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Eric T. Chaffin
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“Safe” Firepots and Fuel Gels?

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It’s been nearly three years since the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), along with nine manufacturers, recalled millions of gel fuel products used in firepots, and now, the market has produced new, “safer” alternatives.

But how safe are these alternatives, really? Do we still need to worry about pots exploding and causing serious burns, like we did with the older models?

Problems with Old-Style Fuel Gels

Companies like Bird Brain, Sunjel, Napa Home and Garden, Lamplight Farms, and more pulled their fuel gel products off the market after a number of reports linked them to serious injuries and even death. At the time, 65 incidents were linked with the products, including 37 burn injuries and two fatalities, and there have been more since then.

There were a number of problems with the old design, including the following:

• The fuel was alcohol-based, so it burned clear, making it difficult for customers to determine when the flame was lit.
• Unable to tell for sure if the firepot was still burning, some victims poured fuel on top of the burning flame, causing the firepot to explode.
• The fuel itself had a jelly-like consistency, and tended to cling to human skin and clothes.
• Water alone often would not put out the flames. Victims had to be wrapped in blankets to snuff out the fire.
• Many suffered from second- and third-degree burns, and several were hospitalized with life-threatening injuries.
• Victims were often standing a good distance from the pot, but when it exploded, it shot the flames several feet, hurting bystanders as well as those attempting to refuel.
• Some of the victims were young children.

Despite a number of recalls, some consumers still have these old-style fuel gels in their homes. The CPSC stated that consumers shouldn’t “attempt to use or fix pourable gel fuel bottles with homemade remedies, or replace the fuel with other flammable materials.”

Safer Alternatives?

Some of the alternative fuels now available on the market include the following:

• Single use fuel gel cans. These still contain highly volatile alcohol-based fuel gel, but since they come in single-use cans, there is no reason to relight them once they go out.
• Pots that contain “safety wicks,” designed to make the flame more visible so consumers don’t accidently pour fuel on a burning flame.
• Bio-based fuels that don’t contain alcohol and require a cotton-based wick to burn. These fuels also have a higher “flash point,” which means they have to get hotter before they start to burn, reducing the risk of explosions. The flames from these fuels can also be extinguished with water.

All of these products are designed to make firepots safer, and so far, we are unaware of any incidents related to these products. Families are still urged to use caution, to keep firepots far away from children, and to always make sure the flame is completely out before replacing any fuel sources.