July, 2015
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

It’s Time to Fire up the Grill … Safely



that allow for easy-access outdoor grilling throughout the year, the majority of us anticipate the arrival of summer “grill season,” when we can leave the kitchen behind and easily use the outdoor grill to make a delicious meal. Summer’s also the season when grilling can go wrong — with results much worse than a badly charred steak. The unsafe use of grills can be dangerous to both people and home properties.

In fact, the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) warns that July is the peak time for fires involving outdoor grills. In about half of the fires associated with outdoor grills, the first thing that ignites is a flammable or combustible gas or liquid. Grill fires coupled with wind gusts or excess gas hanging in the air can quickly and severely injure people standing nearby, as well as potentially damage a home’s exterior.

So, whether you are on the job inspecting a home or firing up your own grill to prepare burgers for dinner, be sure to check the safety of the grill.

Read the Manual

Nearly half of all injuries involving grills are thermal burns, most of which are preventable if you follow safety guidelines. For example, you might have heard about the incident that happened in 2012 to ESPN SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm. The grill’s initial flame went out as she was preparing to cook dinner on a cold evening. When she tried to restart the grill’s burner immediately (instead of waiting 15 minutes, as recommended in the user’s manual), the result was a small fireball rolling back at her, causing severe burns on her face, neck, chest and hands.

What happened to Hannah Storm could happen to anyone who’s grilling. She now says, “It’s important to tell and share this story because it was a very simple mistake that I made, but it was a very common mistake. People all over the world grill and they grill all the time, and most of the people that I know really don’t understand the proper procedures.”

Since recovering from her burn injuries, she’s worked with the NFPA to create home fire safety public service announcements (www.nfpa.org/hannah). One of her goals is to encourage people to take the time to read their grill’s instruction manual, which she admits she’d never done before her accident.

Another advocate for being familiar with the user’s manual is Food Network’s Alton Brown. He said, “I know how to turn a gas grill on and off, but I still make a point to read what the manufacturer says about it.” The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) also recommends following manufacturer’s instructions and using caution, especially when connecting or disconnecting liquid petroleum (propane gas) containers. Doing this possibly boring, but very simple, task and then following the instructions you learn can prevent a serious accident from occurring when you use your grill.

Choose the right place

Another important step is to put the grill in its proper place. Most guidelines generally suggest placing your grill a safe distance away from the home and any deck railings. CPSC guidelines state that grills should be placed at least 10 feet away from a house or any building, and that grills should not be used in a garage, breezeway, carport, porch or under a surface that can catch fire. Also, outdoor grills should not be used indoors because grilling or burning in an enclosed area can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning or contact with flammable materials. For maximum safety, it’s a good idea to place your outdoor grill on a rock or cement surface and to keep a fire extinguisher handy.

In line with these common sense guidelines, ASHI Executive Director Frank Lesh offers a practical tip that a grill should be placed far enough away from the home that a person can easily walk between the grill and the house. He notes, “That’s a reasonable, safe distance. The heat generated by grills placed closer to the house can cause damage. Specifically, synthetic stucco and vinyl siding could melt and wood siding could catch fire.”

In an ASHI Reporter article from May 2006, Lesh provided more details. “In a typical home inspection of a house clad with Exterior Insulation and Finish System (EIFS), it’s important to know what to look for without doing an EIFS inspection and moisture analysis. A home inspector should be sure that the homeowner does not have a barbecue grill too close to the house because the heat from the grill can cause the foam layer of the EIFS to melt. If this has already happened, you’ll see a smooth indentation that follows the contour of the grill.”

Grill safely and grill often

Whatever your preference — chicken, vegetables, red meat, fruit, pork, fish or even dessert — be sure to safely enjoy the fleeting summer months of grilling. You could even try some of these grilling ideas gathered from various foodie websites:

  • Use high heat when grilling ground beef burgers to sear the outsides and seal in the juices.
  • When grilling extra-lean meats, add moist ingredients for juiciness and extra seasonings for flavor and use medium heat.
  • Grill fruit — try pineapple, plums or watermelon for a delicious side dish. Put a chipotle rub on your choice of shrimp or meat to make a great flavor combination.
  • Squeeze lemons and oranges over the chicken as it cooks. This trick moistens the skin, which in turn prevents flare-ups, and the taste is excellent.

Know what to look for

Several features on a grill can be checked during a home inspection. Refer to the NFPA website for video tutorials featuring how to carry out items on the following list:

  • Check inside the grill and clear out any animal nests or insects, as these can be combustible and block the gas line.
  • Examine the gas line from the source to the burners. Check the gas line for leaks or cracks.
    • Turn on the gas supply. Spray or brush a soap and water solution (liquid from a bottle of bubbles works as well) along the gas line. If there’s a gas leak, the reaction with the gas causes bubbles to form around the leak.
    • If the grill has a gas leak (indicated by smell or by the results of the soapy bubble test) and there is no flame, turn off the gas tank and the grill’s burners. Even if the leak stops, call a professional to service the grill before it is used again. If the leak doesn’t stop, call the fire department immediately.
  • Check and tighten any loose connections between the gas supply to where it connects to the burners.
  • If the cook smells gas while cooking, he or she should move away from the grill and call the fire department immediately. Do not move the grill.

NFPA's Grilling Safety Tips

  • Propane and charcoal BBQ grills should only be used outdoors.
  • Place the grill well away from the home, any deck railings and out from under eaves and overhanging branches.
  • Keep children and pets away from the grill area.
  • Keep the grill clean by removing grease or fat buildup from the grills and in trays below the grill.
  • Never leave your grill unattended.

Sources Consulted

Ahrens M. Home fires involve cooking equipment. NFPA Report. November 2013. www.nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/fire-causes/appliances-and-equipment/cooking-equipment.

Carli L. The 5 rules of grilling safety. www.marthastewart.com/1113127/5-rules-grilling-safely.

Chillot, R. Playing with fire: what you can learn from one man’s barbecue phobia. Prevention. November 3, 2011. www.prevention.com/food/cook/5-grill-safety-tips-safe-cookouts.

National Fire Protection Association. ESPN SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm urges others to learn from her accident and grill safely. www.nfpa.org/safety-information/for-consumers/outdoors/grilling/espn-sportscenter-anchor-hannah-storm-urges-others-to-learn-from-her-accident-and-grill-safely.

National Fire Protection Association. Grilling safety tips. www.nfpa.org/safety-information/for-consumers/outdoors/grilling/grilling-safety-tips.

National Fire Protection Association. Grilling. www.nfpa.org/grilling. Accessed May 24, 2015.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

CPSC releases grill safety tips. News Release #97128. May 20, 1997. www.cpsc.gov/en/Newsroom/News-Releases/1997/CPSC-Releases-Grill-Safety-Tips/.

Carol Dikelsky recently joined the ASHI Reporter editorial team. Her experience includes more than 20 years of editing, writing and managing projects for a variety of association, health care and local publications.