We all love the fun and community of a backyard barbecue. Yet, anytime you use fire, there is always a danger to the people and property surrounding it. I want to help all of our friends to stay safe this summer; thus, I have put together some tips to keep you and your families safe during this barbecue season.
First, let’s look at a few facts about backyard grilling:
- Between 2005 and 2009, fire departments across our nation responded to an average of 8,200 home fires each of those years that involved grills, hibachis or barbecues. This included an average of 3,400 structure and 4,800 outside property fires.
- These fires caused an annual average of 15 civilian deaths, 120 civilian injuries, and $75 million in direct property damage.
- Gas grills (propane) were involved in an annual average of 6,900 home fires; while charcoal or other solid-fueled grills were involved in an annual average of 1,100 home fires.
- More than a quarter (29 percent) of the fires started on courtyards, terraces or patios; 28 percent started on an exterior balcony or open porch; and six percent started in a kitchen.
- Flammable or combustible gas or liquid igniting was the cause of 50 percent of the home fires involving grills1.
- Lastly, about 20 deaths and 400 injuries are treated from carbon monoxide poisoning from charcoal grills2.
Obviously, we all need to do a better job at barbecue safety.
New Danger with Grills
Before I get into the do’s and don’ts of grilling, I want to alert you to a new danger. In June of this year, Brett Sigworth of Stow, Massachusetts, caught his body on fire after using an aerosol spray sunscreen. Luckily, two of his friends saw it happen and knew what to do, quickly putting out the fire – though his burns were severe, they could have been much worse3.
The moral of the story is to use non-aerosol sunscreen (i.e. lotion) for everyone at a barbecue, even if they don’t plan to be near the grill (they could change their minds); and then allow it to soak into the skin for at least 30 minutes before approaching a barbecue grill. Sunscreen is flammable. Read the label and take precautions.
Before You Barbecue
You should do the following before using a barbecue grill, even if you duplicate the maintenance you did before storing it away last grilling season:
- Read (or reread) the grill manual and follow all safety instructions. All types of grills, including smokers, have very specific rules of operation. Never assume that one grill works like another. If you have misplaced your manual, check the manufacturer’s web site.
- Check the grill thoroughly for leaks, cracks, brittleness, rust and any other signs of deterioration. Clean out any grease or other debris remaining in the grill and in the trays below the grill from the last time you used it.
- For non-charcoal grills, clean out the tubes that lead into the burner.
- Use only long-handled utensils and flame-resistant oven mitts.
- Plan where you will keep the box of matches or grill lighter, where they are away from the fire and the children cannot get to them.
- Choose a good location:
- The grill should be at least 10 feet away from your house, garage, anything wood; trees, shrubs; swimming pools (so it does not get knocked into the pool); fences, deck, deck railings, terrace, roof; breezeway, carport, porch or under anything flammable. It only takes a wayward spark to cause a fire.
The second photo is on flammable dried grass and uneven ground.
- Should be on a large, flat, level surface that cannot burn, such as concrete or asphalt; and the area should be well ventilated.
- Use it outside only – never in a garage, on a porch, small courtyard, or on anything that can catch fire; or closed areas, including tents, trailers or vehicles. Charcoal fumes include carbon monoxide that has no odor and is deadly.
- Avoid high traffic or windy areas. Choose an area away from where children play.
- Place a fire extinguisher, garden hose already attached to the water supply, or at least 16 quarts of water close to the grill, in case of fire.
- To protect children and/or adults drinking alcohol, establish a three-foot zone around the grill that they cannot cross. Ensure everyone knows and remains outside the zone. You even can mark the concrete with chalk, so no one forgets.
- Put pets inside and away from the grill area. Even well mannered pets can get excited with all the people around.
- Loose clothing should not be worn by anyone who will be near the grill, whether they are cooking or distributing food.
When grilling, several safety measures should be followed:
- Never start or freshen your fire with any flammable liquid (i.e. gasoline or regular lighter fluid) other than a barbecue starter fluid.
- Don’t pour or squirt starter fluid onto an open flame. This can cause a flashback fire to the container in your hands.
- Never leave the grill unattended. If you must leave – even for a minute, ask someone else to attend to the grill.
- Keep all open flames away from the grill, including cigarettes and pipes.
- Don’t overload the grilling rack, you could knock it all over by just trying to catch a falling piece of chicken, etc.
- Remember to keep all children and pets outside the grilling zone. Keep children and adults involved in any physical activity even further from the grilling zone, especially if their play involves any object like a ball.
This dad is violating all the rules: the grill is too close to the porch/house, and his daughter is wearing a loose top and is much too young to be anywhere near the grill.
When the Grilling Is Done
Safety precautions don’t end when the grilling is done. Here are those things you should follow after you finish barbecuing:
- Continue to use the grilling zone and all “during grilling” safety rules, while the grill and coals, if applicable, cool. It will continue to be hot for some time after you are done. Continue to keep people and pets away.
- Ensure the grill and coals are completely cooled before moving the grill or placing it back in storage.
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cooling, cleaning and storing your grill.
- Clean the grill after each use to keep grease from building up, causing a fire during use in the future.
- Store cooled and cleaned grills on large, flat surfaces that cannot burn.
- Never store liquid or pressurized fuels inside your home, garage or near any possible sources of flame.
Here are some specific safety measures for gas/propane grills:
- First, reread the grill’s manual for safety instructions and to ensure you are using the grill correctly. Don’t trust your memory from the previous season. Also, use the manual for what and how it should be checked and cleaned.
- Check for blockages in the tubes leading to the burner each time before using. Check all hoses for cracking, brittleness, holes and leaks.
- Ensure all connections are secure before turning on the gas.
- Check for leaks every time you replace the cylinder. Pour or spray soapy water over the connections (spray works best). If bubbles begin to form, you have a leak. Turn the grill off immediately and don’t use the grill until it’s repaired or replaced.
- Purchase propane only from approved compressed gas suppliers.
- Only refill your own propane tank or bottle. Convenience stores offer you a “swap your tank for ours”. Unfortunately, these tanks are from other people who may not have taken care of them. By only refilling your tank, you always know its condition.
- Never transport or store propane cylinders in the trunk of your vehicle. If it gets too hot, it can explode; and they need plenty of ventilation.
- Never start a propane grill with the lid closed; gas can build up, causing an explosion when you light it.
- When done grilling, turn off the gas first and then the controls. This will use up any residual gas in the pipe.
- Always shut off the propane fuel at both the grill and the cylinder after you are done. Leaving one end on can lead to fires, leaks and faulty regulators.
- Never store propane cylinders indoors, near the grill, or near any heat source. Store them outside.
- No more than two 20-pound propane tanks are allowed on your property, if a one or two-family home.
Here are safety tips specific to charcoal grills:
- There must be a wide area of open space around all charcoal grills for good ventilation.
- Fill the grill with no more than two inches of charcoal for grilling.
- Use charcoal grill starter fluid sparingly, and never put it on an open flame. Never attempt to freshen your fire with starter fluid, once it’s started. It can cause a flashback fire.
To freshen your fire, place several new charcoal pieces into a small metal can; apply starter fluid; allow it to soak in a moment; then add these atop your grill embers, using long-handled tongs; and light with a match.
- Always allow the starter fluid to soak into the charcoal for a minute before lighting. This allows the explosive vapors to dissipate.
- Be careful not to get any starter fluid on yourself, and you should stand back from the grill when lighting the charcoal.
- Once the charcoal is lit, keep the lid of the grill open, until you are ready to grill. Closing the lid beforehand may put out the fire, create a rush of flame as the lid is removed, or retain lighter fluid fumes that can give your food an unusual taste.
- When you are finished grilling:
- Allow the coals to completely cool. Coals generally take 48 hours to completely cool, so plan ahead for a windless night or place a cage around the grill so it cannot blow over; many house fires have been started this way – a wind comes up and blows the grill and/or embers over on a deck or into the house exterior.
- Never place a grill with embers inside anything! It can still cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Once coals/embers have cooled completely (there should be no warmth at all in them), place the ashes into a metal container with a tight-fitting lid. Add and mix water with the ashes and set aside for several days in a well-ventilated area. Spontaneous combustion can occur in confined areas during the drying process.
- If you must remove the coals before they have completely cooled, remove them individually, using long-handled tongs and carefully bury them in a can of sand or in a full bucket of water. Never pour the hot coals into a pail of water or pour a pail of water into a grill of hot coals. You can be burned by the rising steam and splattering it would cause.
- Dispose of the mixture in accordance with your city’s guidelines.
- Store charcoal starter fluid away from heat sources and where children cannot get to it. Store your extra charcoal in the bag in a cool, dry area of your basement or garage to keep it from absorbing moisture. For instant-lighting charcoal, keep the bag tightly closed and secured with clamps to prevent the lighter fluid from evaporating.
Electric grills create a whole different grilling experience:
- Never use any starter fluid or flammable liquid to start an electric grill.
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for operating it correctly.
- Electrical extension cords should be properly rated for amperage needed by the grill. Keep the cord out of the path of traffic. Unplug it when not in use.
In Case of Fire
I left this topic until last, because it is so important to know what to do in case your grill or a propane cylinder catches fire. For propane grills, turn off the burners and shut off the tank valve, if you are able to reach them safely. For charcoal grills, just close the lid (if there is one). For electric grills, disconnect the power at the extension cord, which keeps you further from the fire.
If it is a propane cylinder fire, evacuate the area of everyone and call 911. Do not attempt to do anything yourself. The cylinder may well explode. Evacuate the area and call 911 for any fire that appears to be out of control and threatens personal safety or endangers property.
For a grease fire – never use water! It will only splatter the fire onto you and anything else nearby. There is not enough powder in a baking soda box for a grill fire, so don’t use this as you could for a small kitchen grease fire. Always use an approved portable fire extinguisher.
I hope this information keeps you safe this summer, and you have many fun and happy barbecues for your family and friends. As always, call South Florida Home Inspection Associates for all your home inspection needs!