Preventing Barn Fires, Part 2

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Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

A barn fire is one of the most terrifying possibilities for an equine facility. What steps can you take to prevent one from ever occurring on your own property? In Part 1 of this series, we discussed barn fire prevention in general and provided practical prevention information. In this article we will focus specifically on fires caused by electrical equipment and systems.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) publishes statistics about the causes of fires. In their 2012 study on equine barns, the study revealed that 22% of barn fires are caused by heating equipment and another 16% are caused by electrical distribution and lighting equipment. This means that electrical equipment and systems cause more than a third of all barn fires! So, let’s work together to make sure all of our electrical infrastructure is as safe as possible.

Begin with the Distribution System

If you have an old barn, chances are that your older wiring is not up to current National Electrical Code. This possibility is exacerbated by the fact that your barn might not be required to be built with a permit, and it might have been partially or totally wired by someone who was not a licensed electrician.

Below are some typical electrical wiring problems that older buildings might have:

Outdated wiring systems. Many older structures were constructed with knob and tube wiring, which was used from 1880 until the 1930s in this country. This type of wiring might not be dangerous in and of itself, but it is not up to modern standards. For example, it was never installed with a safety grounding conductor. As an aside, this type of wiring also emits a significant amount of electromagnetic radiation compared to modern wiring.

Aluminum wiring. This wiring was used in the 1960s and 1970s. For a variety of technical reasons, this wiring is much more prone to causing a fire than more up-to-date copper wiring, particularly if it was not installed carefully.

Ungrounded circuits. Modern circuits are grounded for safety, but older circuits might not be. In some cases, and with specific labeling, an electrician might be able to add a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) device to the circuit to make an ungrounded circuit safer, but it is better to replace any ungrounded circuits with grounded ones.

Out of code panel boxes and main distribution equipment.

If you discover that you have out-of-date wiring technologies in your barn, get a quote for rewiring your barn and proceed with it immediately. We realize this is expensive, but it is important. If the expense is too great for your budget, it might be possible to rewire in sections over time, starting with the areas of greatest concern.

Fortunately in most cases, electrical wiring problems are not quite so global and consist of localized problems or specific code violations, which are easier to prioritize and fix. These might include:

  • A section of frayed or damaged wire.
  • Wiring that has been chewed by rodents.
  • Missing GFCI outlets where they are required (such as near sinks).
  • Wires that are spliced together outside of junction boxes.
  • Crowded electrical conduits.

The bottom line is that if you are the owner of any barn, but especially an older one, you should invest in an inspection of your electrical distribution system by a licensed electrician to find and advise on possible safety problems and code violations. This electrician could help save you from the devastating results of a barn fire.

Be Cautious with Heating Systems

Heating systems are the leading cause of barn fires. It pays to be informed about how to safely heat your barn. One of the biggest culprits is a space heater, which your boarders might want in a tack room or lounge area to keep themselves warm in the winter. Space heaters can be very unsafe. If you choose to use one, purchase one that has these specific features:

  • Includes a built-in thermostat so it will shut off when the space reaches a certain temperature.
  • Incorporates an automatic safety overheating shutoff. It will shut off before overheating.
  • Has an automatic tip shutoff. It will shut off automatically if tipped over.
  • Includes a cover over the heating elements and has a low profile so it's less likely to tip over.

You will also need to have strict protocols for use of the space heater including:

  1. Nothing should be placed within three feet of the heater. Attach bright-colored tape on the floor around the heater and post a sign explaining that for everyone's safety, the heater must stay within the taped boundary.
  2. Strictly prohibit draping items (such as damp clothing or socks) over the space heater.
  3. Always plug directly into a wall outlet and never use an extension cord. If you don't have a wall outlet in the location where the heater will be placed, then have one installed.
  4. Post a sign asking your boarders to shut off the space heater when they leave.
  5. Remove the heater if your boarders do not follow these rules.

Whole barn heating systems need to be chosen with safety in mind as well. For example, use these guidelines when considering the purchase and installation of overhead gas fired or electric, overhead infrared heating systems. These are the long, rectangular heaters that hang from chains from the structure above. These guidelines are:

  • Install these heaters higher than six feet off the floor, two feet from any side walls, and at least three inches from the ceiling of the barn.
  • Choose UL listed equipment specifically designed for use in barns.
  • Keep the heaters clean and dust free and have them inspected on a regular basis.
  • Do not install or store anything under a heater.

Focus on Fans

If we were to choose another top culprit for fires and injury to horses, it would be box fans used on stalls. Ideally, you should consider not using box fans at all and upgrade to overhead industrial blade fans made for equine use, such as those made by Big Ass Fans (yes, that’s the actual name of the company). This is the safest option because it puts the fan completely out of the way of horses and people.

However, if you are still using box fans, choose ones that have the following safety features. If your current box fans do not have these features, they should be replaced:

  • Thermal overload protection (in other words, it cuts off before it gets too hot).
  • UL listed equipment.
  • Outdoor/humid use approval.
  • A completely sealed motor.
  • OSHA rated grill--no one can stick their fingers into it.

Fans meeting these criteria can be purchased through equine and agricultural supply distributors. If you have any question about a fan’s safety, consult your electrician.

Box fans, like any other electrical equipment, should not be plugged into extension cords. Outlets for fans should be placed well out of the way of horses on the exterior of the stalls, and cords must be secured and well out of the way to prevent horses from damaging the cords.

Overall Best Practices for Electrical Fire Prevention

With knowledge about your electrical wiring, heating systems and fans, you have the ability to greatly diminish the risks of a barn fire. But fires can result from very simple lapses in safety protocols, so it is important to be vigilant and pay attention to the smaller details as well. Follow these best practices:

  • Ban the use of extension cords. If you don’t have an outlet where one is needed, have one installed.
  • Inspect all of your electrical appliances. Anything that shows any damage to the internal components or cords should be replaced.
  • Choose the correct wattage for light bulbs that are to be installed in lamps.
  • Keep your barn tidy and as dust free as possible.
  • Do not store anything next to electrical equipment.
  • Inspect any equipment that remains plugged in to be sure that the plugs are always fully plugged into the outlet. Half plugged in items can be extremely hazardous.

Take-Home Message

Many of the guidelines set forth in this article might seem self-evident for preventing fires from electrical systems and equipment, but the statistics from the NFPA make it clear that that’s not always the case. Our advice is to be diligent and remember that a “safety first” approach and a set of fire prevention protocols can be your best ally in avoiding a barn fire.

Author Tony Cochrane, AIA, of Animal Arts, answers your questions about horse farm and barn construction in our Ask the Expert forum on StableManagement.com.