Don't worry: This is not an alarmist "How Your House Can Kill You" article. Rather, it's a reminder that a few inexpensive, commonsense measures can protect you and your family from serious harm, such as falls, burns, and fires that cause hundreds of deaths and injuries a year. Because, while your home may not be out to get you, it is a fact that the worst tragedies in life are the ones that could have been prevented.  

Install Lifesaving Alarms

A working smoke alarm should be on each level of your home, including the attic and basement. Why? Between 2009 and 2013, fires in homes with no smoke alarms caused an average of 940 deaths per year, and an additional 510 people per year were killed in fires in which smoke alarms were present but failed to operate, according to the National Fire Protection Association. For most locations, choose a smoke alarm with both a photoelectric sensor (for smoldering fires) and an ionization sensor (for fast-flaming fires). Keep the latter away from the kitchen and baths. It’s also wise to choose interconnected alarms so that if a fire breaks out in the basement, you’ll be alerted even if you’re asleep on an upper floor.

If your house has a gas dryer, range, other fuel-burning equipment, or an attached garage, you should also have a carbon monoxide (CO) alarm on each living level, as well as in the basement and near the garage. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on placement.

We recommend testing smoke and CO alarms at least monthly. And it’s not a bad idea to vacuum them occasionally to prevent dust from interfering with their sensors. See the user’s manual to find out how often to replace batteries and the devices themselves, based on the life expectancy of their sensors.

Eliminate Trip Hazards

Your own house may seem like the safest space in which to walk around, but more than 10,000 people die each year after falls at home. Many more than that are injured. To prevent these types of accidents, start by arranging furniture so that it’s not in the way on your typical routes around the house; no obstructions should be between your bed and the door to your room, for example. Position pet bowls and electrical cords along walls rather than across pathways. And get piles of paper off the ground.

Also, remove throw rugs, which can skid, or keep them in place with carpet tacks or double-sided carpet tape. (Wall-to-wall carpeting is really your safest bet.) Put a rubber mat or nonslip strips in your bathtub, and install grab bars there as well. And if you’re remodeling, consider going with anti-slip flooring materials wherever possible.  

Don’t Get Burned

In 2011, an estimated 486,000 people in the U.S. were treated for burn injuries, and many of them were children, according to the National Safety Council. Lowering the maximum temperature of your water heater to 120° F can help prevent scalds but might invite opportunistic bacteria—including Legionella, associated with Legionnaires’ disease—to proliferate. (Check the heater’s manual to find the temperature ranges for each setting.)

To balance both risks, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration advocates setting domestic water heaters to a temperature of 140° F and using anti-scald devices such as thermostatic mixing valves at each faucet. The devices, which mix hot and cold water to a safe temperature before letting it flow from the faucet, are increasingly common in the plumbing systems of newer homes and are often built into newer fixtures. And certain shower fixtures allow you to set a temperature limit. A licensed plumber can inspect your system and install them where needed. “Most point-of-use valves are under $50 and can be installed in less than a half hour,” says Henry James, technical training manager at water-heater manufacturer A.O. Smith. You can save money by installing a single anti-scald valve for your entire house.


Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.