In short: 

Gas repairer Ray Grenfell says there is not enough awareness about the importance of servicing household gas heaters.

If not regularly maintained, gas heaters pose a risk of starting house fires and can emit toxic gases.

What’s next?

A member of the national consumer advocacy group Choice believes retailers need to take more responsibility in ensuring people know how to properly maintain their gas appliances.

As temperatures continue to drop around the country, heating appliances like gas heaters are being fired up in many Australian households.

But the reignition of these devices, many of which have sat gathering dust since last winter, has gas fitters like Ray Grenfell worried. 

He said left untouched for months or years without proper inspection, they could be deadly.

Mr Grenfell, who has spent the past five decades fitting, repairing and servicing gas heaters across far west NSW, said there was a lack of awareness around their need for regular maintenance.

“If it’s in a house where there’s [children] around, carpet, animals inside, they should be serviced at least every second year,” Mr Grenfell said.

“Some people just don’t get them done at all and it’s wrong — that’s where the fires come from.”

Mr Grenfell says he has encountered retailers and customers who were completely unaware gas appliances need ongoing maintenance.(ABC Broken Hill: Oliver Brown)

Mr Grenfell said multiple house fires that had occurred in Broken Hill and the wider region could be tied to poorly serviced gas heaters.

“I’ve heard of a couple this year already,” he said.

“Back a few years ago, there were three fires in one block [and] those heaters hadn’t been serviced for over 20 years.”

Keeping safe

According to statistics from Fire and Rescue New South Wales, 334 fires between 2019 and 2024 were linked to heating systems.

Mr Grenfell believes many house fires can be linked to gas heaters that have not been regularly serviced.(ABC Broken Hill: Oliver Brown)

In South Australia, the Metropolitan and Country Fire Services (MFS) responded to more than 60 house fires in 2022 caused by home heating.

While gas heaters were not responsible for all these incidents, MFS acting commander of community engagement Gavin Allen said they presented a greater risk if they were not working correctly.

“With today’s furniture, it only takes a couple of minutes before a room is fully involved and then [the fire will] spread from there,” Mr Allen said.

“We, on average, will arrive to a house in under seven minutes, [but] if a room goes up in a minute, seven minutes is still a long time.”

Gavin Allen says it’s a good idea to check home heating appliances at least once a year, especially before winter months, to reduce the risk of a fire hazard.(Supplied: SA Metropolitan Fire Service)

An invisible killer

Home appliances expert Chris Barnes from consumer advocacy group Choice said while unmaintained gas heaters were a fire hazard, he was more concerned about carbon monoxide.

“When [gas heaters are] running properly, there should be practically zero risk from things like carbon monoxide and nitrous dioxide getting into your indoor air,” he said.

“But when the heater starts to malfunction, that’s when those dangerous gases can start to appear.

“You get what’s known as incomplete combustion.”

Chris Barnes from Choice says factors like dust build-up and older parts can result in dangerous gases leaking into indoor air.(Supplied: Choice)

Last year, the NSW Poisons Information Centre (NSWPIC) was alerted to 123 patients with accidental carbon monoxide exposure.

“Of these calls, 93 per cent required medical attention,” a NSWPIC spokesperson said.

About 30 per cent of these reported exposures were from indoor heating devices, while 20 per cent were from faulty indoor gas or wood heaters and fireplaces.

As of June this year, there had been over 40 calls about accidental carbon monoxide exposure.

While the NSWPIC recommended having heaters serviced at least every two years, Mr Allen said people should also consider installing a carbon monoxide meter.

The NSWPIC says other heating appliances like fireplaces can also be dangerous if they are poorly maintained.(Supplied)

“Even when they’re running correctly, they are still putting out some pollutants into your indoor air [like] small, fine particulate matter … that, overtime, can actually have a health impact,” he said.

Where should responsibility lie?

In some states, the environmental and economic benefits of transitioning towards all-electric homes mean gas heaters and other appliances may eventually become obsolete.

As of this year, the Victorian government has banned natural gas connections in all new homes requiring a planning permit.

Mr Barnes thinks there should be more clearly defined instructions to consumers about gas appliance maintenance.(ABC Broken Hill: Oliver Brown)

However, Mr Barnes said gas heaters were still a popular household item, making the messaging around proper maintenance crucial for consumer safety.

“The primary responsibility lies with whoever sells or supplies the heater in the first place [and] typically that’s going to be the retailer,” he said.

“They need to make clear steps to spell out to someone, ‘When you’ve bought this, this is the maintenance that you’ve got to look after.'”

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