Patio Torch (Tiki) Safety
Warm weather is here - time for pool parties, picnics, bar-b-ques, and other outdoor activities. But, mosquitos - and other biting insects - are enjoying the outdoors also; and looking for a warm-blooded meal. Maybe you.
There are lots of solutions - wearing repellant, fogging before going out, screens, candles and other buring or scent devices, but a favoite for years is the patio, or tiki, torch. A ring of these buring, citronella-fueled decorations and you can carve out a mosquito-free zone for your outdoor activities. But, filled with flamable fuel and buring live fire, a they require more safely consideration than simple decorations.
Unfortunately, too many people think that tikis are relatively safe light-giving, mosquito-repelling party ornamentation - and treat them that way, sometimes leading to unfortunate events - like burns or fires. Nothing like a bad burn and trip to the emergency room or flaming deck and a visit from the fire department to put a damper on any party.
But a few simple precautions and advance planning can save a lot of misery.
Check old tikis - do you need new ones?
Don't wait until two hours before the party to drag last-year's tikis out for the first time. Well ahead of any planned use - like as soon as the weather get warm - you should check your stock of tikis for wear and damage.
Scorching is a sign that the tiki wasn't working properly last time it was used. Strips that have become unwoven and stick out at all angles are in danger of being caught by the flame - as well as an indication that the structural integrity of the basket is suspect. Split or damaged staffs are less sturdy and could snap or fall, spilling buring fuel on the ground.
Split or damaged snuffer caps can cause you to be burned when the flame licks out of the split onto your fingers. Snuffers stop the fire by depriving it of oxygen. Splits allow airflow to continue to reach the flame. Even if the fire looks to be extinguished, a gust of wind over the hot wick can re-ignite the flame. If you've already left the area, thinking the tikis safe, the snuffer could burn, fall against the staff (since usually the snuffers are attached to prevent loss and make them easy to find) buring the staff, then the basket, spilling fuel - and then your deck, fence, house.... Missing or damaged snuffer caps can also let water in, damaging the wick and diluting the fuel.
Replacement items you may need for your tikis
After checking the structural part of the tiki, turn your attention to the fuel container, wick, and fuel. Any damaged fuel canisters should be discarded. Damaged wicks should be replaced. When choosing a canister, metal canisters are superior to plastic ones. Though it is harder to see the fuel level in the metal ones, they are less susceptible to melting.
Plastic canisters are thin, clear plastic, protected from the flame by a metal top shield/cap. The problem is that in wind, or under other conditions, the flame can come in contact with the plastic. I can tell you from experience that this results in the plastic immediately melting, and the fuel catching fire as it spills on.... whatever's there.
Check your fuel supply. Use only specially formulated patio torch fuel. Make sure you have enough on hand. Using an alternate fuel "in a pinch" is not a good idea. Other fuels - gasoline, lamp oil, alcohol, kerosene, etc. - have different burn temperatures and characteristics which may exceed what the tiki is designed to handle safely. Also, you want to make sure the fuel contains citronella. This is the chemical that repels the mosquitoes - not just the smoke.
When filling your fuel canisters, remove them from the basket and to a different area before filling. NEVER fill the canisters in place! Especially if the wick is hot. Make sure the area is far from where the tikis will be used to prevent the possibility that a pool or slick of fuel is close enough for a spark to catch. (Also clean up the refueling area afterward. Even if away from potential flame sources, a puddle of spilled fuel is dangerous.)
Use a funnel to reduce spillage and wipe any spillage off the canisters before replacing them in the baskets. Spilled fuel represents a significant hazard - anything fuel-soaked becomes fuel. Also be sure to wash any fuel from your hands before lighting the tikis.
If your party will last longer than the burn time of the tikis, make sure to fill extra canisters to exchange when the tikis become empty - remember, no refilling in place or while the wick is hot. After the switch, store the empties upright in a metal container away from flamables. The wick is still hot and soaked with fuel.
Placing the Torches
When you're ready to place your torches for your party, a few more tips. Make sure to place the tikis a safe distance from flamables - fences, decks, gazebo cloth or screen, table full of paper plates and napkins, paper lanterns, banners and streamers, paper or plastic decorations, foliage... If the foliage has grown up around your tiki, cut it back before lighting. Don't forget the ground either. Dirt, brick, concrete, cement, etc. are fine. Dried leaves, trash, party decorations - flamables - at the base of the tiki are a fire hazard
Make sure when you place the tikis, that they are stable and out of the traffic pattern. Having one tip over or be knocked over will not be a good thing. Although tikis do have a point on the end of the shaft and are designed to be stuck in the ground, this does not offer appropriate stability. Depending on the soil, the shaft may not penetrate deep enough or the soil may be loose. A better solution is to pre-sink pipe - this is PVC pictures - slightly bigger than the shaft of the tiki. With this method, you can be sure to get the pipe deep and thus the shaft deep enough to be stable; and can use cement or other stabilizer if necessary. You also get the the tikis in the same place every time, rather than "eyeballing" the location each time and possibly getting the torch too close to something inappropriate. Note though, if you do use the pipes, make sure to clean them out before using them next year or they could be full of dirt, etc. and the tiki not penetrate deep enough to be stable.
Almost Ready to Party
Now that you have torches in good condition, properly filled with the correct fuel, and placed in an appropriate place, there's just one more thing to do before lighing the tikis for the party. Make sure you have a fire extinguisher rated for fuel fires, fully charged in an easily accessible place. Despite all precautions, freak accidents happen. A wind-blown napkin blows past the torch, catches fire, and lands in your box of 4th of July fireworks, for instance.
Make sure you know how to use the extinguisher - during a blaze is no time to read the instructions. Also make sure your party guests are aware of the location and use of the extinguisher.
You also should consider having a metal bucket and sand on hand. Buckets are good for smothering small buring objects, containing hot burned items, throwing sand on a fuel spill, etc. Plastic buckets will just melt and add to the problem. And have sand because it soaks up spilled fuel but doesn't burn. (Never throw water on a fuel fire - the buring fuel floats on the water and spreads wherever the water goes.)
And, here's a couple pictures of what can happen. The tiki fell onto the deck rail. Luckily, quick action, a fire extinguisher, and a bucket kept the damage to a minimum; and there were no injuries. So have fun, and be safe!