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Tom Corbett

Avoid common household hazards for happy holiday season in your home

by Tom Corbett

The holiday season is the time to take a break and enjoy the company of family and friends. ‘Tis the season for devouring turkey and giving thanks, lighting the menorah, throwing tinsel on the Christmas tree, having snowball fights and toasting the arrival of a new year.

I look back fondly on the holidays of my childhood in the southwest neighborhood of Beverly, especially the year that I realized that Jim Beam and Jack Daniels weren’t the names of neighbors or Dad’s colleagues from work.

But as I cast my home inspector’s eye back over holidays past, I also shudder to think of several holiday-related and general winter safety hazards that, thankfully, the Corbett family managed to avoid. What should we watch out for during the holidays? How can we protect our families’ health without compromising all the fun? Here are a few suggestions:

· Clever cooking. Every Thanksgiving Day, my mother slaved for hours over two ovens that contained eight burners to produce a feast for about 10 people. Those ovens expelled nearly 160,000 BTUs of natural gas into our home and the resulting carbon monoxide fumes easily could have made us dizzy, nauseated or worse, but luckily mom had the sense to cook with the kitchen door open. This Thanksgiving, consider opening the front and rear doors for a short period every hour while the oven is on. Look at it this way: getting all that fresh air may help you stomach an extra glass of wine.

· Keep the romance alive, but don’t let it become life threatening. I’ll admit that candles and roaring fires are beautiful and even a little romantic, but please treat both with kid gloves. My mom used to scatter gorgeous orange and spice-scented candles throughout the house, as many like to do. Make sure these candles are placed out of reach of kids and animals. Lighting too many candles can produce uncomfortable levels of carbon monoxide. The same hazards are present in fireplaces. Safety standards for new fireplaces call for glass doors and a hole in the rear wall to let in oxygen from outside. If you don’t have one of these fireplaces or an alternate venting system, don’t let the fire burn for hours on end, filling your home with noxious fumes.Â

· Cats, Christmas trees and Hanukkah bushes. Decorate your holiday tree carefully. Ours used to arrive in the second week of December, and we’d try to strategically place the electrical lights, angels, metal bells and various swinging ornaments out of reach of whatever animal we had at the time. Christy, one of our many cats, would always make a dash for the tantalizing ornaments, and we had to untangle her from the ornaments more than once. Another piece of advice about Christmas trees: as they age they become brittle and as their already-flammable sap loses moisture it becomes more hazardous. An overturned candle or faulty electrical lights easily can spark a fire in your beautiful tree.

· A shocking thought. Many Chicago homes are more than 40 years old, and often their electrical systems are just as antiquated. Remember that these homes were wired before the advent of microwave ovens, central air and high-tech home theater systems. They’re working hard, so don’t overburden them with too many holiday lights or you could blow a fuse, or worse, start a fire. While we’re on the subject of holiday lights, don’t try to repair those ratty-looking lights because you risk electrocuting yourself. Why not just cough up a few bucks and buy a new set?

As you break out the egg nog (or something a little more potent) this holiday season, please keep these basic safety messages in mind. Happy holidays and happy new year to you and your family from all of us at Tomacor.

Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc., (312-475-0835), a property consulting company that specializes in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work. E-mail your home renovation and construction questions to Tom at

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