Avoid barbecue disasters

June 03, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

The garish photograph in Monday's newspaper bared the secret fears of thousands of backyard chefs -- a grass-lined suburban street swallowed by a roiling cloud of smoke and orange flame that dwarfs houses, cars and awe-struck bystanders.

The Owings Mills man whose gas barbecue touched off the nightmare survived his burns. But the spectacular fire left many others wondering: Just how dangerous are these grills, anyway?

Fire safety officials say they shouldn't be taken lightly. One said the explosive potential of the pressurized liquefied petroleum gas tank that fuels a grill is equal to several sticks of dynamite.

The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that 1,900 fires in the United States last year were linked to gas grills. No deaths were reported, but 325 people were injured and property damage totaled $17.9 million.

"I don't think they should be ignored," said John Ottoson, a senior analyst with the Fire Administration. On the other hand, he said, "We've got bigger problems in fire safety, like smoking and drinking, smoking in bed, and wood stoves."

There are tens of millions of gas grills scattered throughout backyard America. Last year alone, Americans purchased almost 4.3 million, according to the Barbecue Industry Association. More than 35 million have been sold in the last 10 years.

Charcoal grills are still bigger sellers, but they're losing market share steadily to the gas models. The National Propane Gas Association predicts that gas grill sales will increase as more states join California and Colorado in banning charcoal grills as air polluters.

The fire started by Jerry Newman's grill consumed four cars and a portion of his Owings Mills house last Saturday. Baltimore County fire investigators are still unsure how it caught fire. Mr. Newman, 43, was in satisfactory condition at Francis Scott Key Medical Center yesterday.

"We know the gentleman went to light it, and it flashed," said fire investigator Roland P. Bosley Jr. "Apparently he had a leak or a buildup of propane which was excessive, and when he lit it, instead of being controlled, it blew up."

Matters got worse when Mr. Newman tried to wheel the flaming '' grill away from his garage. It toppled off the side of the driveway, and the leak became a torch that ignited a nearby car. By the time the fire finished spreading, three other cars and Mr. Newman's garage were consumed.

It's not certain what went wrong, but an engineering analysis of gas grill accidents conducted in the mid-1980s for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and a more recent study by the commission's Directorate for Epidemiology, have found common patterns:

* Blocked venturi tubes -- Spiders and other bugs like to nest in the metal tubes that mix the gas with air and deliver it to the grill box. That blocks the gas flow. The gas finds another way out, ignites and the whole thing goes up in flames. Manufacturers recommend a thorough cleaning of all grill parts at least once a year.

* Gas leaks -- The fitting that connects the fuel line to the tank has a tricky thread that tightens counterclockwise. Most people expect right-handed threads. Some make the connection improperly, loosen it by mistake, or damage the fitting. To check for leaks, brush on a solution of one part liquid detergent and one part water. Growing bubbles signal a leak. If tightening the fitting doesn't stop it, see a dealer.

* Over-filling -- Tanks are "full" when the liquefied gas occupies 80 percent of the interior. If a tank is overfilled, added heat from the summer sun or the grill fire can raise its pressure dangerously.

To prevent an explosion, a pressure relief valve will open, but the released gas can ignite and turn the tank into a torch. Have your tank filled by a qualified dealer. Store spare tanks away from the grill.


* Use gas and other grills away from vehicles, buildings and anything flammable.

* Use only lighting fluid for charcoal grills. Gasoline should never be used.

* Don't wear loose clothing when grilling.

* Don't reapply lighting fluid on charcoal grills after a fire has been started.

* Don't move grills once they have been ignited.

* Don't store gas grills in or near homes or garages but in ventilated metal sheds.

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