternative for homeowners trying to save on energy bills; however, it is very important that certain safety requirements are kept in mind when using these devices. Space heaters should never be left running unattended, especially during the overnight hours when you are asleep. Due to their heavy electricity use, space heaters should not be plugged into extension cords. It may be tempting to use an extension cord to get the heater a little closer, but the cords often cannot handle the demand.

Space heaters should be kept at least three feet from anything combustible. Most fires start because bedding or curtains are too close to the heater. It is also important to remember that space heater cords should never be run under a rug or carpet, as it can cause the cords to overheat. When choosing a space heater, be sure to look for three important features. First, ensure that the model you are considering has an automatic shut-off function that is triggered if the unit is tipped over. Second, it should be approved by an independent testing lab such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Third, the area that produces the heat, such as a heating coil, must be shielded by a grill or other device so that it cannot be touched accidentally.

Chemicals used during the winter months to melt snow and ice, such as de-icers and antifreeze, can also pose a hazard. Run-off resulting from these products can harm plants used in landscaping and pollute groundwater. Deicers are also popular for windshields and other automotive uses. All of these products, along with anti-freeze, are poisonous if ingested. Children and pets have been known to be attracted to antifreeze since it smells very sweet and it is often brightly colored. Several companies have introduced antifreeze that includes a bittering agent to discourage children and pets from ingesting these chemicals. Be sure to store all chemicals in a place that is inaccessible to children and pets. Those looking for an alternative to rock salt or chemical de-icers for walk-ways should try cat litter or coarse sand, which can work just as well to provide traction and prevent falls.

As always, remember to bundle up when going outside and don't be afraid to overdress for the cold. Remembering these tips can help make the winter easier on everyone and help keep you and your family safe.

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