Housefires can be immensely destructive and even fatal. Most people go to great lengths to ensure that the inside of their home is protected by installing fire alarms, mapping emergency exits and making sure that their kitchens are safe and up to date. A critical room that many people overlook, however is the garage.
Typically, if a fire starts in the garage, it is usually caused by some kind of electrical issue. Faulty wiring or overloaded outlets can create a spark that can spread quickly through a garage space. Add to that, if flammable liquids such as gasoline, propane, or paint thinner are stored in the garage this can very quickly accelerate the spread of the fire. Garages also tend to collect stacks of things that don’t get used often, and have a reputation of being less than clean – two other factors that can literally add fuel to the fire.
In other articles on our site, we discuss garage cleanliness and organization. These things are key to preventing the spread of fire, and can give a general peace of mind about the place you park your cars at night. For now, though we will be talking about a very key piece of fire deterrent that can help protect the rest of your house if the electrical were to go haywire: the garage entry door.
In case of a fire, the garage entry door is a crucial barrier for keeping fires and fumes from entering the living space of your house. Ensuring that this point of contact is up to code can be a lifesaving measure. Garage entry doors need to be “self-closing,” have a properly latching handle, and should have a solid wood core or be fire-rated. Also, they should have fire-rated glass (if any), tight seals around the joints, and should be free of any kind of holes, including pet doors.
As time has gone on, building codes have adapted to make our living structures safer. While this information is available, it isn’t always something the average home-owner seeks out when making improvements to an older home or moving into a new one. Home inspectors often catch things that are built incorrectly or that are out-of-date when you are buying or selling. But, the move to actually make the change can be discretionary and doesn’t always hinder a sale.
So, home-owners, the responsibility falls to you. How can you prevent tragedy by updating your garage entry door? What kind of barrier should be put between the garage and the rest of the house? Here are some essential things to look into to protect your home and the people in it.
1. Garage entry doors need to be “self-closing.”
When you think of a self-closing door, you may picture the large metal apparatus that sits on the top of heavy doors in stairwells or school cafeterias. While these get the job done, there are more subtle (and attractive) ways to have a self-closing door that leads to the inside of your home. Spring-loaded hinges prevent the door from remaining open and can automatically close the door behind you when you enter from the garage. These hinges come in a variety of sizes and colors, ensuring that they will fit your entry door correctly and will also match the rest of the hinges in your home. When your hands are full, or you have been moving back and forth between the garage and the hallway, it can be hard to remember to close the door that final time. Spring-loaded hinges do the work for you and can add that extra measure of protection from a garage fire.
2. Garage entry doors should have a properly latching handle.
Once installed, the self-closing spring-loaded hinges will do their job to get your garage entry door to the latch. But if the latch itself is broken or in need of maintenance, your other upgrade will have been for nothing. It is important that your door is able to close completely and stay closed when you walk away. It may seem simple, but leaving the garage door ajar, even a little, removes the fire barrier that a closed-door provides. Assess your doorknob and latch to ensure that they are working correctly and that they will stay in place.
3. If the garage entry door has glass, it needs to be fire-rated.
Most garage entry doors I have seen don’t typically have decorative glass, but some do have a narrow pane near the edge opposite the hinges. This can be helpful if your garage doubles as your shop and there is a lot of in and out traffic, or if you need to be wary of possibly colliding with someone on the other side of the door. For optimal fire safety, you need to ensure that the pane of glass in your door is fire-rated. This means that the glass is specially rated to prevent the spread of fire and smoke into the rest of the house. Depending on the type of glass, these can be rated from 20 minutes to 3 hours depending on the material used to glaze the glass. This type of glass is commonly found in commercial construction but may be more difficult to acquire for your home. If you are unsure about the glass in your existing door, consult a professional to ensure your glass is fire-rated, or simply replace the door.
4. The garage entry door itself needs to be fire-resistant or fire-rated.
There are a few different types of fire-resistant and fire-rated doors, but the end-goal is the same. The way this type of door is constructed adds a barrier of protection between the spark in the garage and the rest of the house. Basically, a little extra time is on your side, simply by ensuring the door itself is up to code. Most garage entry doors are rated as “20-minute” doors – that is, the door will keep the fire from burning completely through it for 20 minutes. These are typically solid core doors made entirely of wood or are made of steel with a honeycomb core. Again, there are commercial options with higher minute ratings, but you will need to determine the right fit for your home. A commercial steel door is unlikely to match the other doors in your home. But there are in-between options – higher fire ratings and a more home-like aesthetic to match the other doors already in your home.
5. Garage entry doors should not have pet doors installed in them.
It may go without saying, but sometimes, with the threat of fire far from your mind, the temptation may be to increase functionality without counting the cost. My family loves our pets – we have a cat and a dog, and I will admit, my kids and I take turns playing “dog butler” to let her outside and back in from the yard. Pet doors can eliminate that daily chore. But adding a pet door or any kind of hole to your garage entry will compromise the integrity of the fire barrier. Your 20-minute door won’t be able to ensure that amount of burn time if the pet flap at the bottom gives the fire an immediate gateway to the hallway behind it. Give your pets direct access to the yard by choosing another place to install their exit. And if your door has any type of hole in it, it will need to be replaced.
6. Garage entry doors should have tight seals around the joints.
So far so good – your garage entry door has a solid core, spring-loaded hinges, a working handle, and functional latch, no glass, and no pet doors. Now, the next thing to check is the seals around the joints. Smoke and fumes can also be deadly and spread quickly before the flames ever penetrate the door. Ensuring that your door has some kind of weather stripping installed around the joints will help prevent those deadly gasses from seeping into your living area. Weatherstripping comes in a variety of colors and is typically made out of foam or vinyl. While the foam is often the cheaper buy, the vinyl will last longer and may be worth investing in for less maintenance in the long-run. You may also be able to purchase a door seal kit that will have standard dimensions and detailed instructions for installation.
A Few Changes are Worth the Safety
Even with all the improvements to our homes over time, fires are still deadly. Building codes have continued to improve where initial builds begin, but maintaining a house is still the responsibility of the people who live there. Life is precious. And whether you live alone, with your pets, or with an entire house full of kids, helping protect from the unexpected is worth taking an afternoon to assess and upgrade to some life-saving measures.
It’s important to note as well that all of the upgrades listed work together to make the fire barrier at your garage entry viable. The self-closing hinges and the functional door latch will ensure that your fire-rated (hole-free) door is pressed securely into the weather stripping. If the unexpected happens, you will have bought you and your loved ones some time to escape the house, and time for the fire department to deal with the flames in your garage. Small, strategic changes can make a world of difference.
If you are interested in other ways to improve your garage, check out our other articles on cleaning and organization.