Guide Residents on Safe Use of Air Conditioners, Fans, and Heaters
It's not uncommon for residents to want to use devices such as air conditioners, fans, and space heaters for personal comfort and to better control the temperature in their unit. Some site owners and managers would prefer to prohibit such use, but it's likely that residents would use them in spite of efforts to ban them. It may be more practical to permit the use of these items, but with some limitations and safety guidance.
All of these devices present potential safety hazards, notes William Granahan, a Massachusetts-based risk management and insurance expert. The smart way to manage those hazards is to educate residents about the issues, he points out. “Controlling safety risk is what site managers should be concentrating on,” Granahan says. “Be sure residents are aware of the hazards. And remind them on a regular basis.”
Getting the Message Across
The HUD Model Lease obligates the owner to “maintain all equipment and appliances in safe and working order” and states that the resident agrees to “use all appliances, fixtures and equipment in a safe manner and only for the purposes for which they are intended.” These references are to such equipment and appliances that are present in the unit when the resident leases it. It doesn't refer to personal items such as air conditioners, fans, and space heaters that the resident might bring or purchase after he or she has moved in.
To underscore your expectation that the resident will use these items in a safe manner, you should establish house rules that specifically address such usage. HUD Handbook 4350.3, Occupancy Requirements of Subsidized Multifamily Programs, Paragraph 6-9 encourages the use of house rules to identify “allowable and prohibited activities” that are “related to the safety, care, and cleanliness of the building or the safety and comfort of tenants.” House rules are always presented as an attachment to the main lease, HUD says, and they never replace the lease. For language you can adapt for use at your site, see our Model House Rules: Adopt House Rules on Safe Use of Personal Appliances.
While house rules are an approach that's useful for conveying the importance of safe usage of devices and appliances, it should not be the only method, Granahan advises. He recommends resident meetings as an effective way to get the safety point across and to remind residents of their personal role in helping to prevent problems.
“The lease and the house rules are likely to get tossed in a drawer,” Granahan says. “Nothing, in my opinion, replaces a meeting where you can address the residents directly. You can talk about why it's important and give residents the chance to ask questions.
You also can go door-to-door, put flyers in mailboxes, or put reminders in your newsletter if you have one, Granahan adds. The bottom line is to deliver the safety message over and over again. “I would show residents what can happen, what can go wrong,” he says. “Talk about that news story about the fire that started from an overloaded circuit. Point out that there can be tragic consequences.”
Top Tips for Talking Safety
Whether in the form of house rules, a flyer, or a newsletter article, your safety messages should emphasize:
What's allowed and what isn't. Air conditioners and fans are electric, as are some space heaters. Kerosene-fueled space heaters are more dangerous and may even be illegal in some areas. You may choose to disallow kerosene heaters, regardless. Check with your local fire department officials about the law in your area.
Testing lab approval. Insist that residents' personal equipment or devices be approved by an independent testing laboratory, such as the Underwriters Laboratories. Granahan notes that essentially all items are laboratory tested and approved today, but some residents may own or be given older models that lack that safety assurance. Devices and appliances usually have a sticker that indicates they have been safety tested and approved or the accompanying literature from the manufacturer includes a statement of the approval.
Placement in unit. Common sense dictates not locating a space heater near curtains, for example, but you still should remind residents about safe placement of their devices.
Following manufacturer's directions. The device manufacturer's product leaflet is a ready resource about safe usage. If the resident no longer has this information, it may be available online at the manufacturer's Web site.
Using proper electrical outlet. Residents need to plug their device or appliance into an outlet that can handle the current. You and/or your maintenance staff should help with this assessment. This is a critical safety step, Granahan says. If a device causes a short circuit or a power surge, it could affect the entire building. “For example, outlets in the bedroom wouldn't be able to handle the refrigerator,” Granahan says.
“Another important precaution is not to overload extension cords or power strips. Something like an air conditioner shouldn't be plugged into a power strip that has other devices plugged into it.”
Not leaving device or appliance unattended. Again, this is common sense, but Granahan says it doesn't hurt to remind residents that they should never leave their unit and leave a fan, air conditioner, or space heater unattended. “I've seen situations where fires have started from unattended toasters, microwaves, and coffeepots,” he says.
Regular inspection. Residents should check over their air conditioner, fan, or space heater before use and at regular intervals for such safety hazards as frayed wires or malfunctioning switches. If they find something that concerns them, they should be encouraged to bring it to the attention of your maintenance staff and discontinue use of the item.
William L. Granahan, CIC, LIA, CMC: Managing Director, InterContinental Risk Management Consulting, 175 Federal St., Ste. 725, Boston, MA 02110-2202; (617) 757-4042; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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