Rags to Ruins: Spontaneous Combustion Hazards

Is your home renovation project about to go up in smoke? Tips to prevent those power tools and flammable liquids turning construction into a catastrophe.

Illustration by Tim Lahan

If you’re planning a home maintenance or renovation project, don’t let your dreams go up in smoke before the work is finished. Spontaneous combustion happens quickly and causes an estimated 14,000 fires each year, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Improperly discarded oily rags are one of the biggest causes. A common scenario is when floors, a deck or woodwork are being refinished and stain-soaked rags or wiping cloths are left in a pile or stored incorrectly.

Oil- and solvent-soaked rags will spontaneously combust, even under normal weather conditions; the warmer the weather, the quicker the rags can reach ignition temperature. Used rags or wiping cloths should NEVER be allowed to pile up around a house, garage or construction site. Because approximately one-third of house fires are caused by a third party working in the home, homeowners should educate and supervise all household staff and sub-contractors to follow these simple tips and avoid this potential fire hazard.

DO NOT ball up, pile, stack or fold any wiping cloth, rag, towel, drop cloth, steel wool or piece of work clothing that becomes moistened or wet due to contact with a solvent-based material.

DO NOT toss used rags into a trash can or plastic bucket.

SAFELY STORE these products and supplies. The most common location of origin of spontaneous combustion fires is the garage, reports the NFPA. Paints and solvents should not be kept near heat-generating equipment such as furnaces, water heaters or vehicles.

ALWAYS dispose of items in a metal waste container, sealed with an air-tight lid. Another option is immersing and soaking items in a bucket of water with an oil-breakdown detergent. Items should then be laid flat on a non-combustible surface to fully air dry. Be sure to air-dry safely away from any buildings or other combustible items. Once air dried, the item can be safely stored or discarded.

For safe disposal information, contact your local Solid Waste Authority.

Common combustible offenders include:

  • Linseed oil and other drying oils
  • Wood stain
  • Alkyd enamel resins (a common binder in oil-based coatings)
  • Motor fuels
  • Oil-based products such as primer, sealer, paint, white-pigmented shellac, paint thinner, turpentine, mineral spirits and denatured alcohol

Photo by Guido Cavallini / Image Source

Keep your home and family safe by reading the product label and following the safety precautions listed on any solvent-based material.

Geannie Brubaker is a Premier Account Specialist with Chubb Personal Risk Services’ Risk Consulting Group.

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