Beware: Leaky air conditioners can spark fires
Although fire departments do not specifically track such incidents, Palm Beach County firefighters have already extinguished at least three such blazes in the last six months, said Cpt. Doug McGlynn of Palm Beach County Fire Rescue.
The culprit in each case was a leaking air handler in a condo storage closet, which short-circuited electrical equipment underneath.
With South Florida now at its hottest, the risk of such fires is at its peak, experts say. Since January 2011, 215 fires in Florida were related to air conditioners, the state Fire Marshal reported. But it’s a problem easily avoided by keeping drain lines unclogged and having units maintained.
“I would say most people do not properly maintain their AC drain line,” McGlynn said. “It’s 100 percent the homeowner’s responsibility.”
The three condo fires McGlynn knew of — two at Kings Point, west of Delray Beach, and one at Palm Isles, west of Boynton Beach — were small and no one was injured. Smoke detectors alerted the residents early.
In each case, the drain line became clogged and a drainage pan overflowed.
“With the summer, and people keeping their AC units running more often, it’s very common that if you don’t properly maintain your drain line” it can overflow, McGlynn said.
Usually the result is a wet floor. But in many condos, to save space, the water heater is underneath the air conditioning unit. When water dripped, it shorted the heater and sparked, igniting insulation and items stored in the closet.
The precautions homeowners can take are simple.
When an air conditioner turns hot air cold, the moisture condenses and drains outside. Pouring diluted bleach into the pipes can prevent algae from clogging them.
McGlynn recommended having air conditioners checked out twice a year and keeping combustibles, such as broomsticks or paper products, out of the utility closet. He said residents should maintain working smoke detectors.
Some units have floater switches that prevent drainage pans from overflowing by killing the power when the water level rises.
Richard Gathright, who heads the Palm Beach County Building Division, said regulations prevent air conditioners from being installed in bathrooms, for example, but not above water heaters.
“These apartments are not very large, and with these closets, it’s either going to be with the washer/dryer or the water heater,” he said.