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What to Know About Household Safety

While accidents and hazards in the home seem to happen randomly, we can do a great deal to reduce their likelihood by being proactive about household safety. Read our tips for keeping you and your family safe.

Smoke detector in a home iStock

While it might seem that hazards happen randomly, the fact is that we can do a great deal to reduce their likelihood by being proactive in our own homes. First, simply have on hand some basic emergency supplies, and be prepared for the kinds of natural disasters that happen in your region. And, since kids are probably the most vulnerable family members, think about the risks they might face at home.

Invest in Door and Window Locks

Probably the single most important thing anyone can do to ensure their security is to lock their doors and windows. Any door lock is better than no lock, but having a deadbolt with at least a 1 inch throw on the bolt is even better. Deadbolts are available in single cylinder or double cylinder configurations, as well as ones controllable from a smartphone or with a combination.

Single-cylinder deadbolts operate from inside with a knob, and from the outside with a key. Double cylinder deadbolts require a key from both sides. The thinking is that with a single-cylinder deadbolt, someone can break the door glass, reach in, and turn the deadbolt’s knob to gain entry. That doesn’t work with a double cylinder, but the downside is that if you need to get out, say because of fire, and you don’t have the key, you’re in trouble.

Windows, particularly double hung versions, are a weak point. Lifting up the bottom sash with a pry-bar will pop the screws out of nearly any sash lock made. You can cut a stick to fit between the bottom sash and the top of the window to prevent it from opening, but this should never be done in a bedroom where the windows provide fire egress. And besides, any window can be entered if someone is willing to break the glass. The only real way to address the vulnerability of windows is to have an alarm system installed. Most new homes have them already, and many alarm companies will install a system gratis or at a reduced cost if you sign up for their monitoring program.

Cameras have become a major addition to home security. With cameras located outside your house, you can see if anyone is outside your home from your computer or phone. And recordings from cameras can provide evidence of crimes.

Fire Prevention and Detection

Keeping your home fire safe takes a combination of things. The first is obvious—minimize fire hazards by keeping work areas clean and areas around open flames free from flammable materials.

Codes have required smoke detectors throughout new houses, and in older ones when significant renovations are undertaken, since at least the 1990s. In some states, a home can’t be sold or rented without being outfitted with smoke detectors. Almost every home has them now. Most people know that the backup batteries need to be replaced annually, but did you know the detectors themselves don’t last forever? The radioactive element in them that detects smoke particles only lasts about ten years. If your smoke detectors are older than that, replace them.

Carbon monoxide detectors have been code-required for some time, and if your home doesn’t already have a CO detector, it should. According to the National Fire Protection Association, “CO alarms should be installed in a central location outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home and in other locations where required by applicable laws, codes or standards. For the best protection, interconnect all CO alarms throughout the home. When one sounds, they all sound. install one outside of the bedrooms, at the very least.”

You may be able to replace a smoke detector with a combination smoke/CO detector that’s compatible with your other detectors, or you may have to buy a stand-alone CO detector that mounts on a wall.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends a fire extinguisher on every floor of the house. More than one isn’t a bad idea—for example, you might want one in the kitchen and one near the living room fireplace even though both rooms are on the first floor. Extinguishers are listed by the type of fire they work on. An ABC extinguisher is the best choice because it works on all common fires.

Sprinklers are required by code in some areas now, and they aren’t a bad idea if you’re doing major remodeling or building a new structure.

If you live in an area where wildfires occur, it’s very important to create a so-called defensible space around your house. The minimum defensible space is a zone 30 feet wide with minimal vegetation and kept clear of dried leaves, grasses, and deadwood. Your local fire department will have more detailed recommendations.

Electrical Safety

Electricity is integral to our lives, but it can also start fires or kill us outright. Modern systems are quite safe, and one of the key components are GFCI outlets. These trip a breaker almost instantly. For decades they have been required by code in potentially wet areas such as bathrooms, kitchens, basements, garages, and outdoors. Most homes have been upgraded to them, but not all. And like any device, GFCIs wear out with time. GFCI testers are readily available at home centers, and it’s a good idea to test yours annually.

In general, keep an eye on electrical devices. Broken receptacles or switches should be replaced. Circuits that don’t always work or that sometimes trip for unknown reasons should be checked by a professional electrician.

Wind and Storms

Hurricanes and tornadoes can devastate a home. New homes in high wind zones are required to have impact-resistant windows. If you’re replacing windows anyway, these can make your home much safer. Another route you can go is to have impact-resistant shutters installed to cover your existing windows.

Tornadoes are far less predictable than hurricanes, and their winds can be deadly. Building a safe room in the middle of the house, preferably in the basement if there is one, can save your family from harm.

Pools and hot tubs

The risk of drowning deaths, particularly of children, can be addressed in several ways. First, codes require that pools and outdoor spas be fenced in with a lockable gate to keep out unsupervised children.

As any parent knows, however, it’s impossible to supervise kids every minute of every day, and there’s not a fence made that’s entirely childproof. As an added safety measure, consider a pool alarm. Mounted on the deck of the pool with a leg that extends into the water, pool alarms sound off when they detect waves in the water.


Many household injuries result from poor maintenance. A rotting stair tread or railing, for example, can easily fails when someone uses it. A wind gust can cause a dead branch overhanging the house to falls.

One torn shingle can fails during a storm, then wind gets underneath it, and before long a section of the roof is bare and water is coming in. At least once a year, make a trip around your home, inside and out, to look for potential hazards, and then fix any you find.