6 Common Fire Hazards Lurking in Your Home (and Simple Ways to Prevent Them)

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Whether you're a homeowner or renter, a house fire can be a costly disaster. According to the National Fire Protection Association, home fires account for more than 2500 deaths and more than 12,000 injuries in the U.S. every year, not to mention billions of dollars in damage. U.S. fire departments respond to an average of 350,000 house fires annually.

The good news is, total fire-related deaths, injuries, and property losses have trended downward in recent years, and that may be due to improved fire-fighting technology at home. Nothing beats the effectiveness of smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and a solid fire escape plan, but the newest smart home devices can help you prevent these common fire hazards lurking in your home.

1. UNATTENDED BURNERS

Wallflower stove monitor
Amazon

We’ve all had that moment of panic when we ask ourselves, “Did I remember to turn off the stove?” It’s worth double-checking, since cooking equipment is the leading cause of house fires. Stoves, ovens, and other appliances account for nearly 50 percent of incidents, while unattended cooking is the leading contributor to these fires.

Fortunately, new smart stovetop sensors and monitors will alert you when you’ve left the stove on. The Wallflower simply plugs into the wall with your electric stove, then alerts you when the stove is turned on, when it’s been on longer than usual, and even when you leave the house without turning it off. The crowd-funded Inirv React, meanwhile, promises to be a system of smart stove knobs that use sensors and electronics to detect smoke, natural gas, and motion, while allowing you to monitor your stove remotely.

2. DEAD SMOKE DETECTOR BATTERIES

Nest Protect home smoke detector
Amazon

Working smoke alarms should be placed on every floor of your home, and inside every bedroom: They cut the risk of dying in a house fire by half.

Basic smoke detectors can get the job done, but newer models can also alert your phone if there's smoke in your home, turn off your HVAC system to slow the spread of smoke, or record video so you can check the situation remotely.

Security expert Emily Patterson of independent review site A Secure Life highlights the Nest Protect as one of her favorite devices for fire safety. “It has CO detection as well as heat and humidity sensors, so it has the ability to distinguish between real causes for concern and burnt toast,” Patterson tells Mental Floss. “You can also enable smartphone alerts, which is handy if you’re not home, and set up automated protocols to unlock doors or record video if the alarm goes off.”

The detector is only as reliable as the battery powering it, though. The Roost Smart Battery allows you to retrofit existing smoke detectors with 9V batteries to be managed by your smartphone and alerts you when battery life is running low (after three to five years).

3. SPACE HEATERS

Dyson Hot + Cool fan heater
Amazon

Space heaters keep things cozy when your existing heating system performs poorly, but they can also be extremely dangerous. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 1100 residential fires—and more than 50 deaths—are linked to portable electric heaters every year. Fires often occur when the heaters are left on unattended or they’re too close to flammable materials like paper or blankets.

The U.S. Department of Energy recommends purchasing only newer-model heaters equipped with safety features like a tip-over switch and automatic shut-off, which kicks in if the heater exceeds a certain temperature. The Dyson Hot + Cool fan heater uses diffused mode heat to warm rooms evenly while the machine stays comfortable to the touch. For a more affordable option, the Smart Ceramic Tower Heater has infrared heat settings, a sleep timer, overheating protection, a tip-over safety switch, and Wi-Fi connectivity that lets you control it with your smartphone—just in case you forget to turn it off before leaving home.

4. OVERLOADED OUTLETS

Wemo smart plug
Amazon

Heat-producing small appliances like coffee makers and toasters can pose a fire risk if used improperly—like if you have too many appliances plugged into one outlet. The NFPA recommends plugging only one heat-producing gadget into an outlet at a time [PDF], while smart plugs make it easy to turn off power to small appliances when you’re not home. Some devices even turn off outlets automatically when they’re not in use. There are dozens of options on the market now, from Wemo’s Insight Smart Plug with energy monitoring to the iDevices Switch. Most can be controlled with your phone, and are compatible with smart-home hubs. Be sure to check that the smart plug you choose is equipped with enough power to handle the wattage of your appliances.

5. COMBUSTIBLE LANDSCAPING

B-Hyve sprinkler regulator
Amazon

The landscaping around your home can mitigate fire risks—or multiply them. Any plants that are too close to the house can present a fire hazard, especially when they’re dried out, says Cassy Aoyagi, a board member of the U.S. Green Building Council’s L.A. Chapter and president of FormLA Landscaping. “Several popular plants, like pampas, feather, and fountain grasses, marketed in the West as ‘drought tolerant,’ are actually quite combustible,” she tells Mental Floss.

A smart sprinkler controller makes it easy to ensure that your yard is moist and as fire-safe as possible. It can regulate and even reduce your water consumption, too. The Rachio 3 Smart Sprinkler Controller is equipped with a weather-monitoring system to adjust water use based on the forecast. The Orbit B-Hyve has fewer bells and whistles, but still offers smart scheduling with a smartphone app.

6. INTENTIONAL FIRES

iCamera KEEP home security system
Amazon

Let’s hope you never have to deal with this one, because playing with fire is no joke. The NFPA reports that 8 percent of residential fires between 2011 and 2015 were set intentionally, with 15 percent of civilian deaths happening as a result [PDF].

To keep your home safe inside and out, consider using a smart home security system. The iCamera KEEP Pro from iSmartAlarm has a powerful image sensor, sound and motion detection, event-triggered video recording, and a motion-tracking feature that allows the camera to follow movement around your space. The Wyze Cam 2 is a smaller model with motion-tagging technology and a budget-friendly price tag.

Nothing beats the power of common sense, of course. “Preparedness is the best protection,” Patterson says. “Have the right tools, have an evacuation plan, and know what to do in the event of an emergency. Fires are scary and it can be difficult to act quickly and think clearly in the moment if you aren’t prepared.”

21 Fun and Practical Uses for Old Straws

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iStock

It's said Americans use 500 million single-use plastic straws daily, and because they can't be recycled, they end up in landfills or in the world’s oceans—which is why some cities, restaurants, and QE2 herself are banning them. Rather than tossing the plastic straws you have around, give them a second life with these fun projects.

1. FLOWER HOLDERS

Bright, beautiful flowers in several clear vases.
iStock

Slipping the stem of a droopy flower in a clear straw will help it stand up straight. You can also use a straw to lengthen too-short stems.

2. CORD LABELS

Electronics cords wrapped in labeled straws.

Get organized by cutting a straw lengthwise, snipping it into sections, and labeling them; then, slip each one over the appropriate cord. Now you'll never unplug the TV when you meant to unplug the soundbar.

3. NECKLACE HOLDERS

A jewelry box full of tangled necklaces.
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Keep necklaces from getting tangled by threading them through a straw. This works both when you're traveling and in your jewelry box alike.

4. AND 5. BUBBLE WAND AND BUBBLE BLOWER

A bubble coming out of a straw.
iStock

Rather than buying bubble mix and a wand, put a bit of dish soap in a bowl, then dip one end of a straw in the solution. Blow into the other end and bam—bubbles. You can also insert a straw into a plastic cup to make a DIY bubble blower.

6. AND 7. PICTURE FRAME AND VASE

A close-up shot of colorful straws.
iStock

Here's an excellent activity for the kids: Have them glue colorful straws to a $1 wooden craft frame. You can also glue straws around a can to create a cute vase.

8. VACUUM SEALER

A man using a straw to suck the air out of a bag full of pasta.

There's no need to buy a fancy vacuum sealer when you can use this simple, cheap trick instead. Put your food in a sandwich bag and seal it, then open a tiny portion and insert a straw. Suck all of the air out, then pull out the straw and quickly seal the opening.

9. TRAVEL TOILETRY HOLDER

A group of colorful straws.
iStock

Trying to save space while traveling? Rather than spending money on travel-sized toiletries, use straws. Cut a straw into 4-inch sections, then squeeze toothpaste, shampoo, face wash, etc. into the straw. Pinch one end shut with pliers, then use a lighter to seal the plastic; repeat on the other end. Label with a marker, and enjoy traveling light.

10. PEN HOLDER

A planner on a wooden table with a pen next to it.
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Tape a straw onto the spine of a notebook to create a pen holder.

11. HULL A STRAWBERRY

A bowl of strawberries on a wooden table.
iStock

Use this hack to hull strawberries quickly. Insert a plastic straw at the bottom of the strawberry and gently push it toward the leaves; both the leaves and the stalk will come out easily. Hulling strawberries this way rather than chopping off the top saves more of the fruit—and as a bonus, you can fill the center with something delicious, like whipped cream or Nutella.

12. CHORE CHART

Two kids folding the laundry.
iStock

Print out a chore chart; slip straws over strings, pin them to the chart, and viola: You have an interactive chart that allows kids to slide the straw from "start" to "finish" when they've accomplished a chore.

13. DOORMAT

Follow these instructions to create an unusual doormat: Measure and cut straws into .4 inch sections. On a hard surface, arrange them on a piece of paper marked with a grid (or the pattern of your choice). Cover the straws with non-stick parchment paper and iron on one side, then the other. Voila! You have a doormat.

14. VACUUM STRAW BRUSH

In five simple steps, you can create an enhanced vacuum attachment that will allow you to clean delicate equipment like your computer keyboard. All you need is straws, duct tape, and a piece of gauze (or nylon stocking). Choose the attachment you want to add the straws to, then insert as many straws as possible (leaving them at an angle). Duct tape them together just under the attachment, then cut off the excess. Finally, duct tape a piece of gauze over the end that you’re inserting into the attachment, pop it in there, and get vacuuming.

15. AND 16. PAINT BLOWER AND BRUSH DRYING RACK

A bunch of dirty paint brushes on a white background.
iStock

Use straws to create unique art. Simply place watercolor paint into cups, then cut your straws in half. Using a eye dropper or pipette, drop paint onto heavy paper, and blow it around using the straw. (Keep the paper in a tray to keep the mess contained.)

You can also use straws to construct a drying rack for paint brushes; the instructions can be found here.

17. JELL-O WORMS

A close-up of colorful bendy straws.
iStock

Prepare Jell-O according to these directions. Stretch out your flexible straws and place them in a mason jar, then pour the lukewarm Jell-O into the straws; put the jar into the fridge overnight. The next day, pull out the straws and run them under warm water, then push out the worms into a bowl. Put out the bowl at your Halloween party.

18. HAIR CURLERS

Instead of using a curling iron—which can damage your hair—follow these instructions and use straws to create awesome curls.

19. BAG CLIP

An open bag of potato chips with the chips spilling out.
iStock

Keep chips fresh using a straw: Simply cut a straw lengthwise, then snip the ends so it's the same width as the bag. Slide it over the open top of the bag; roll the top of the bag several times, then slide a second straw clip over it.

20. UNCLOG KETCHUP BOTTLES

A ketchup bottle being held in someone's hand.
iStock

There are few things more annoying that ketchup stuck in a bottle—so keep a straw on hand. Push the straw all the way into the bottle until it hits the end. Leave it inserted and give the bottle a shake; the ketchup should come out easily.

21. JAZZ UP BIKE SPOKES

A series of colorful bike wheels.
iStock

Cut colorful straws lengthwise and wrap them around bike spokes to make a colorful statement.

DIY

10 Surprising Uses for Leftover Bananas

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iStock

Bananas are practically the perfect fruit. They’re high in potassium and vitamins. They don’t need to be washed or sliced. They make a great healthy snack, but you can also put them in bread, ice cream, pie, and pancakes. What’s not to love?

Well, there’s one tiny problem—they go bad quickly. Bananas produce a large amount of a gas called ethylene, which causes fruit to ripen faster, meaning that there's a small window to enjoy them. Just because a bunch of bananas is past its prime doesn’t mean they can’t be used, though. Here are a few of the things you can do with ripe bananas.

1. TREAT BUG BITES.

Pressing the inside of a banana peel onto a bite from a mosquito or other insect for a few minutes is a surprisingly simple way to quell itching. In fact, some studies have shown that banana peels can help reduce irritation and inflammation [PDF, PDF]. The use of banana peels to treat inflammation is said to be an ancient Chinese remedy, but people around the world swear (with varying degrees of evidence) by the fruit’s ability to soothe poison ivy rashes, psoriasis, sunburn, and other skin maladies.

2. REMOVE A SPLINTER.

If tweezers aren’t getting that pesky splinter out, try a banana peel instead. Tape a piece of the peel onto the affected area (with the soft, inner side of the peel facing down) and leave it in place for about 10 minutes. The enzymes in the fruit should help to force the splinter out.

3. ATTRACT BUTTERFLIES AND HUMMINGBIRDS.

Once a common sight in the U.S., monarch butterflies are now difficult to spot. Their population has dwindled due to loss of habitat, but you can improve your chances of seeing them by placing an overripe banana out in your garden. They’re just soft and sweet enough for butterflies to enjoy (make sure to remove the bananas before you go to bed, though, or else you'll have animals like raccoons in your garden). You can also place bananas near a hummingbird feeder to attract fruit flies, which the birds feast on.

4. FERTILIZE PLANTS.

While you’re out in the garden feeding the birds and butterflies, give your plants some love, too. When cut-up banana peels are buried, they enrich the soil with nutrients and help nourish plants. You can also wrap a banana peel around a tomato plant to create a natural fertilizer.

5. POLISH LEATHER AND SILVER.

If you’re in need of a quick shoe shine, reach for the fruit bowl. The potassium in bananas make them a great, quick tool for polishing your leather. Simply buff the leather with the inside of a banana peel, and use a cloth to wipe it clean. The same technique can also be used to polish silver (though some recommend blending the banana peels into a paste and putting that on a cloth for polishing).

6. MAKE SMOOTHIES, SANS ICE.

Bananas have long been a staple in smoothies, but what if you have a whole bunch that’s about to go bad? Instead of throwing them out, stick them in the freezer. You can pull one out any time you get a smoothie craving, and since it’s frozen, you won’t even need to add ice.

7. MAKE NATURAL BEAUTY PRODUCTS.

Beauty products don’t have to be expensive. Bananas are a great ingredient in DIY hair treatments and skin exfoliants. The amino and citric acids help protect hair from damage and keep it shiny. There are a few different recipes you can try, some of which combine banana with avocado, yogurt, egg, and other ingredients. Rubbing the inside of a banana peel onto your face (seriously, try it) is also said to brighten your skin, fight acne, and reduce puffiness around your eyes.

8. PREVENT INFLAMED MUSCLES.

A recent study published in the journal PLOS One found that competitive cyclists who had consumed a banana instead of a sugary drink or water had less inflammation following their workout. Although other physicians cite the benefits of consuming bananas post-workout, the sample for this particular study was small—only 20 cyclists—and was funded by Dole Foods (although they had no role in any part of the study), so you might not want to swap out ibuprofen for bananas just yet—especially since the lead author told The New York Times that the banana led to “quite a bit of bloating,” so maybe best to not experiment on race day.

9. REPAIR A SCRATCHED DVD.

CDs and DVDs may be a dying technology, but many people still have a few lying around at home. If you have any discs that are scratched, you can try using toothpaste and banana to salvage them. First, rub toothpaste into the scratches with a cloth. Wipe it off, then rub a piece of banana onto the disc in a circular motion. Do the same thing with the banana peel and clean the disc with window cleaner. Whether or not this trick works will depend on how badly the disc is scratched, but it’s worth a shot!

10. TRY OUT SOME NEW RECIPES.

If a bunch of bananas is too ripe for your liking, try repurposing the fruit. There are hundreds of recipes that call for overripe bananas. The Food Network's Canadian site lists 83 recipes on its website, including chocolate chip banana pancakes, a peanut butter and banana oatmeal smoothie, and slow cooker banana upside down cake.

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