How Your Junk Drawer Could Set Your House on Fire

We all know we should clean out our junk drawers, but the real reason has nothing to do with getting organized. A 9 volt battery in a messy junk drawer is being blamed for a recent house fire in Amherst, New Hampshire, and the state's fire marshal is warning people to take a good look at the stuff they stash away.

"The potential is there," Londonderry, New Hampshire, Fire Chief Kevin MacCaffrie told CBS News in Boston. "There are a lot of things in a normal junk drawer that do burn, and apparently the ignition source was a 9 volt battery."

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The battery that sparked the Amherst house fire had been stored in the kitchen junk drawer inside a plastic bag filled with other batteries, the fire marshall's office said in a statement.

"The 9 volt battery rubbed against another battery and ignited the fire," the statement read. "The fire produced smoke throughout the first floor of the home."

The drawer, which the homeowner said had just been reorganized, also contained spare keys, a cigarette lighter, paper clips, and eye glass cleaner "along with everything else that you find in a 'junk' drawer," the fire marshall's office said.

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The problem is that, on a regular, rectangular 9 volt battery, both the positive and the negative contact points are on the same end. If those contact points touch a key or the clip on a pen, it can generate enough heat to cause a fire.

Chief MacCafferie demonstrated how a paperclip touching the contact points of a 9 volt battery could scorch a square of tissue in minutes. A wad of steel wool glowed orange and set paper on fire in just seconds when it rubbed up against a 9 volt battery.

In this case, the homeowners didn't lose everything -- "We were fortunate not have been away for the weekend," they told the fire department, which did not release their names -- but their scare has led fire officials around the country to issue junk drawer warnings. Here are a five tips for making your catch-all a safer one:

  • Get rid of the actual junk. Throw away anything that's broken, missing pieces, worn out, or hasn't been used for years. Who really needs half a dozen fading magic markers?

  • Don't store lighters in the junk drawer. Keep cigarette lighters and matches out of reach of children and away from flammable materials.

  • Secure your batteries. If you still want to keep extra batteries in your junk drawer, a small strip of electrical tape across the contact points will keep them from becoming a fire hazard.

  • Put away the paper. Stash a small notepad or a few self-sticking notes near the pens and put all of the other papers -- appliance manuals, wrapping and tissue paper, address labels, and the like -- somewhere else.

  • Keep small things contained. Small boxes, plastic bags, and drawer dividers -- even an old silverware holder -- can help keep tiny items like pins, pennies, and paperclips from scattering inside the drawer and coming into contact with your batteries.

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