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Last Year Was Cold, This Year Is Colder: Fire And Geyser Safety Tips

  • 6 min read

Winter 2021 got off to a freezing start with an intense cold front.  According to the SA Weather Service, Gauteng and the eastern part of North West will be slightly cooler (below normal temperatures) this year than in previous years during the months of April, May and June.

During these months, insurers brace themselves for an influx of geyser and fire related claims.  Last year, according to Auto & General’s claims data, 90% of its annual fire claims and 33% of its annual geyser claims were submitted between June and August 2020. 

“We are already seeing more geyser and fire related claims than usual and urge homeowners to be vigilant,” says Ricardo Coetzee, head of Auto & General Insurance. 

Coetzee explains:  “Expansion and contraction of the geyser tank and its components occur during normal usage as hot water leaves the geyser and is replaced with cold water. However, in winter, the cold water temperature can drop considerably. The temperature difference between the cold water entering the geyser and the hot water leaving the geyser is therefore much greater than it is during the summer months. This increases the rate of expansion and contraction, which can lead to metal fatigue. So, while cold weather won’t cause your geyser to burst, your geyser is more vulnerable to bursting during cold weather if it is old or if the valves or thermostat are faulty,” says Coetzee.

The seasonality of fire claims is more pronounced than that of geysers.  “The reason for this is because when winter strengthens its icy grip – gas heaters, fireplaces, electric heaters, candles, paraffin stoves and electric blankets are summoned to drive away the cold.  It takes only one ember close to a flammable material, one faulty gas hose or wire or one switch left in the ON or OPEN setting for you to become part of the statistics of total loss of your property… or worse,” says Coetzee. 

A serious, proactive approach to winter safety can go a long way in saving frustration, rands and even lives. Coetzee shares the following advice:

Fire safety:

  1. Trust the pros: Make sure that all heating appliances and devices are SABS approved and, where applicable, installed by a certified service provider. Improperly installed heating devices have been the cause of numerous deaths in South Africa.
  2. Read and obey the manual: It’s crucial to operate devices within manufacturers’ limits. Setting a device to maximum heat for extended periods of time, not placing a device on a level surface, moving it around whilst in operation or charging a device for longer than recommended, for example, could pose a serious risk.
  3. Wire & pipe check: Make sure that appliances and other heating devices, as well as their piping and wiring, are in a good, safe working order. Take gas bottles to your nearest gas retailer to have them checked for leaks on a regular basis. This includes gas bottles used for heaters, braais and stoves.
  4. Keep an eye: In the US, fires resulting from cooking, and more specifically unattended cooking, is a major concern. Never leave heaters, electrical blankets, candles or stoves unattended. Exercise special caution before going to bed at night to make sure that all heat sources are turned off. 
  5. Plug pressure: Do not overload one single power source. Unplug and switch off all electrical appliances that are not in use.
  6. Vent wise: Make sure that heating, electric and electronic devices are in a spacious and well-ventilated spot to prevent overheating. Do not cover heaters with clothing or other material that you wish to warm or dry.
  7. Light first, gas second: If you have a gas heater or cook with gas, light the match or lighter first, before turning on the gas.
  8. Declutter: Keep clutter to a minimum in and around your home, as this could add fuel to a fire, and keep flammable materials, including fuels, far away from heat sources.
  9. Smoke smart: If possible, install smoke detectors throughout your home.
  10. Arm’s reach: Have a fire extinguisher available, specifically near the kitchen and other areas where heat sources are frequently used. Make sure that you know how to activate and operate it.
  11. Emergency plan: Make sure that trip switches and emergency cut-off valves are in good working order. Have all emergency contact details within easy reach and don’t wait until a fire is out of control before contacting emergency response teams.

Geyser safety:

  1. Tip-top shape: Experts recommend that geysers are serviced by a qualified plumber every three years. A geyser service would entail draining the geyser and checking its components including the anode, element and thermostat. Lime scale and sludge should be removed from the tank and element, and the whole system should be checked for leaks. The plumber should also check that the thermostat temperature on the geyser isn’t set too high. 600C is the recommended temperature. Geysers are known to burst when the thermostat is incorrectly set or badly regulated.
  2. Wrap it in a blanket: Consider investing in a geyser blanket and timer to not only save on electricity, but also to help avoid a burst geyser caused by extreme fluctuations in heating and cooling.
  3. Don’t be a drip: It is advisable to fit a drip-tray, if there isn’t one already in place beneath the geyser. The outlet pipe on a drip-tray carries away most of the water should the geyser burst, making it a helpful measure for limiting water damage to walls, carpets and other home contents.
  4. Save wisely: It is wise to switch off your geyser from time to time, especially during peak electricity demand periods, but it’s best to not let it get cold, as this additional contraction-expansion cycle could decrease the life span of your geyser, whilst also consuming more electricity to warm the water up again.
  5. Heed the warning: Keep an eye out for the early warning signs of geyser failure. If you notice that water coming from the geyser isn’t as hot as it used to be, that the water pressure isn’t high enough, that too much water or steam is coming from the hot water overflow pipe on your roof, that the geyser is making strange humming, hissing or cracking noises, or you notice wet spots near the geyser, disaster may be around the corner and it must be inspected immediately.
  6. Quick hands: If your geyser bursts, switch off the electricity mains immediately, turn off the water mains, and call your plumber and insurer.

“Even with all these boxes checked, there’s a chance that the unforeseen may happen. Always make sure that you have an emergency plan in place, the numbers of emergency services saved and that you are sufficiently insured”, concludes Coetzee.