How to Make Your Garage Safer
Most of us keep our homes free of safety hazards. We may have child safety locks, smoke detectors and would likely never store toxic chemicals where children or pets could get to them.
But many people routinely store potentially unsafe chemicals, tools and other “toxic or dangerous junk” in increasingly cluttered garages. All that toxic clutter can easily cause accidents and fires.
Yes, we know. Garages are great for stashing all of those junky things that you just can’t part with. And we know you need to keep that ½ full can of lime green paint just in case that gardening bench you painted needs a touch-up (when did you paint that anyway…was it really 8 years ago?).
Clutter is hard to deal with. But with a little planning you can in fact make your garage less cluttered and much safer for your family and pets. So plan to start today using these helpful hints!
Schedule garage clean-up annually and on a good weather weekend
If you do a clean-up at least once a year it will become more manageable. So just like you may already mark your calendar to remind you to change out your smoke-alarm batteries twice a year (you do that, right?), pick a weekend for your annual garage clean-out chore, too. Pick a good weather time of the year, not during the cold of winter or heat of mid-summer. You are more likely to work out in your garage if you can open all of the doors and let the fresh air in.
Start by turning up the light!
One common safety issue with garages is that they are usually cramped, unorganized and have insufficient lighting. And with poor lighting more injuries are likely to occur due to tripping, slipping or bumping into all that clutter. Use the brightest bulb your sockets are rated for, and if that still isn’t enough purchase a portable lamp or look into rewiring for additional lighting.
Now that you have some light, take a look around for the top safety issues found in garages: Fire hazards, childproofing and security concerns.
Many household items that are generally stored in the garage often contain toxic, reactive, ignitable, or corrosive ingredients: paints, pesticides, cleaning products, gardening and swimming pool additives, batteries and more! These products can be fire hazards as well as are a safety concern around children and pets.
Because of the way garages are constructed and the flammable materials they generally contain, garage fires tend to spread farther faster, and cause more injuries and dollar losses than fires starting in other areas of the home. Think about what’s in your garage! Gas water heaters and furnaces! Lawn mowers full of gasoline. Extra stored gasoline! Cars filled with flammable gasoline and oil, and tons of toxic “left-overs” such as paint, pesticides, cleaning solvents and more.
According to the United States Fire Administration (USFA), every year there are 6,600 garage fires in homes that result in an average of 30 deaths, 400 injuries, and $457 million in property loss!
And yet it is rare that someone will put a smoke detector or fire extinguisher in their garage.
The number one fire hazard in garages is electrical-related
Old, damaged electrical wiring, shorts in wiring or simply overloading the circuits causes most problems. Using power strips and extension cords that are not rated for outside use can be dangerous.
These issues are easily preventable. As you do your annual clean-up, take note of the condition of all visible wiring, cords and power strips. Toss anything that looks frayed or pinched. If not rated for outside use, take it inside and buy an appropriately rated replacement. Don’t overload outlets or create a tangle of cords. Never leave power tools plugged in (important for child safety, too).
It’s a great idea to keep a fire extinguisher in the garage. You want one rated ABC, as this will extinguish fires that are related to ordinary combustibles (A rated: wood, plastics), flammable liquids (B rated: oil, gasoline, paint, etc.) and electrical (C rated: wiring, fuse boxes, etc.). You should also read instructions on how to use it! And never use one unless it is safe to do so, meaning, the fire is contained to a very small space. It is more important to evacuate family from the house and call 911.
Flammable chemicals are the next thing you need to sort through and remove
The best way to keep your garage safe from fire hazards is to routinely clean up, recycle and get rid of hazardous waste. “Hazardous waste” refers to chemicals that should not be poured down household drains, sewer systems, and the like. Nor should hazardous wastes be tossed into the regular household trash. These wastes are harmful to the environment and toxic to people, are in many cases flammable, and need proper disposal.
Many communities have special facilities available where residents can drop off almost all types of household hazardous waste (HHW). Some manufacturers and retailers of certain products (paint stores, automotive stores, etc.) may have programs where they will recycle toxic HHW items they sell. You can do a search at search.Earth911.com to find out the nearest waste collection agency that you can use for different types of household hazardous waste.
Here’s a run-down of some typical flammable household hazardous wastes you may find unsafely stored in your garage.
Household batteries, fluorescent bulbs, compact fluorescent bulbs, thermometers containing mercury, e-waste (especially computer monitors and TVs):
- Batteries may contain lithium, mercury or silver. Rechargeable batteries contain cadmium and nickel. Automotive batteries contain lead and sulfuric acid.
- Most fluorescent bulbs contain mercury.
- Compact fluorescent light bulbs contain small amounts of mercury and many states have banned mercury containing light bulbs from being disposed of in landfill. Many consumers have started using CFL’s but may not be aware they should not be tossed into the trash. Learn more about CFL’s on the Environmental Protection Agency’s site here.
- Old TVs and computer monitors can contain mercury paste and circuit boards with cadmium and lead.
- All of these materials are toxic to people (through the skin, swallowed or inhaled), as well as the environment and should never be thrown out in your regular household trash. Take them to HHW drop-offs…and even better, don’t use toxic replacements if you can avoid it (for example, buy thermometers containing no mercury).
- Ammonia and bleach should never be stored together! If mixed they will create a toxic gas.
- Drain cleaner, tile cleaner and more
Old paint and left-over paint supplies
- Older paints can actually contain lead, but all left-over paint should be disposed of at a HHW drop-off. Prior to taking your paint there let it dry out by leaving the top off (unless your recycling center wants to re-use it). Paint and all related painting materials are very toxic and usually highly flammable. Most garages are full of old paint.
- Aerosol cans that are still partially full can explode if exposed to heat or punctured, and they contain many chemicals. Take them to a HHW drop off site.
- Used motor oil is toxic and highly flammable, as are most automotive supplies such as used antifreeze. Garages that offer oil changes will often accept used oil. Do not throw oil down the drain or in your everyday trash. Antifreeze can cause death in people and animals and is known to be a chemical that children are often attracted to as it is usually a pretty blue color. Windshield wiper fluid, too. Some of that is made with methanol which is highly toxic. Even a sip or two can cause serious health issues.
- Store gasoline in another location if possible and always fill gas-powered equipment outside versus inside the garage.
- Use kitty litter or sawdust on oil spills.
- Carbon Monoxide – never run your car in the garage with the door shut, and be sure to install a carbon monoxide detector near ground level inside your home, nearest to the garage and/or over the garage if there is a living space located there.
Gardening and pool supplies
- What garage doesn’t have shelves full of pesticides? Herbicides, insecticides and pesticides are all highly toxic to people and pets. Many are not biodegradable so do accumulate in the environment. Some are dangerous to pollinators like bees. Take to a HHW drop-off.
- Swimming pool chemicals are often corrosive and flammable.
Along with cleaning out the toxic chemicals mentioned above, some of the top childproofing tasks you should undertake in your garage include:
- Storing kids’ toys somewhere else! Given the dangers in the typical garage it is best to keep the garage as a place to put cars and tools and not for use as a playground. If you must use it for children, and only after kid-proofing your entire garage, store kids’ toys at ground level in one area. A lot of injuries occur when people pull toys and sports equipment from higher shelves.
- Install childproof locks on all cabinets and drawers, and cover electrical outlets.
- Disconnect power tools when not in use and store them in locked or out-of-reach cabinets.
- Lock parked cars and maintain strict rules against children playing in them.
- Store ladders in a horizontal position so kids cannot climb them; ensure attic ladders cannot be pulled down by children.
- Test electric garage door openers to ensure they have a photoelectric safety sensor with an automatic reverse in case a child is underneath the door. Some doors have finger-trap protection. Make sure the door-opener wall button is too high for young children to reach.
- Hang all gardening tools and brooms out of reach or store in a locked cabinet.
- Do not leave rope or power cords within reach.
- Never store an out-of-use appliance in your garage without removing the door. Use Velcro strips on the top of any fridge or freezer door to keep kids from opening it.
Garages are often the least secure “room” in your house. Part of that is structure, and part is habit. Many people do not routinely lock one or more of the doors in their garage, for example.
Things you can do to your garage to make it more secure from entry/theft
- Install a more secure lock on the entry door that separates your garage from your home. It is typically not reinforced with dead bolts or other security. It is considered a weak security spot in your home, and also, many people do not routinely lock it.
- Install a more secure lock on the service door, which is the door that separates the garage from the outside. This is considered by many as the weakest security spot relating to entry into a home. It should have a dead-bolt and ideally a heavy-duty strike plate.
- Use window coverings to conceal contents of the garage.
- Install motion detector lighting. Very efficient for your own use and will draw attention should someone uninvited set the lights off.
- Check your garage door opener to see if it can be “fished”. Fishing is when someone accesses your overhead garage door’s emergency release, perhaps through a garage window, and pulls it in such a way that they can open the door manually.
- Consider physically locking the overhead-garage door when going on vacation. Most garages have holes on the overhead-door track where you can actually padlock it shut (or you can drill a hole).
- You can also consider installing a security system.
One last garage safety note: Emergency Preparation!
Congratulations if you’ve committed yourself to an annual clean-out to keep your garage safer for your family.
One last task you might want to add to your annual garage safety checklist is relating to emergency preparation.
There are a lot of things one should do to prepare for an emergency but a few things specific to the garage are referenced below. Note that by removing all of the hazardous household wastes from your garage you’ll have already reduced your risk for fire!
- Lock all over-head cabinets with re-usable ties or cabinet locks to keep items from shifting and falling during an earthquake.
- Have the needed tools and have read the “how to” instructions for shutting off gas, electricity and water in case of earthquake or other natural disaster.
- Have your water heater and any other large appliances strapped to the wall. Many cities have code requirements for water heaters.
- Know how to manually open your electric garage door in case you lose power.
- If you use a generator do not run it inside the garage (due to carbon monoxide).
- If you are in a flood area, be especially wary of the location of your electrical cords and appliances.
- Many people store their emergency supplies in the garage, but since it is not climate controlled (it may be excessively hot or humid) be aware you may need to rotate your supplies more often.