Most of us think of garage safety as keeping things away from the car and to put stored items enough out of the way as not to trip or have to climb over them. Unfortunately, there are many dangerous situations in a home garage – whether it’s attached or standalone.
In last month’s newsletter, I pointed out many of the dangers in dealing with garage doors. This month, I cover dangers in the garage area, itself.
The Garage Structure … Vulnerabilities
Though you wouldn’t think the structure of your garage could be an issue, it just might be. If you have a garage attached to your home, check to see what materials were used to create the wall that separates the garage from the house. Since many issues I will discuss here can actually start a fire or send toxins into your home from the garage, this wall should be a firewall. That means there should be at least 5/8-inch Type X Gypsum wallboard and fire tape on the walls and ceiling to act as a barrier between the two structures. It won’t necessarily contain a fire to the garage area; however, it will hopefully slow its movement into the house enough to give the fire department time to get there and contain it. The graphic above/right, from gypsum.org, shows the best firewall structure.
It’s unfortunate that many people tightly secure their home but leave the regular entry door to the garage and the door from the garage into the home with minimal security. Some people don’t even lock the door going into the home. Think of it this way, once someone gets into the garage, they have all night or even all day to break the lock on the inside door. Even if you have a detached garage, break-ins to such structures are on the rise across the nation by teenagers looking for alcohol to drink or chemicals to inhale. So, please do secure all regular garage doors with a lock and deadbolt. Each night as you secure your home, check to ensure these entries also are locked up tight – and don’t forget the windows in your garage … put locks on them and use them.
Many homes – new and older – have stairs from the garage into the home. These should have an overhead light with a light switch at the top and bottom of the stairs. Safety handrails that are sturdy should be present … on both sides of the stairs. Keep them clutter free; never use the stairs for storage (even for “just a minute”). Finally, place white or reflective tape on the edges of each step, regardless of the number of steps; so you can see exactly where the steps end, even during the day.
Lighting & Electrical
With many garages, there is only one regular light at the ceiling’s center. This is not enough – there needs to be enough light so that there are absolutely no shadows within the garage – even when the car is parked inside, illuminating trip hazards, as well as potential intruders. Have long florescent light fixtures, encased in wire, professionally installed (florescents last longer and cost much less to use; the wire encasement helps protect the bulbs when you are working in the garage with long-handled tools). While the professional is there, have him or her put a lock on your breaker or fuse box and ensure all outlets are Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GCFIs) for the safety of children.
Because many home projects happen in the garage with sawdust, toxins and combustibles used, either a wall or ceiling exhaust fan should be installed to ensure no one in the garage is overcome by dust or fumes. You can find exhaust fans with pulls chains or install a light switch. Either way, they are used only while you are working and for a short time afterward to ventilate the area.
It’s a given that garage floors should be kept clean and free of debris and clutter; however, many homeowners can barely park their cars inside their garages, if at all. Yet, it’s dangerous not to keep the floor clean and clear, especially from spills or fluid leaks from the cars.
Another cleaning essential, especially here in Florida, is sweeping away ALL cobwebs and dust, even those in the very upper corners of the garage. This keeps potential spiders from taking up residence in your garage, especially the venomous black widows and brown recluse spiders, both of which are found in our state.
The cleaning items usually forgotten by the backyard mechanics are greasy or oily rags. Typically, they get thrown onto a work bench or in an open trash container. Dispose of them promptly after use to avoid spontaneous combustion.
If you store your garbage cans in the garage until pickup day, as many people do, ensure the containers have air-tight lids that are kept tightly closed at all times. Otherwise, you may encounter uninvited guests, such as chipmunks, squirrels or mice. Also, it keeps the smell out of your garage, which usually should be closed up.
Finally, my last item in this list of cleaning is to keep down the amount of moisture in your garage. In our high humidity area, that can be a tall order; however, moisture buildup can cause mold and mildew to get on and into the walls, which can eventually turn toxic to humans and pets. There are many products on the market that you can find in the supermarket, such as DampRid. You just open the container and place it in your garage up and away from pets and children, replacing it periodically. For large garages, you may require more than one container.
We store all sorts of things in our garages … toys, holiday decorations, hand tools, gardening tools, power and motorized tools, and so much more. So, this section covers appropriate storage organization to ensure your garage is kept safe.
Bins and racks don’t have to be expensive. For instance, to hold everything with long handles (i.e. brooms, shovels, hockey sticks, etc.), you can purchase an inexpensive floor bin or wall hanger.
These can be found at amazon.com for $48 and $26, respectively.
The point is to get everything off the floor or neatly out of the way to avoid trips and injuries.
Lockable cabinets should be used to store all hand tools, especially power tools and those smaller tools, such as socket wrenches and sockets that can drop on the floor, creating a very dangerous situation for family members, including you.
When it comes to cabinets and shelving, store heavier items on the lower shelves for easier and safer retrieval, and store lighter items higher up. Keep a folding stepstool hung on the wall for easy access, when you need those items stored higher than eye level.
For lightweight holiday items that are rarely used, consider an overhead storage unit. Though more costly (the one at left is from amazon.com for $144), they make storing lightweight items or even bicycles easy and much more convenient.
Ladders can be problematic; however, buying large, hardware hooks that can be safely hung on the garage wall should take care of them very nicely.
Though I covered not allowing children to play in the garage last month, there still is the issue of large toy storage in the garage. There should be a separate, designated corner for their toys that are in use. Those toys not in use should be securely hung or stored out of their reach. For smaller items, provide a separate cabinet in their area. This keeps the children away from the adult areas of the garage. As always, an adult should be supervising children under the age of 15 when in the garage.
For homeowners who have turned their garage into an income-producing workshop, whether as a car mechanic, carpenter or another venture, you should consider purchasing business insurance that covers the garage, anything inside it, around it, your home (if a fire extends to it), and liability to cover a person getting hurt around or inside the garage. Whether a person is there for business or not, they can still sue you and your business for damages. Normal homeowners insurance coverage does not include damage caused to and/or by a business in your garage or home, unless you get a business rider or separate policy.
Necessary Safety Equipment Most People Forget
Even if you only use your garage to park your cars and store a few items, you always should have the following on hand:
- Fire extinguisher – a 10lb 3A-40B:C rated is recommended by the Home Safety Council in Washington D.C. Fires can breakout and spread quickly. Don’t count on being able to reach the extinguisher stored inside the house quickly enough.
- Smoke alarm – You need a smoke alarm for the same reason you need an appropriate extinguisher. It’s essential, however, to change the batteries for the garage smoke alarm when you do for those in your home – every time you change your clocks for daylight savings time. Additionally, you should test this and those smoke alarms monthly.
- First aid kit – Not just for burns but for those little nicks you get while working in your workshop, a first aid kit can quickly stem the flow of a cut.
- Telephone – This is especially important when you work in your garage … for you or for others as a business. For a business, it keeps someone from constantly telling you of a phone call from inside the house. As your own workshop or a business, it can save your life. A cell phone hooked to your belt is best – just in case you get hurt and cannot move (however, you don’t want to store any combustibles in the garage, since it’s rumored and reported that ringing cell phones can ignite combustible fumes – see fcc.gov and cbs.com). The only other alternative is to yell in hopes that someone will hear you in time.
- Heavy duty electrical cords – I list these under safety items to have on hand in the garage, because many people use household cords with power tools. This could easily cause a fire by overloading the cord and/or outlet. Keep several different lengths on hand and never use anything but heavy duty cords in the garage, even for lightweight use. Store them individually wound on hooks. Replace them as they show age.
- No Smoking Sign – These signs should be on every wall in your garage, so there is no excuse for not seeing the signs. Lit cigarettes unintentionally left unattended, for instance, can ignite chemicals and combustibles in seconds. Don’t smoke in your garage.
Problematic Toxins & Combustibles Toxin & Poison Storage
There are so many toxic chemicals we keep around our homes, and many of them end up in the garage – brake and transmission fluids, car and mower oil, paint, thinners and brush cleaners, pesticides, bleach, ammonia, and so many more. It’s not enough to carefully label and contain the chemicals; you also must store them according to their label instructions and protect you and your family from accidentally grabbing the wrong thing or knocking one onto the floor.
Any chemical item that can be toxic should be securely locked in a cabinet in their original containers. If you don’t have the original container with a readable label, including what to do in case of poisoning, then discard it appropriately … remember, you should never toss it in your garbage can. Every city has special places and methods for disposing of dangerous chemicals. Never put such storage cabinets near any heat sources, including pilot lights or combustible tools. Keep the telephone number – 1-800-222-1222 – for the American Association of Poison Control Centers in a conspicuous spot in case of emergencies.
One last thought on toxic substances is ice melt/rock salt, if you have just returned from a winter road trip north, as many South Florida residents do. This chemical is very toxic to pets, causing vomiting, diarrhea and skin irritations. Another is anti-freeze. Both of these items can be fatal to pets and small children, so take extra care in their storage and ensure you haven’t accidentally dropped or dripped some on the garage floor or in the driveway.
We have all heard not to leave a car running or even to start it with the garage overhead door closed. We also should not let a car run with the door up, especially if the garage is attached to the house. Additionally, lawn mowers and snow blowers (and anything else that can give off carbon monoxide – CO2) should be started outside of the garage and left outside after use until they cool off. CO2 can accumulate inside the garage, even with the overhead door open, and can be “sucked” into the house as a toxic gas. Even with detached garages, this buildup can have residual fumes that can affect a person’s health, causing headaches or even vomiting.
Additionally, never barbecue on grills, use smokers, deep fryers, or any type of generator inside the garage. To do so allows CO2 to build to deadly levels.
Storage of Combustibles
Kerosene, diesel and gasoline are probably the most flammable substances that people store in their garages. Treat all as gasoline and follow the guidelines of the National Fire Protection Agency at: nfpa.org. Additionally, never store them in the garage if you have any appliance with a pilot light, regardless of the distance away from it. Store gasoline in a red, diesel in yellow, and kerosene in blue approved storage containers. Look at it this way: one gallon of gasoline equals 20 sticks of dynamite! Enough said.
Another concern is swimming pool chemicals. You must store these as directed on the containers. Storage in a securely locked shed is better than your garage.
If you store an air compressor in your garage, be sure to discharge the compressed air before storing. It only takes a few minutes to recharge … a few minutes to prevent a potential explosion.
Lastly, for this category, are flammable floor coverings. This includes anything made of cloth (i.e. rugs or tarps), cardboard or any other flammable materials. I see many people with cardboard under their cars to catch fluids leaking from their cars. Not only is the cardboard flammable but the fluids make it “highly” flammable. It wouldn’t take much of a spark from your car to set it afire. It’s safer to soak up spills and leaks with sawdust or cat litter, then sweep it all up and appropriately discard it the same as for oil and gasoline. If you must use a tarp, get a flame retardant one from a hardware store.
Another thing, if you plan to cover your garage floor with a coating, check out the alternatives carefully. Some of these coatings are flammable; and if you leave fluid leaks on the concrete before coating, you are just creating a fire that is just waiting to happen. Read all labels carefully.
One Last “Don’t Ever!”
Propane gas is one combustible that should never be stored in a garage – stand-alone or attached. You can store equipment that uses propane tanks in a garage, such as barbecue grills, as long as the tanks are removed and stored elsewhere.
If you must store propane tanks, even empty ones, use a securely locked shed at least 10 feet from any structure … your’s and others. No shed? Then, store them outside in a completely fenced and locked area. Since propane’s freezing point is a minus 310 degrees Fahrenheit, you can leave it outside all year long. Any storage of propane tanks should be away from anything flammable or combustible; so, you wouldn’t store the tanks with gasoline. Also, store the tanks upright, so the pressure relief device operates correctly; the tank valve should be closed; and all tanks should have an overflow protection device (OPD) valve.
As always, please call South Florida Home Inspection Associates for all your inspection needs!
South Florida Home Inspection Associates
P.O. Box 1716 Hobe Sound, Fl 33475
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