Fire Safety and Old Houses

By: Conrad Neuf , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Inspection, Old Houses, Old House Construction, Old House Musings, In The News

I happened upon an article in the paper yesterday that saddened me. My previous post discussed getting ready for the winter and my concerns about my heating source. This newspaper article is about another issue that is important as the seasons change, and that is fire safety and old houses.

Fire safety is an issue no matter what type of home you live in, new or old, and no matter what the season is. It is an issue everyone should be concerned about, but modern homes have the advantage of going through inspections and adhering to modern building codes that old houses were not subject to. Most old houses have never received an official inspection unless they received an extensive restoration.

If you happen to own an old home, make sure you double-check the following before the weather gets too cold:

Fireplaces, wood stoves, and chimneys

  • Regardless of how often you plan on using your fireplace or wood stove, if you plan on using it even one time this winter, you should have it inspected before first use. Creosote can build up in the chimney, especially if you have burned green wood, and birds or other animals can build nests inside during the summer.

Space heaters

  • If you use a space heater to supplement your main heating source, like I do, make sure it is clean and the cord is in good condition before using it for the first time this year. Never leave a space heater on when you leave the house, and it’s a good idea to never leave it on while you are sleeping. Don’t overload the circuit it is plugged into.

Smoke Detectors

  • This isn’t really a seasonal item, but they are even more important when fireplaces and space heaters are being used. Each bedroom should have a ceiling mounted smoke detector. There should be a smoke detector in the hallway outside the bedroom. Several bedrooms that open into the same hallway can get by with one hallway detector, but isolated bedrooms should each have a hallway detector. There should be a smoke detector on each floor in a common area, and it doesn’t hurt to have one near the kitchen and somewhat close to any fireplaces or wood stoves you use. Be careful it is far enough away that it isn’t going off constantly. It goes without saying that they all need to be in working order.


  • Make sure you maintain clearance around all heaters, stoves, and fireplaces. If you are leaving the room and your fireplace is burning, place a fireplace screen in front of it.

The area I live in is full of old houses and it seems like every other week during the winter I hear about one burning down. I invite anyone who reads this to add to my list of items to check in an old house to prevent fires. Old wiring and dryer vents come to mind as well. Saving old houses is important, but educating people and saving lives is the real issue here.