Is the Focal Point of Your Room A Fire Hazard?

By: Delores Gempel Lekowski


Imagine yourself in an interior designer's impeccably decorated home. You express the usual ooohs and aaahs of approval as you move from room to room. Everything is perfect and pleasing to the eye. You enter the family room and in front of you is the focal point of the entire room - a flat panel television hung above a beautiful fireplace. Who would ever think a TV could look so attractive? Then you start to wonder, "Is this safe?" We have all heard the rules of fire safety. We know not to put furniture or other flammables near a heat source, but we are ignoring this rule with the combination of televisions and fireplaces. A fireplace is definitely a heat source.

Flat panels, including plasma and LCD televisions, are new and for now, costly. In the near future, they will become more affordable for consumers, and just as the computer became a permanent fixture in the home, so will these televisions. Because the televisions are not yet affordable for many of us, the general public isn't too concerned with the safety of these products and hasn't given it much consideration. I discovered this when I began asking questions about the placement of these televisions, especially above fireplaces.

I learned that people love the idea of a flat panel television being a part of their fireplace, and their only concern is the potential damage to the TV set. In contrast, every burn survivor I asked expressed the same concerns I had, and I would hear the question of safety echoed over and over again. I asked, "Would you worry about the placement of a wide screen TV over a fireplace?" Their reply was a resounding, "Yes!" Not a single burn survivor expressed concern over the potential harm that could be done to the TV. Their main concern was the risk of fire and the potential for injuries to themselves and their families.

Given the information I already had, I called the local fire chief to ask him if he had any concerns about the placement of flat panel televisions above fireplaces or in wall enclosures. He told me he was not aware of any fires caused by these televisions in his district. He said common sense should always prevail, and that he would never place any TV close to a heat source. Admittedly, he knows very little about flat panels and their growing popularity. Owners need to adhere to manufacturer's instructions and safety warnings, he said. He also said the television sets should always be installed and wired by a professional, and that fireplaces should be in compliance with existing safety codes.

Next, I called a fire restoration company, charged with professionally cleaning homes after fire damage. I asked them if they had cleaned any homes that had experienced fire damage caused by flat panel televisions. He said, "No, we haven't seen any, but we have done jobs caused from TV fires." I asked him if he would place a flat panel above a fireplace, and he said, "I personally wouldn't. My brother-in-law has a flat panel television, and they do get warm."

Finally, I called a fireplace store, which wouldn't give any advice on the placement of a flat panel to avoid liability.

After talking to these individuals, I decided to search the web to see the type of guidance manufacturers provide on hanging flat panel televisions above fireplaces. I was shocked to find out manufacturers don't stress the fire risks. They suggest thinking twice about doing it, but for all the wrong reasons, such as discoloration of plastic housing from heat/smoke and height and wiring issues.

My flat panel research uncovered other decorative trends that concern me. For example, the practice of placing candles on the mantelpieces of fireplaces with flat panel television hung above them. One decorator suggested hanging a two-way mirror over a flat panel television to hide it. When the TV is on, you can watch it through the mirror, and when it is off you can only see the mirror. I am uncertain whether the manufacturer thinks this is a good or safe idea. I know I don't. I would be afraid of overheating, and this is never a good thing.

Some electronics manufacturers are trying to find ways to ensure fire safety of their electronics. I have to say that I am impressed that companies, such as Dell and Philips, are using a fire retardant chemical to manufacture flat panel units. The Consumer Products Safety Commission announced the recall of 12,000 plasma flat screen televisions due to "arcing by capacitors" that could pose a fire risk. There were no injuries reported, and fires were contained as a result of the fire retardants used in manufacturing. The use of a fire retardant in these products is good news and kudos should be given to the manufacturer who decided to use it when so many in the current market do not.

Manufacturer's warnings and safeguards must always be followed. Warnings like 'Do not block the ventilation or openings on your television set' are communicated to keep the appliance from over-heating. Should you enclose your flat panel television? If the manufacturer says not to, then don't do it. Manufacturers test the product, and know the safeguards that should be followed to achieve the desired performance. Listen to them.

These manufacturer warnings are helpful, but don't guarantee safety. The National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) has raised concerns about flat panel televisions being hung above fireplaces with committees charged with developing safety requirements for consumer electronics equipment. NASFM has approached the Underwriter Laboratories Standards Technical Panel for Audio, Video and Similar Electronic Apparatus, better known as STP 60065, and the International Electrotechnical Commission's U.S. Technical Advisory Group, US TAG, responsible for formulating the United States' position relating to all matters within the scope of Technical Committee 108. NASFM hopes its concerns will result in research to determine the actual risks of placing flat panel televisions above fireplaces or close to candles and, ultimately, tougher flammability standards for these TVs.