Fire SafetyThe start of winter means it’s time to shift your thoughts from keeping your barn cool to keeping it warm. But your efforts may be increasing the risk of a barn fire occurring, as fires are commonly caused by the misuse or malfunction of portable electric heaters and appliances in barn environments.

In case you think you don’t use any portable electric appliances, consider your radios, clippers, animal vacuum groomers, dryers, heat tape, water heating coils, heated water buckets, stock tank warmers, fence chargers, portable heaters and heat lamps, extension cords…did I leave anything out? Amazing, isn’t it, how many electrical items are used in our barns or connected to its electrical supply, and we don’t give them a second’s thought. Let’s check out a few of the most common portable appliances known for causing fire.


These can pose a problem if they are not attended because once the water has boiled out, the coil will continue to heat the bucket, allowing the heat to transfer to adjacent materials. In November of 2000, 20 Standardbreds lost their lives in a fire believed to have been caused by a portable submersible electric water heater. The 1,300-watt heater was placed in a plastic bucket despite the manufacturer’s recommendation that it should only be used in metal containers. Officials recovered the remains of the two-foot-long metal coil, with melted plastic stuck to it, against a wooden wall where the fire started.

In Lebanon, Ohio, 35 horses died in 1989 in a fire apparently started by an electric water bucket heater. A disconnected prong that was still warm had been placed in a bucket near some rags, setting the cloth afire when a gust of wind blew the bucket over.

Don’t take chances with anything that heats up! If you’re using an electric water bucket heater, stay right with it for the entire time you’re using it. When you’re done with it, hang it from a hook in an open area and leave it there until it has completely cooled.

If you live in a colder climate where winter temperatures are low enough to freeze drinking water in buckets, you can get several types of heater that are either built into the bucket or applied to the outside of it. Before buying an electrically heated bucket, however, ask your fire inspector or building official about the fire safety level of the heater you’re interested in. You don’t want to install buckets only to see your barn burn down because a horse (or other animal) chomped on an exposed electric cord.


The problem with heaters of any type is that if they blow or radiate on bedding, hay, cloth or even leather, they can quickly create the potential for fire by drying out these materials, which makes them more susceptible to reaching their ignition point. Before you add heat – for whatever reason – please carefully consider if it’s really necessary. For newborn animals that need extra warmth, special wool covers (blankets) are available. Non-electric thermal pads are available from several pet supply companies, and can be used for newborn litters; or, if you can sew, you can make these pads yourself (see sidebar on next page). If a heat lamp is absolutely required, make entirely certain that the bulb is completely encased in a protective guard, not merely a few cross wires.

A number of years ago, research demonstrated that the length of daylight affected the condition of a horse’s hair coat, so some people took to using sunlamps and extra light sources to keep coats in prime condition. It was an unwise shortcut. In addition to high levels of heat generation, the unguarded units were used as “playthings”, and in several instances horses broke the bulbs and electrocuted themselves. In 1996, a horse at Belmont Park was killed in a fire that started when he reared and toppled a heat lamp, which then set some hay on fire. Hair coats can be kept in good shape by other methods.

And every winter, hundreds of newborn piglets, chicks, kids and lambs are killed by fires started when heat lamps are knocked over or fall onto bedding. Every barn fire caused by a heat lamp that destroyed lives and property was totally preventable.


Any electric appliance permanently installed in your barn, including hot water tanks, treadmills, and insect-control devices, should be routinely inspected by a qualified electrician. All electrical devices need to be cleaned every three months. A can of compressed air is usually all that is needed.

Firefighter Jim Schlabach, a member of the Clarence, New York Fire Department, was at a barn fire in 1991 that was caused by a faulty electric hot water tank. “We had a horse stable and riding arena burn,” he says. “The alarm was sounded at 1:30AM. The building was 200’ by 160’ and fire was showing throughout the entire length when we arrived – 40 horses perished and the building was a total loss. Only three horses were saved.”

Perhaps a routine inspection of that hot water tank would have found a potential problem and averted the fire. But since there’s no way of knowing if an inspection might have produced a different outcome, why take chances? Inspections are cheap insurance.

If you are using a portable electric appliance, you should remain on the scene while it’s running. When you leave your barn, all portable appliances should be disconnected – not just turned off, but unplugged. If you’re temporarily using an extension cord, make sure it’s a heavy duty industrial grade cord, not a lightweight extension cord you would use in your home.

Think about how many fires are reported in the middle of the night by someone driving by a farm and seeing smoke or flames – you could have a fire in your barn and not even know it until it’s too late, especially when your barn is “closed up” to keep out the cold. Make this winter a lot safer by using every alternative you can to keep portable electric appliances out of your barn.

Make a Non-Electric Thermal Pad

Here’s what you’ll need:

• Fabric for the covering

• Heavy-duty foil

• Bubble wrap

• Suitable fabric stuffing/stiffening/fiberfill to make bolster/pillow borders if desired Any fabric or craft store should have these materials, although you may have to get your bubble wrap at an office supply store. Make sure all your materials are washable so you can clean the pad as needed.

Essentially, the pad is made in layers:

1. The bubble wrap, wrapped in heavy-duty foil, goes in the center of the pad.

2. Above and below the foil-wrapped bubble wrap, place stiffeners if desired or just layer your fiberfill material above and below the foil layer.

3. Machine stitch three sides of the outer cover fabric, insert the layered materials, and either machine or hand stitch the fourth side closed.

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Laurie Loveman is an author, fire department officer, and a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) technical committee on fire and life safety in animal housing facilities. She has a degree in fire and safety engineering technology from the University of Cincinnati and is a consultant on fire safety in equine facilities. With more than 40 years experience in the horse industry, Laurie has written many articles for equine and fire service publications, and her Firehouse Family novels, set in the 1930s, reflect her interest not just in horses, but in topics relevant to firefighting, such as stress, medical ethics and arson.