Managing Risk: Using Heat Lamps on the Farm

Michael Glos, Cornell University Guest Writer
(Previously published with Cornell Small Farms Program: April 7, 2014)

No farmer wants to have a fire, but we all practice fire prevention in different ways.

It is an accepted premise that farming is a daily lesson in managing risk. Some farmers are more risk averse than others but we all find our comfort level and work from there. For example: I am not comfortable borrowing $100,000, while I know other farmers of my same scale who are. The risk of a fire on the farm is another area which is managed differently by each farmer. No farmer wants to have a fire, but we all practice fire prevention in different ways.

This spring I opened up my email inbox to find some very unsettling news. The night before there had been a fire at the Maine farm where I had first interned 20 years ago. The barn where I had learned to milk, harness horses, and generally catch the farming bug was a smoldering pile. And worse of all, it took the lives of all the animals in it, including one of the horses I had worked with. My heart went out to the Thayer’s who could only watch in tears as a centerpiece of their farm went up in flames. Luckily no humans were injured or killed.

Through conversations with other farmers and firefighters, I know the truth about rural fires and the role of the fire department. If you live rurally and have a fire you should not depend on the fire department to come save your house or barn. We have seen too many fires destroy houses of friends and neighbors. Even the house of our local volunteer fire department chief burned while, ironically, he was at the fire station.

We have a fantastic network of volunteer firefighters who will come, but only in time to contain a fire, potentially try to rescue the occupants, and keep it from spreading to other structures. The fact is, it will likely be at least 30 minutes after I make that call that a fire engine will show up at my farm. Even with three volunteer stations within 5 miles of my house, the firefighters have to first get to the station after receiving the call and then come to my place. All the water has to be trucked in or pumps have to be set up to transport the water from our pond or the creek across the street. During this time the fire will be burning and spreading.

With those assumptions we know the most important thing to do is to prevent the potential of a fire on the farm and, secondly, to have a plan of what to do if we have one. Prevention primarily involves removing as many risks as possible and reasonable. I can only scratch the surface on preventative measures, but we know that buildings with power in them have an increased risk of fire.  Our equipment shed is unlikely to burn because it has no source to cause a fire, but our main barns and house, all with power, are at a higher risk. Add a propane heater, all wood construction, 1,000 bales of hay, feed, many electrical outlets, and freezers with motors and you have many potential sources of fire.

For the sake of this article I will primarily look at one potential source of fire on our farm: heat lamps. They were the cause of the fire in Maine, a number of other fires I have heard about, and two fires on our own farm. Heat lamps, generally defined, are portable hanging fixtures with bulbs in them (usually 150-250vw). They can be purchased at almost any farm or general hardware store and are usually cheap, under $10.00.

A number of characteristics that are not always fully appreciated make heat lamps a high risk. Most are poorly made, with short thin cords, poor connections to the fixture, unreliable attachment points for hanging, and just general cheap construction. In addition, farmers generally don’t have a good place to install them because many of us plan to use them “temporarily” and don’t have a permanent set up. Perhaps it has gotten cold so a lamp is quickly hung up in the corner of a stall to warm a newborn lamb or 100 chicks that have just arrived. This heat lamp hangs in the corner, attached with baling twine- an accident waiting to happen.

As I mentioned earlier, we have had two fires on our farm since we began in 1996. One was in a greenhouse brooder not attached to, but very close to, the barn. We discovered the fire after it was basically out. Apparently, a brooder lamp had fallen into the bedding. Luckily, aside from the shavings (on wet ground), there was very little to burn. PVC hoops and plastic are not very flammable. But most of the chicks were sadly killed. We felt very lucky that the fire had not spread to our main barn–just feet away. We moved our brooder facility away from the barn and soon after started using “Ohio Brooders” that use heat bulbs but not the hanging fixtures. Not only are they safer, but they can use less power because smaller wattage bulbs are required and are a much better way to warm the chickens.

The second fire happened a year ago last spring. We thought we had learned from our previous mistakes. We were using thicker bulbs, and better fixtures. But one of these must have had a frayed wire internally that shorted out without tripping the breaker. The wires melted and the bulb dropped into the very dry straw in one of our piglet brooder boxes. I believe it is pure luck that I looked out at the sow barn on the way in for lunch. It appeared that the loose snow was blowing off the roof, but as I stepped into the house I had second thoughts. Something didn’t look right. I quickly realized I was seeing smoke, not snow, coming out of the eaves. I called back to the house, grabbed the fire extinguisher, and put out the fire. A few buckets of water finished it off. I fully believe that if I had eaten lunch, our sow barn would have burned.

To help prevent on-farm fires from heat lamps, I share the following recommendations from our experiences:

The best thing is not to use them.  An exposed hanging hot bulb that is drying the bedding (tinder) below is always going to be a fire risk. Put in systems for your livestock that do not  need the supplemental heat. This may include major paradigm shifts like having lambs later in the spring, or using mother hens to raise chicks instead of buying them. We, like most farmers, are not able (or willing) to completely eliminate a need for heat lamps so we must do everything we can to minimize the risk. At a minimum, turn them off as soon as you don’t need them.

Don’t use cheap poorly made heat lamps. Throw out all of those hardware store heat lamps. We have tried a half dozen types of heat lamps and have currently settled on one from Premier that costs about $40.00. It is completely enclosed and is said to be able to fall and not cause a fire. It has a thick long cord and the electrical connections are sealed.

Use hard glass bulbs–not the thin glass ones. We have switched over to using hard 175w bulbs form Farmerboy Ag. Supply. They are much less likely to shatter and we have developed different types of brooder boxes (for pigs and chickens) that stay warm without the need for a 250w bulb.

Secure them like they are permanent. Use chains and not twine. Keep them out of the way of livestock that can disturb them.

Upgrade your breaker panel. At the recommendation of an electrician we installed an “Arc Fault Interrupter” breaker for the circuits in our barns where we have heat lamps connected. Unlike our previous GFI breaker which failed to trip when the fixture sparked, this type of breaker is made to trip. The down side is these breakers cost about $40 instead of $4.00.

Use heat lamps in buildings that are isolated from other buildings. For us this means having small detached brooder buildings for our chickens and a specific building for our sows/piglets. This is much preferred to brooding in our main barn where we store all of our grain, hay, freezers, tools, and other livestock.

Put a smoke detector in all buildings with the potential of fire. A really loud one with an external speaker is recommended but a standard battery operated one with an annually changed battery is a minimum.

Have at least one fire extinguisher at main entrances of all buildings. In our main barn we have one at each end. We use commercial rechargeable extinguishers and check them annually for a full charge. Learn how to use one and have them clearly marked.

Review your insurance policy and make sure you know what coverage you do and don’t have. You may think you have more coverage than you actually do and don’t want any surprises when you really need it. We don’t insure everything but we do insure what we don’t want to self-insure.