Editorial: Time to check your wall heaters

CFD at my house (Photos by Christy Perry)

I consider myself quite lucky after discovering a fire in my living room Monday afternoon. For anyone with older homes with builtin electric wall heaters, please pay attention. Even if you think the heater doesn’t work, do not put anything in front of the heaters unless you know they are 100% disconnected.  

Our home was built in the 1950’s and each room has a builtin wall heater. Some of them work as they should. A couple do not work, or so we thought. One in particular decided Monday afternoon to work for the first time in over 18 years.  

I was getting ready to cover a story at the Cullman City Primary School when I first smelled something burning. At first, I thought it was the hair dryer but as I grabbed my keys to leave, my hallway was filled with smoke. I ran to the living room to find large flames.  

A cardboard box filled with packing material and other paper was placed against a wall heater next to my front door. This wall heater had not worked in the 18 years we have lived here. The knob on the heater was not turned completely to the off position and without warning, the heater decided to turn on. The box was basically kindling and was engulfed with the flames shooting up the wall to the ceiling.  

I was able to kick the box out the front door and extinguish the fire. The house was filled with smoke and my son, who was downstairs in the basement, was completely oblivious to the fact that the house was on fire above him. My daughter was at band practice and our roommate was at jury duty. Had the fire started five minutes later, I would have been gone and the fire would have surely spread quickly.  

The operator at 911 was incredibly helpful and the Cullman Fire Department (CFD) arrived quickly. Although I felt the fire was out, only the CFD could determine if the inside walls were still burning.  Three trucks each equipped with firefighters were ready to help our family and we are extremely grateful. They arrived within 3-5 minutes and determined that the fire was completely out.  

What I know now is that these wall heaters are unpredictable and have a mind of their own. The firefighters I spoke to let me know that this type of fire is not so uncommon. I spoke to my friend Bart Absher with the Hanceville Fire and Rescue who told me that our fire is the third recent fire he has knowledge of that began because of the wall heaters.  

We will be making sure the wiring is disconnected to all the heaters in our home that we do not use or don’t “work.” There are some in the house that do work properly, and we are careful to not place anything in front or near them. This incident has made everyone in our home more aware of how important that rule is.  

If you have an older home with built in wall heaters, have them checked by a licensed electrician. Let them make sure you don’t lose everything due to a faulty heater.  

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The heater in my house after the fire