CPSC tips to make your holiday a safe one:


  • When purchasing an artificial tree, look for the label "Fire Resistant." Although this label does not mean the tree won't catch fire, it does indicate the tree will resist burning and should extinguish quickly.
  • When purchasing a live tree, check for freshness. A fresh tree is green, needles are hard to pull from branches and do not break when bent between your fingers. The trunk butt of a fresh tree is sticky with resin, and when tapped on the ground, the tree should not lose many needles.
  • When setting up a tree at home, place it away from fireplaces and radiators. Because heated rooms dry live trees out rapidly, be sure to keep the stand filled with water. Place the tree out of the way of traffic and do not block doorways.


  • Indoors or outside, use only lights that have been tested for safety by a recognized testing laboratory, which indicates conformance with safety standards. Use only lights that have fused plugs.
  • Check each set of lights, new or old, for broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires, or loose connections, and throw out damaged sets. Always replace burned-out bulbs promptly with the same wattage bulbs.
  • Use no more than three standard-size sets of lights per single extension cord. Make sure the extension cord is rated for the intended use.
  • Never use electric lights on a metallic tree. The tree can become charged with electricity from faulty lights, and a person touching a branch could be electrocuted.
  • Before using lights outdoors, check labels to be sure they have been certified for outdoor use.
  • Stay away from power or feeder lines leading from utility poles into older homes.
  • Fasten outdoor lights securely to trees, house walls, or other firm supports to protect the lights from wind damage. Use only insulated staples to hold strings in place, not nails or tacks. Or, run strings of lights through hooks (available at hardware stores).
  • Turn off all holiday lights when you go to bed or leave the house. The lights could short out and start a fire.
  • Use caution when removing outdoor holiday lights. Never pull or tug on lights - they could unravel and inadvertently wrap around power lines.
  • Outdoor electric lights and decorations should be plugged into circuits protected by ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). Portable outdoor GFCIs can be purchased where electrical supplies are sold. GFCIs can be installed permanently to household circuits by a qualified electrician.


  • Use only non-combustible or flame-resistant materials to trim a tree. Choose tinsel or artificial icicles of plastic or non leaded metals. Leaded materials are hazardous if ingested by children.
  • Never use lighted candles on a tree or near other evergreens. Always use non-flammable holders, and place candles where they will not be knocked down.
  • In homes with small children, take special care to avoid decorations that are sharp or breakable, keep trimmings with small removable parts out of the reach of children to avoid the child swallowing or inhaling small pieces, and avoid trimmings that resemble candy or food that may tempt a child to eat them.
  • Wear gloves to avoid eye and skin irritation while decorating with spun glass "angel hair."
  • Follow container directions carefully to avoid lung irritation while decorating with artificial snow sprays.


  • Use care with "fire salts," which produce colored flames when thrown on wood fires. They contain heavy metals that can cause intense gastrointestinal irritation and vomiting if eaten. Keep them away from children.
  • Do not burn wrapping papers in the fireplace. A flash fire may result as wrappings ignite suddenly and burn intensely.



High-efficiency gas furnaces feel cooler

High-efficiency gas furnaces discharge cooler air into living spaces compared to older furnaces. You’ll get used to the cooler temperature, and the energy savings of up to 40 percent should help “temper” your feelings toward the new fu rnace. Because your new furnace is more efficient, you may wish to raise the temperature setting a few degrees, allowing more comfort at little additional cost.

The discharge temperature is lower because the furnace uses almost all of the available energy in the gas it burns. This lowers the temperature that’s required to transfer heat from the products of combustion into the air circulated in your home.

You may feel a draft as this cooler air discharges at a greater speed from the supply duct grills. If this draft is a major problem, consider installing a plastic air deflector to redirect the air discharge. If air is not directed toward your skin, you will not feel a draft.

Another possibility: ask your heating contractor to check that the furnace and the fan speed were set up properly. If you notice a draft at one particular register, the contractor can lower the flow to that register.

Some top-of-the-line furnaces also have variable-speed fans and variable heating rates to adjust for this “draft” problem. Have the contractor make sure that all the settings are correct. 

Heating and cooling adjustments-forced air furnace

Warm air rises; cooler air sinks. Keep this principle in mind, and you’ll realize why opening the correct air returns in winter and summer will provide better air distribution-which, in turn, allows more even temperatures in your home.

When you use a forced air furnace for summer cooling, you should open the high returns. This allows the furnace to take warmer air from the top of the room back to the air conditioning cooling coil in the furnace. In the winter, open the low returns to collect cold air at the floor.

For a two-story home, you may also need to adjust the supply air for winter and summer. In the winter, warm air rises to the second floor, so less heating is required there.

In the summer, warm air still rises, and a hot attic adds even more heat, so you need greater cooling (air flow) to the second floor than to the first floor.

The best way to control air flow is to adjust the small dampers in the heating/cooling duct system in the basement. Often, these dampers are found where round supply duct runs connect t o the main (rectangular) ducts. Look for small (¼-inch) threaded rods and wing nuts. You can adjust the damper by turning the screwdriver slot on the small rod. When the slot is parallel to the duct, the damper is fully open. You don’t need to adjust the wing nut, which simply locks the rod into place.

Heating ducts vary. Some systems have levers indicating the direction of the damper. Some rectangular ducts have dampers and levers.

To adjust air flow for summer cooling, start by fully opening all second floor dampers. Next, partially close dampers to first floor rooms that are getting lots of cold air. You will find that closing the damper to 50% or turning the shaft to 45 degrees will only partially slow the air flow. Often, even if you fully close the damper, there will still be air flow because the dampers fit very loosely in the ducts.

Closing first floor dampers will direct air to the second floor. rk your damper settings for summer and winter once you have found the correct balance.

Remember to clean the furnace filter, too, because a plugged f ilter can also restrict air flow.

Older homes were not built for cooling-the supply and return ducts to the second floor may not be adequate-so adjustments may not solve the problem. A quick fix may be to run the fan furnace continuosly.

Furnace air filters and maintenance

How often should you change the filter on the furnace? Whenever it’s dirty. And although it sounds a little silly, better filters get dirty more quickly and need to be changed more often.

A standard cheap (about $1) fiberglass air filter should be checked once a month and changed when it shows visible dirt. You also need to check the filter when running the central air conditioner, because air circulates through the furnace and the filter.

I suggest you replace the cheap fiberglass filter with a pleated paper filter. You will find them in any hardware or building supply store next to the standard filters. Read the labels-some are more efficient than others. Price will vary from about $3 to $15. These filters will trap much more dirt and smaller particles of dirt. They need to be changed more often because they do a better job of trapping dirt.

The next level up from standard throw-away filters are washable filters and electrostatic washable filters. Washable foam filters work quite well if coated with a special sticky spray like Filter Coat. Electrostatic filters are relatively expensive (about $100), but they do trap dirt well.

A better filter is the 6-inch-thick pleated paper filter. Air is forced through a long accordion of filter paper. Fine holes in the paper trap small particles of dirt. The large surface area limits pressure loss in the heating system. A special frame needs to be installed in the duct work, and the filter costs about $25, but it will last one or two years.

The top of the line is an electronic filter that charges metal plates in the air stream and attracts dust. This is the only type of filter that actually removes smoke particles from the air. This filter costs about $700 installed. Filter plates must be washed monthly in the dishwasher or by hand with soapy water.

I consider the pleated paper filters a good investment. The more expensive electronic filters are great for people with allergies or sensitivity to dust.  

Service requirements for older furnaces

If your warm air furnace is old (say, 20 years or older), I suggest you have a professional heating contractor servi ce it every year. This is your best protection against carbon monoxide dangers and heating problems. Routine service will also ensure peak efficiency to save you operating costs.

A good service and inspection costs about $80 and should include a complete cleaning, safety check, and tuning.

The service contractor should:

  • clean the burner and heat exchanger, and inspect for cracks.
  • remove the burners, clean them, and tune for proper combustion.
  • perform a carbon monoxide test in the heat exchanger.
  • check the vent pipe and draft diverter.
  • inspect the chimney for obstructions and draft.
  • check vent pipes for proper clearance and materials.
  • test fan controls and safety controls.
  • check the thermostat.
  • run the furnace through a complete cycle.
  • check flame roll-out.
  • check gas pressure (if appropriate for your furnace).
  • clean and adjust the pilot light assembly.
  • inspect gas fittings and repair any leaks.
  • lubricate the fan and motor.
  • check belt condition and tension.
  • service the filter.
  • clean the fan and housing if excessive dirt has accumulated.

Replacing parts or cleaning extensively will cost extra.

You should have a basic understanding of how the system works, so ask the service contractor to explain the basics. You should routinely service the filter and lubricate the fan and motor a second time during the heating season. You should also inspect the flue connection to the chimney.

Noises from the heating/cooling system

You may have noticed unexplained noises from your central heating/cooling system. What causes them, and what can you do about them?

A typical problem: when the air conditioning starts, there is often a loud “pop” from the ductwork. This may not occur when the furnace switches on.

When the central air conditioning runs, the furnace fan must move more air through the system than when the unit is used for heating. Often the fan will automatically run at a higher speed for greater volume and pressure.

Because of this increased pressure, the duct work is more likely to pop outward slightly. You can locate the problem area by listening for the sound and watching the ductwork when the air conditioner starts up. You’ll probably notice movement and sound in the large, flat pieces of sheet metal near the furnace.

When you find the duct that is moving or popping, reinforce it with a small brace-screw a l ightweight angle iron into the sheet metal over the part that is moving.

Now, how about noises you hear from your forced-air furnace? When the heating system starts and runs for a few minutes, there is often clicking and slight pounding of the ductwork in the basement.

This problem occurs as the metal ductwork heats up. The expanding metal needs room to move. The ductwork is trapped between the framing members of the house. Watch and listen for the problem area(s) as the furnace runs. You may need to loosen mounting brackets or adjust ductwork that is forced against wood framing.

Central air conditioner: to cover or not to cover?

Your central air conditioning unit consists of a compressor and condensing unit placed outdoors in a metal housing. These units, built to resist the weather, generally do not need a cover. In fact, covers can cause problems because they trap moisture and create an inviting winter home for small animals.

Professionals who service the units tell me that most of the damage they see in spring was caused by rodents living in the units and chewing on wiring.

If your air conditioner is subject to falling ice or other debris, you could cover its top with a piece of plywood, plastic or metal held in place by a weight.






Installing and maintaining a GFCI   (ground fault circuit interrupter)

You may have heard of a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) or GFI (ground fault interrupter). The GFCI is a valuable safety device that should be installed in bathrooms, kitchens and any other rooms with a sink; in the garage; near pools; and at all exterior outlets.

If your home is fairly new, it already has GFCIs. They have been required in new construction and remodeling for about 15 years. If you are spending the money to remodel a kitchen or bathroom, add GFCI outlets there and at every other spot in your home where damp or wet conditions occur. Hire an electrician to do this job.

The GFCI uses sensitive circuitry to prevent shocks. A tiny imbalance in the power and neutral line will trip the GFCI. The imbalance indicates the possibility of current leakage that could deliver a shock.

GFCI outlets or circuit breakers provide a high level of safety for a very small cost. The GFCI outlet can cost less than $10. In most locations, it can be installed in just a few minutes.

Don’t confuse a GFCI with the fuse or circuit breaker in the basement. The fuse or breaker protects the wire from overloading, overheating and burning. A fuse will allow 15 or 20 amps to flow through the circuit before it trips-that’s more than enough power to electrocute you.

Once the GFCI is installed, test it monthly with the test/reset button on the face of the breaker or outlet. Push the test button, and the GFCI will trip. Reset the GFCI by pressing the reset button. Often a GFCI outlet in one bathroom also protects other bathrooms, the garage, and exterior outlets.

When we perform a home inspection we always test the GFCIs, and we’ve found that about 5% to 10% of the existing GFCI outlets are not working properly.


Carbon Monoxide Detectors

You’ve probably heard about the new carbon monoxide detectors. Are they worth the money?  Do they work, and if so, what type should you buy?

I think carbon monoxide detectors are valuable, although they have had some problems with false alarms triggered by quick changes in temperature or pressure, air inversion, or pollution. You should have at least one detector in your home near the sleeping areas.

Your best insurance against a carbon monoxide problem is routine maintenance of gas- or fuel-burning appliances. If you maintain your stove, furnace and water heater, problems should not develop. Also, maintain your fireplace or wood-burning stove and never, never use an unvented combustion device in your home.

When you buy a detector, We suggest one with a digital readout. Place the detector in your home according to manufacturer’s instructions. One good place is in a hall near bedrooms, at a height where you will notice the reading every night. If you frequently check the reading, you can monitor the level of carbon monoxide and react before any alarm sounds. Most of the alarms don’t sound until the carbon monoxide reaches 100 parts per million, which is a dangerous level for many people.

If you ever notice headaches, excessive drowsiness, or symptoms of a cold while you’re at home and these problems clear up when you’re away from home, suspect carbon monoxide. If your whole family feels ill, suspect carbon monoxide. You can’t smell or see carbon monoxide, so if you suspect a problem, contact a service contractor immediately.