Garage Fires: Prevention, Protection, and Preparedness

For many homeowners, a fire burning down their house is one of their worst nightmares. If your garage is solely used for parking your car, it is a reasonably low fire risk.

However, if you use your garage as a workshop, then the risk increases considerably. What’s worse, the risk of garage fires increases exponentially if the storage in your garage is messy. 

To prevent garage fires, your first need to identify the potential combustible and flammable items in your garage, then look at what ‘fuel’ there is for a fire.

After you’ve identified these two factors, you can mitigate the risk and keep your garage safe.


Common Flammable & Combustible Garage Items

Garages typically have several items that are highly flammable or combustible. 

Before we start, it’s worth clarifying the difference between the terms ‘flammable’ and ‘combustible.’ 

Although both refer to materials that can ignite and burn, there is a subtle difference between the two terms. 

A fire that started in the garage, blazing out of control

Flammable materials catch fire easily and can burn rapidly, while combustible materials require more heat or longer exposure to a flame to ignite. Once ignition occurs, combustible materials can still burn quickly and vigorously. 

Here are some of the most flammable or combustible items in the garage:

  1. Gasoline: Gasoline is highly flammable and will ignite easily if exposed to a spark or flame.
  2. Propane Tanks: Propane is commonly used for grilling and other outdoor activities. It is highly flammable and should be stored in a safe and designated area. Never use a propane grill inside your garage.
  3. Motor Oil: Oil is often used for cars, lawnmowers, and other equipment in the garage. It is highly flammable and can ignite if exposed to a spark or flame.
  4. Paint: Many types of paint contain flammable solvents. Store paint in a cool, dry, and well-ventilated area away from heat sources.
  5. Cleaning Supplies: Many cleaning chemicals contain flammable solvents. Keep them separate from other flammable materials.
  6. Pesticides: Many pesticides can contain flammable solvents. Keep these away from heat sources and other flammable materials.
  7. Wood: Ideally, wood and lumber should be stored outside. At minimum, store them away from heat sources or machinery.
  8. Paper products:┬áPaper products such as newspapers, magazines, and cardboard moving boxes can easily ignite. It’s best to store them in sealed plastic containers or totes.

When storing these items in the garage, it’s important to take precautions to minimize the risk of fire. 

This means storing them away from heat sources, ensuring proper ventilation, and regularly inspecting them for signs of damage or leaks. Additionally, it’s vital to properly dispose of any old or unused materials to prevent the build-up of combustible materials in the garage.


How Do Most Garage Fires Start?

Garages can be a potential fire hazard due to the presence of flammable liquids, such as gasoline, oil, propane, and electrical equipment and tools. 

We’ll dive into the three most common ways garage fires start in more detail. 

Electrical Malfunctions

Electrical issues are one of the most common causes of fires in garages. 

This includes frayed wires, overloaded circuits, or faulty outlets that can create sparks and ignite flammable materials like gasoline, oil, and propane. 

Poor electrical wiring and overloader power strips can also create so much heat that it melts and ignites the surrounding combustible materials.

When it comes to garage fire prevention and electrical issues, ensure that all electrical wiring and outlets are up to code and in good condition.

Start by checking wiring for frayed or damaged sections. Then verify all outlets are properly grounded. 

Avoid overloading circuits by plugging too many devices into one outlet or using extension cords as a permanent solution. 

It’s better to install additional outlets if needed.

In addition to these preventive measures, it’s a good idea to have a professional electrician inspect the electrical system in the garage periodically to ensure that it is up to code and in good condition. 

This can help identify potential issues before they become a problem and minimize the risk of electrical fires in the garage.

improper gasoline storage is a major cause of garage fires

Flammable Liquids 

Flammable liquids are another common cause of fires in garages. 

We’ve all probably got extra gasoline, motor oil, or propane in our garages. 

They’re all highly flammable and can ignite quickly if exposed to a spark or flame. It’s essential to store these materials in a safe and designated area away from any heat sources, sparks, or flames.

When storing flammable liquids in the garage, use appropriate containers designed for the specific type of liquid being stored. 

Always store gasoline in an approved gasoline container with a secure lid. In contrast, store oil and propane in their original containers or other approved storage containers.

Avoid storing flammable materials near other combustible materials, such as paper or cardboard, as this can increase the risk of fire.

When possible, ensure that your garage has adequate ventilation to prevent the build-up of fumes. An exhaust fan is the best option, but something as simple as opening the windows can also help. 

Regularly inspect containers for signs of damage or leaks and properly dispose of any old or unused materials. Should any spills occur, make sure to thoroughly clean them up immediately. 

It goes without saying that you should avoid smoking or using open flames in the storage area.

Improper Storage

Finally, improper storage of flammable materials is another common cause of fires in garages. 

Many garage fires start by simply storing flammable materials too close to a heat source like a generator or space heater. 

Designate a specific area in the garage for storing flammable materials. This area should be away from any heat sources, such as water heaters or furnaces. Keep the area well-ventilated to prevent the build-up of fumes.

Avoid storing flammable materials near other combustible materials, such as paper, cardboard, or rags. Instead, store flammable materials in a separate area or cabinet specifically designed for that type of material.

You can minimize the risk of garage fires by taking these precautions to eliminate fire hazards.


Garage Fire Detection Devices

You have a few options to help prevent garage fires in your home. These include the tried-and-true smoke detector, carbon monoxide detectors, and heat alarms. 

It might seem like an easy decision to buy a smoke alarm and call it a day. In this section, I’ll explain why that might not be the best idea. 

Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms, by design, sense smoke particles in the air to provide an early warning of a looming fire. While smoke alarms are invaluable in other areas of a home, they’re not recommended in garages. 

Your garage will naturally produce smoke, fumes, or vapors from vehicles, tools, or paints. Unfortunately, this can result in frequent false alarms, which are annoying and erode trust in the device’s reliability. 

Also, garages typically have significant temperature fluctuations and have a lot of dust, insects, and cobwebs, which can be tough on a smoke alarm’s sensors or even damage the device.

Heat Alarms

On the other hand, heat detectors sense changes in temperature, either when it spikes suddenly or when the ambient temperature exceeds a pre-set limit. Homeowners can set heat alarms to either of those settings or a combination of both. 

That makes heat alarms ideal for garages. They are built to withstand the garage’s environmental challenges and can detect fires that might emit little to no smoke, such as electrical fires. 

They can seamlessly integrate with other fire prevention systems, like sprinklers. In places like Massachusetts, the law mandates heat detectors for any garage attached to a residence. 

Ideally, it’s recommended to position them on ceilings or high on walls, away from doors or windows, and interconnect them with the home’s central alarm systems.

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Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Carbon monoxide detectors are crucial in detecting this lethal gas in the air. 

They guard against CO poisoning, a potential outcome of the incomplete combustion seen in cars or heaters. As great as this may seem initially, its debated whether or not they’re good in a residential garage. 

The extreme conditions of most garages, coupled with elements like dirt and insects, could tamper with the sensors, resulting in unwarranted alarms.

For those considering installing them, place the detectors at eye level or lower, ideally closer to potential CO emission sources, and ensure a stable power source.


Wrapping It Up

Whether it’s a space for parking a car or a bustling workshop, understanding the risks associated with garage fires can spell the difference between safety and catastrophe. 

As we’ve seen, several items commonly stored in garages have flammable or combustible properties. Couple these with electrical mishaps, poor storage practices, or an inadequate fire detection system, and the stakes rise exponentially.

Remember to be proactive with garage fire safety. 

This means identifying potential fire hazards, using proper storage techniques, ensuring that electrical systems are up to par, and installing appropriate fire detection devices. And, of course, always keep a fire extinguisher handy.

While each home and garage is unique, the foundational principle remains the same: knowledge, vigilance, and proactive measures can prevent disaster and keep our homes safe. 

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Tim Wells

Tim Wells, the founder of Garage Transformed, has been featured in dozens of home renovation publications, including BobVila.com, Home Stratosphere, House Digest, Livingetc, and SFGate. Since 2018, he has helped over two million people transform their everyday garages into something they can be proud of. He lives in Central Florida with his wife and bulldog.