What is Spontaneous Combustion?


Did you know that refinishing hardwood floors can be extremely dangerous if you're not careful? What if we told you that it could even cause a house fire if your supplies are handled incorrectly? That's a is a terrifying thought, and it has happened to innocent homeowners who were just trying to maintain their floors. It breaks our hearts to think of the damage caused by a simple oversight, which is why we wanted to talk to you today about something called spontaneous combustion.

So, what do we mean by spontaneous combustion when talking about flooring?

Simply put, it is a fire-causing reaction to that occurs during the drying process of the oil-based finishes, stains, and sealers that are used on the wood. Oil doesn't dry the same way that materials like paint do. Rather than having water or solvent evaporated out of the product, electrons are lost, causing heat. This phenomena is called oxidation.

Now, we want to be clear that most cases of spontaneous combustion don't actually start in your floor, though this is the source you probably thought of first. Nope. Instead, it usually begins in the rags you used to apply that oil. Often people will toss oily rags aside in a pile to be cleaned or thrown away later. Innocent enough, right? The problem is that the rags are a great insulator that allow heat to build around the drying oil. If left there long enough, the rags will start to smoke and eventually burst into flame.

Note: The same thing can happen when sanding a hardwood floor that has an oil-based finish on it. If sawdust is left sitting in a pile or in the bag of your sander for too long it will insulate the oils and begin a fire.

What can I do to prevent spontaneous combustion?

Good question!

Let's start with safety precautions.

1) Read the labels of the finish, sealer, or stain that you'd like to use before buying it to see if it is oil-based. If you're not sure, ask a professional.

2) Be sure to have a fire extinguisher on site when refinishing your floor. Our hope is that you will never need it, but it's best to have it around in case of an emergency.

3) Have a backup plan if you are unable to get a fire extinguisher for some reason. If a rag catches on fire outside, you can cover it with dirt or douse it with water and leave it until you are sure the threat is gone. Should a fire begin indoors, evacuate the area immediately and call the fire department.

Now for the sander. This one is pretty simple if you're diligent about monitoring where you are in the sanding process. Never let sawdust sit in the sander or in a pile for too long. Once the bag is filled halfway, empty it. Dispose of the sawdust in a safe place away from your home (ex. A fire pit or compost pile).

And last but not least, the rags. You can begin to eliminate the threat of spontaneous combustion by spreading the rags out to dry in a well-ventilated area or outside (preferred). Either lay them flat or hang them over something metal, but make sure they are in a spot where they won't be blown away or exposed to excess heat. Give them about two days to cure, not just dry, completely. When you pick them up, they should feel stiff.

Once the rags are cured you can dispose of them. Send them out with the trash on trash day (don't put the rags in the trash until the last minute) or do some research to see if there are any places nearby that have the right equipment to incinerate them. This is a more extreme measure, but an option to look into if you're still nervous about them.

Final Thoughts:

As much as we'd love to take care of your hardwood floors for you, we certainly don't wish tragedy on anyone who is trying to refinish their floors by themselves. If you have any questions about the refinishing process and how to remain safe during it, please call us or a flooring professional in your area. You can also find plenty of information online about it.

Making your hardwood floor look new again should be exciting for you and your family. Take these steps toward safety and it will be!

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