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James J. Shields - Mechanical Engineering Expert

Case Synopsis - A family wanted to add a self-contained heater for their home living room for use upon the loss of in-home AC (Alternating Current) power. They went to a nearby Home & Building Supply store to select and purchase a heater. The store salesman recommended a kerosene heater, which could provide independent heat upon a loss of power. The salesman recommended a kerosene heater rated at 23,000 BTU/Hour, and as a feature of the heater sale, he assembled the heater and provided brief operating instructions on its use.

Shortly after the heater was put into service in the first floor living room, fumes and smoke emanated from the heater during operation, causing soot on the walls and ceiling, and extending into the upstairs bedrooms. The homeowner contacted the store, where the heater had been purchased, but received only limited advice about Ignition and Wick adjustments to address the operating problems. Since the heater could not be adjusted to operate properly by the homeowner, it was eventually taken out of service and placed in storage in the homeowner's garage. The heater remained in storage until legal action could be taken by the homeowner to recover the costs of repairing the damage to the home.

Expert Analysis - Kerosene heaters have been in existence for decades for use as supplemental heaters or for the purpose of emergency heat upon the loss of power. Although kerosene heaters, under controlled conditions, are sometimes used inside the home, they are more suitable for use in an open garage or patio, where adequate ventilation is always present. In addition, there are inherent operational and maintenance problems when they are used, which only users experienced with the nuances of liquid fuel combustion involving oil-soaked wicks and burners are capable of handling on a daily, or even hourly basis. Examples of such pressing issues taken from the Owner's Manual are:

  • Placement of kerosene heater.
  • Safe handling of kerosene.
  • Proper adjustment of the wick at Ignition, 5-7 minutes after Ignition, and every 30 minutes thereafter during heater operation.
  • Proper positioning of the burner. (Moving from side to side)
  • Flame adjustment-Recognition of correct flame height-Raising/Lowering of the wick, depending on the constantly varying operational conditions of the heater.
  • Trouble-shooting in the event of: odor, smoke, soot, carbonized wick.
  • Cleaning and/or replacement of wick; igniter assembly.

The manual also states that the heater should not be operated unattended. In essence, an operator of a kerosene heater must devote his (or her) full attention to the operation of the heater (much like the driving of a car) to preclude negative effects, or shut down the heater until such time as undivided attention can be provided.

Conclusion - Considering the numerous requirements for the proper operation of a kerosene heater, the sales person should have reviewed safety operating procedures and technical issues with the customer(s) to insure these were properly understood, prior to the sale. In addition, they should have known that the two family members, who purchased the heater, were not capable of coping with the dangers and technical issues that were inherent in a kerosene heater, not to mention the unattended operation that the heater required. The fact that the kerosene heater, according to legal documents presented by the heater manufacturer and Home & Building Supply Store, was not operated in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions, simply confirmed the fact that the wrong heater was specified by the store's sales person. The sales person should have selected another type heater, such as one that was available with natural gas-firing to satisfy the customers' needs upon the loss of power. If the sales person had only asked, the purchaser could have stated that natural gas was available in the home, and he (or she) could have proposed a portable gas-fired radiant heater or a free standing gas stove. Either of these gas-fired heaters would have been more easily operated as ON-OFF with minimal attention, without having to deal with all the complexities and constant attention required in the operation of a kerosene heater. The homeowner(s) would only have had to contract with a plumber to run a new gas line to the location of the new gas-fired heater. As a result of a lack of "do diligence" by the store, the homeowner(s) unwittingly attempted to operate a kerosene heater, which was well beyond their combined technical capability.

It was noted that the companies that market kerosene heaters did not properly label the shipping cartons on where the heater should be placed and how it should be used, and as well did not caution the stores against selling kerosene heaters to inexperienced users. Even if the kerosene heater had been placed at an acceptable location and properly set up for initial operation by a capable technician, this case proved that a kerosene heater cannot be left alone during operation, and will require constant monitoring and/or adjustment by the user.

Result: Case Settled out of Court

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James J. Shields Engineering & Consulting Services based on over 45 years experience in the design, startup, and trouble-shooting of: piping systems, fluid machinery and auxiliary equipment (pumps, compressors, storage tanks, heat exchangers, filters, separators, valves) instrumentation, and controls in utility and industrial power plants.

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