Describing the average American garage as a “multipurpose storage room” is a big understatement. For most homeowners, taking a mental inventory of the garage’s contents is enough to make your head spin. And if we can’t even remember what we’ve squirreled away in various corners, drawers, cabinets and piles, chances are we’re unaware of the potential dangers that lurk there.
In a typical two-car garage, half of the area is reserved for lawn mowers, shop tools, garden chemicals, fuels, pesticides and other paraphernalia. According to the Home Safety Council, the most common hazardous materials stored in the garage are:
- Tools and other sharp objects
- Lawn care products
- Automotive fluids
- Paint and paint thinner
- Cleaning products
- Gasoline and propane
Considering the accident potential of these items — cuts, poisoning, explosions and fires, to name a few — it’s essential that every homeowner take all necessary safety measures. Here are some precautions that can help you protect your family and your property.
Clean it up
The first and most obvious step is to clean and organize the garage. Park your vehicles outside and look around. Can you walk across the room without stepping over tools, gasoline cans and junk? If not, you need to get organized. While you clear out the clutter, take inventory — you may be amazed at what you find.
Recycle what you can, and donate usable unwanted items to charity. Separate outdated lawn and garden chemicals for proper disposal. Don’t dump them down the drain or sewer or put them in the garbage: That’s not only bad for the environment but also illegal. Your local waste-disposal company or environmental agency can provide information about disposing of hazardous waste and recycling old motor oil. You can also visit the Earth 911 Web site and type in your ZIP code to locate local waste-disposal centers.
Once you’ve cleared the space, clean the room, making sure to remove any oil or other slippery spills. (Citrus-base cleaners are good for this.) Place any oily cleaning rags in a tightly sealed metal container or let them dry outdoors; otherwise they could spontaneously combust.
Store items safely
Protect children and pets by storing pesticides, lighter fluid, automotive fluids, paint thinner, antifreezeand pool chemicals in a locked metal cabinet. Ammunition and matches should be stored in a separate locked metal cabinet. (Note: Even if they’re locked up, poisonous and dangerous products must have child-resistant caps and be clearly labeled.) Secure the cabinet to the wall so it won’t topple and spill chemicals. Your state or local government may have specific information regarding the best way to secure the cabinet (check Web sites for this information). Likewise, ensure all open shelves are securely anchored to the wall.
Gasoline is especially hazardous when stored improperly, so don’t store it if you don’t need to. The best place for it is in an outdoor storage shed. If you don’t have that option, keep only small quantities in an approved, tightly sealed container (made of heavy plastic or metal). Never store gas in a milk jug, and never store it in a garage that has a heating device with a burning pilot light.
Don’t add fuel to lawn mowers and tractors in the garage. Any motor-powered device that leaks oil or gasoline should be stored outdoors until it has been repaired. Mop up gasoline and pesticide spills immediately and then clean the area with soap and water. Again, allow rags to dry outdoors before you dispose of them.
Remember that static electricity can ignite fumes. Static can come from garage-door openers, light switches, simply getting in and out of your car.
Taking these precautions gives you a good starting point in protecting your home and family from potential hazards.
To get expert advice on preventing garage fires, I visited my local fire station. Firefighters said that children playing with matches, fireworks and gasoline spills cause many fires, but the most common cause of wintertime fires was a simple mistake: placing ashes from a fireplace in a trashcan or trash bag containing paper. Even when the fire appears to be out, embers can smolder for days. The station captain said there would be far fewer fires if people would use common sense. Follow these recommendations: