The Hidden Danger I Overlooked in My New Apartment (That Almost Burned It Down)

The Hidden Danger I Overlooked in My New Apartment (That Almost Burned It Down)

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If it wasn’t for our dog, I might have lost my husband in a fire years ago. It all went down in the early morning hours, back in the spring of 2014 when our apartment’s bathroom caught on fire and quickly began to spread to other rooms.

We’d recently moved in and spent a good chunk of our savings on the deposit and moving fees. To catch back up, my husband was working lots of overtime at his job, so he was exhausted and slept very heavily at night. On this particular night, I was out of town, so my husband and our little Yorkie were home alone. Around 5 a.m., my husband was jolted out of a deep sleep by the dog, who’d just frantically bitten him on the arm to get his attention because he was sleeping through the fire alarm.

When he walked into the bathroom, to his horror, the entire ceiling was filled with flames and fire, as he put it, was dripping down the walls. The shower curtain and bath mats were on fire, too. It was a nightmare. He did his best to extinguish what he could in the moment, but the entire apartment had filled with smoke. He grabbed the dog and ran out the door to go and wake up all of our nearby neighbors, especially the family living above us whose child’s room was just above our bathroom. He was able to get everyone out of their apartments and the firefighters arrived in time to put out the blaze before anyone was hurt. It was a very close call.

When he asked the firefighters what had caused the blaze, their response was simple — the bathroom exhaust fan had likely seized and caught fire. If they’re not cleaned regularly, they added, this can happen easily over time. Ours, it seems, was pretty old and in bad shape. Whether the fan was faulty or just filthy, we’ll never know for sure, but either way, it was a hazard we clearly missed.

We’d only just moved in a few months before and had never even thought to check to see if the bathroom exhaust fan was properly cleaned or functioning properly. It wasn’t on our move-in checklist — truth be told, it wasn’t even on our radar. The apartment was cleaned thoroughly before we moved in, and the idea that a dirty, faulty hazard could be hiding right above our heads never even occurred to us.

The type of fan we had only compounded the risk of something like this going wrong. The light and the exhaust fan were combined, which meant that each time we turned on the bathroom light, the exhaust fan automatically came on too. In addition to lack of proper cleaning and faulty electrical wiring, the firefighters told us at the time that running these types of fans for extended periods of time also puts them at risk of catching fire.

Most of our bathroom burned, along with the nearby bedroom closet (and all my clothes) and part of the kitchen wall. Thankfully, our landlord repaired and replaced the damage quickly and we were not displaced for long, but we know that things could have been so much worse. That is why it’s a mistake we’ve made sure not to repeat. 

When we bought our first home, a few years later, and I spotted a similar combination exhaust fan and light in the primary bathroom, we made sure to give it a proper cleaning and add it to our regular cleaning routine. We even hired an electrician to come and inspect it to be sure the wiring wasn’t faulty or too old. We also installed additional sconce lighting so that we don’t have to rely solely on the ceiling light and overuse the exhaust fan by simply turning that one on. We sleep better knowing that we’ve been as proactive as possible about preventing a repeat bathroom fire.

Word to the wise, when you move into a new home, be sure to inspect those exhaust fans as carefully as you do every other potential hazard in the home — especially if it’s an apartment with a heavy rotation of tenants where small details like this one could easily be overlooked or ignored. 



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