Radios, clippers, animal vacuum groomers, dryers, heat tape, water heating coils, heated water buckets, stock tank warmers, fence chargers, extension cords—did I leave out something? Amazing, isn’t it, how many electrical items are in our barns or connected to our barn’s electrical supply?
All portable appliances should be disconnected when not in use, and if an extension cord must be used temporarily, make sure it’s one of the heavy duty industrial grade cords, not a lightweight extension cord that you would use in your home.
Electric water heating coils can pose a problem if they are not attended because once the water has boiled out the coil will continue to heat the bucket, allowing heat to transfer to adjacent materials. In November of 2000, twenty Standardbreds lost their lives in a fire whose cause was believed to be a portable submersible electric water heater. The 1300-watt heater was placed in a plastic bucket despite the manufacturer’s recommendation that it should only be used in metal containers. Officials recovered the remains of the two-foot-long metal coil, with melted plastic stuck to it, against a wooden wall where the fire started. Thirty-five horses died in Lebanon, Ohio in 1989 in a fire that was apparently started by an electric water bucket heater. A disconnected prong that was still warm had been placed in a bucket near some rags, setting the rags afire when a gust of wind blew the bucket over. Don’t take chances with ANYTHING that heats up! If you’re using an electric water bucket heater, stay right with it for the entire length of time you’re using it and when you’re done with it, hang it from a hook in an open area and leave it there until it’s completely cooled.
If you live in a colder climate where winter time temperatures are low enough to freeze drinking water in buckets, there are several types of heaters that are either built into the bucket or are applied to the outside of a bucket. To be on the safe side, though, before buying an electrically-heated bucket, ask your fire inspector or building official about the fire safety level of the heater you’re interested in. You don’t want to install buckets only to see your barn burn down because a horse (or other animal) chomped on an exposed electric cord. See Heated Water Buckets—Another Cause for Concern?
That takes us to other types of heaters and heat-generating sources. The problem with heaters of any type is that if they blow or radiate on bedding, hay, cloth, or even leather, they can quickly create the potential for fire by drying out the materials, which then makes items more susceptible to reaching their ignition point. Before you add heat—for whatever reason—please carefully consider if it’s really necessary. For newborns that need extra warmth, there are special wool covers (blankets) available, like the one pictured here from Good Shepherd Lamb Coats. Non-electric thermal pads, called Cozy Cushions® are available from several pet supply companies, and can be used for newborn litters, or, if you can sew, you can make these pads yourself (see directions at end of article). If a heat lamp is absolutely required, the Premier Heat Lamp is the only heat lamp I recommend because the bulb is completely encased in a protective guard and the company has stressed fire safety in producing this heat lamp. Another product worth checking out is a heating unit manufactured by Infratherm, Inc., a company who also stresses fire safety. You will also find important space heater safety tips at Heater.com.
A number of years ago, research demonstrated that the length of daylight affected the condition of a horse’s hair coat, so some people took to using sunlamps and extra light sources to keep hair coats in prime condition. It was an unwise shortcut. In addition to the high heat-generation levels, unguarded units provided “playthings,” and in several instances, horses broke the bulbs and electrocuted themselves. In 1996 a horse at Belmont Park was killed in a fire that he started when he reared and toppled a heat lamp, which then set some hay on fire. Hair coats can be kept in good shape by other methods. And every winter hundreds of newborn piglets, chicks, kids, and lambs are killed by fires started when heat lamps are knocked over or fall onto bedding. Every barn fire caused by a heat lamp that destroyed lives and property was totally preventable.
Any electric appliance permanently installed in the barn, including hot water tanks, treadmills, and insect-control devices should be routinely inspected by a qualified electrician. All electrical devices need to be cleaned every three months. A can of compressed air is usually all that is needed.
Firefighter Jim Schlabach, a member of the Clarence, New York Fire Department, was at a barn fire in 1991 that was caused by a faulty electric hot water tank. “We had a horse stable and riding arena burn,” he said. “The alarm was sounded at 1:30 AM. The building was 200’x 160′ and fire was showing throughout the entire length when we arrived. Forty horses perished besides the building being a total loss. Only three horses were saved.”
Perhaps a routine inspection of that hot water tank might have found a potential problem and averted the fire, but since there’s no way of knowing if an inspection might have produced a different outcome, why take chances? Inspections are cheap insurance.
In some parts of the United States we go from the dead of winter into blazing summer overnight, and we race to put up our box fans. The inexpensive fan we use in our home is too dangerous to use in our barn. Two fillies died in Paris Pike, Kentucky in July of 2002 when a box fan overheated and ignited straw, and that’s just one example of hundreds of similar incidents. When dust gets into the motors of these light-duty fans, the motors seize up and burn out. The fans to use are designed for agricultural and industrial settings and their motors are sealed so no dust can get in. If you look at the back of the fan and see wires, the motor is not sealed. There are many brands of agricultural fans that are available with different kinds of mounts so you can hang the fan from either a beam or a wall. Standard features on almost all agricultural fans include galvanized construction, enclosed motors with thermal protection, welded wire guards on the intake and exhaust sides, and a heavy-duty power cord. You can buy these fans at an agricultural or electrical supply store or through catalogs.
A man who posted fairly frequently regarding fire safety on a Google newsgroup took a lot of flak from other newsgroup posters who even accused him of being an arsonist, to which he responded, “Arsonist? We have enough self-inflicted accidental arson as it is. . . due to thoughtless good intentions and ignorance.” Here’s what he said about fans in response to someone who said, “Do you have anything more to post other than morbid barn fire stuff?”
“You know what, to my way of thinking on my barn fire postings like this one. . .just maybe someone out there will read this that has those cheap residential box fans running in their barns (I see them everywhere in all kinds of barns, the working poor man’s barns to the rich man’s show places). . .maybe they will reconsider leaving them on unattended (at night), check them over real good, clean them, etc., hopefully replace them with an industrial or ag type fan. Just this morning I had an early call at a local farm. Large main barn . . . walking down the alley way I saw dirty/dusty box fans hanging on all stall fronts, sloppy extension and power cord arrangements. Barn owner/manager was whining about our weather, it has been very hot here (Kentucky), even at night lately. She said last night she just couldn’t turn those fans off, afraid the horses would get too hot, left them running all night in a barn full of horses. You know what, if that is all I had to move some air around, I had rather have hot horses than dead horses. Healthy, well-adjusted horses in good condition can take the heat—especially, and even more so night temps, even if unusually high. . .they are idle, and no high, bright sun. A sick or otherwise compromised horse is a different matter. Yes, there are times and places a box fan is your only alternative, but they should never be left on unattended (like overnight). If you must use box fans in your barn, please clean/check them often . . . and for gawds’ sake pay attention to those power/extension cords.”
Here’s something to consider, though. If you are boarding your horse in a large stable where everyone is using box fans, it doesn’t do you much good if you have a top-of-the-line agricultural fan and other people are still using residential fans. If the motor in one of those light duty fans burns out, your horse is in just as much trouble as if you had a residential box fan yourself. Every stall has to have the correct type of fan if the barn is to remain safe. John and Kimberly Linger suffered the loss of 44 horses when a fire started by a residential type box fan set the barn on fire. Kimberly and I corresponded about our mutual concerns and our emails follow.
The Bridlewood Stables Fire in Pinch, West Virginia – August, 2007
Around 6:00 on a Sunday morning a neighbor called in the fire, but as is often the case, by the time the fire crews arrived on the scene, the barn was already gone and 44 horses had died from smoke inhalation. Kimberly and John Linger saw their family business and life’s passion wiped out in minutes.
In January of this year, Kimberly wrote to me, “I did want to clarify that the fire at my stables was started by a fan that was only two months old. I thought you might want to add to the list of causes as defective products. I did have all new wiring, 20 fire extinguishers, a fire hydrant 100 feet from the entrance, the fire department two blocks from the barn, and hay storage separate from the stables. In addition, there was a strict no smoking policy that was enforced. We also didn’t allow any green [not well cured] hay, and all equipment and the manure bins were kept away from the barn. I had a master electrician do all of the new electrical wiring just like you would have done in a home or apartment complex. This was more than a business; it was my family’s entire life. I truly hope this info can help with your studies.”
My response was, “You did everything right in your barn, there’s no question of that, but one small ‘slip up’ was all it took. That’s the horrible part of barn fires—it’s usually something totally preventable if only we were aware of it. You mentioned the fire was started by a fan, and I’m assuming the fan was a ‘box type’ like you can buy at K-Mart or Home Depot. They’re made for residential use and the motors aren’t sealed like the ones designed for agricultural use. In our barns, dust gets into the motor, heats up, and catches the plastic housing on fire, which then very often burns up the whole fan housing and in the process generates smoke and dripping plastic that ignites the stall bedding. I would like to know what type of fan caused the fire so you and I can warn others about it.”
Kimberly was quick to reply: “The fan was a box fan, purchased two months prior to the fire. I would greatly appreciate your help on getting the word out on this. I have been in the horse world in this area for seven years and have visited most of the farms, stables, etc. and show grounds. They all use these types of fans in the summer. The manufacturers do not specify any of the information that you just gave me on the motors. Maybe this will be a good place to start. I have been in contact with several of the horse magazines and would like to include your website in any future articles. I also plan on eventually rebuilding and have been researching all of the ways to build a fire proof barn. Thank you and please let me know of any suggestions you may have.”
In March, Kimberly sent me this email: “I hadn’t thought about this until I was looking at some recent tack catalogs, but when we were talking about how box fans were not intended for stable use, they are being marketed for just that purpose (emphasis mine). There are several companies that sell and manufacture brackets to hold these fans above your horses. They are specifically designed to hold 20” box fans purchased at “any retail or hardware store, regardless of the brand.” If the horse owners across the country are being sold these convenient brackets, how can they think that it would be dangerous? The fans don’t say that they can’t be used this way and there are even companies that make it easier to use them in their stalls. I just thought this may be something you can add to your website. I know now from personal experience how dangerous the current models are, but unfortunately there are hundreds of thousands of these well-meaning horse owners, who see them advertised for this exact purpose. I even noticed in some of the magazines, pictures of the box fans being used in stables, including warnings of keeping the electrical cords up where the horses cannot reach them. So again, no one knows that they shouldn’t be used because they see the advertisements and photos of the horse industry using them too.”
Kimberly and John Linger’s sad experience has focused my attention on getting changes made in the labeling of residential box fans that are not safe for use in any animal facilities because the motors are not sealed and dust can create an extreme fire hazard. I have contacted Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. and the Consumer Products Safety Commission, about requiring warning labels on product boxes, which is a relatively cheap fix for manufacturers of residential type fans. The labeling will also help to direct attention to products that are specifically designed for agricultural use. You can help, too, by providing your local retailers a copy of the sign I’ve posted on the download page.
By the way, it’s not just the fan motors that can create a problem: the electrical cords on the residential fans are too light-duty for use in a barn where one chomp on a wire by a horse or other animal can create a spark that starts a fire. The cords on agricultural fans that are not hard-wired in place are heavy duty, well-insulated, and/or encased in flexible conduit.
Directions for making your own non-electric thermal pads: You’ll need fabric for the covering, heavy-duty foil, bubble wrap, and suitable fabric stuffing/stiffening/fiberfill to make bolster/pillow borders if desired. Any fabric or craft store should have the materials, although you may have to get your bubble wrap at an office supply store. Essentially, the pad is in layers: the bubble wrap, wrapped in heavy-duty foil, goes in the center of the pad. Above and below the foil-wrapped bubble wrap, place stiffeners if desired or just layer your fiberfill material above and below the foil layer, then add the outer cover fabric. Make sure all your materials are washable so you can clean the pad as needed.