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I'm aware of someone accidentally leaving the burner on, twice (once with something on the range, once without). Clothes irons are left on as well. Things like this must be happening relatively frequently, yet I don't hear about buildings burning down very often. Why?

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    When I last cooked a pork loin, the oven was on for 90 minutes. Last time my MIL cooked a turkey it was 4-6 hours (she started it at about 4am then went back to bed). Why do you think leaving an oven on for hours on end will burn a house down. They kinda designed to be on for multiple hours. A clothes iron won't spontaneously catch fire either. Often, they're left where clothes are, and if the clothes are close enough to get heated, they could catch fire, but generally items don't just "catch fire & burn down a house". You'll have to give us more on why you think this might happen...
    – FreeMan
    Oct 3, 2022 at 12:46
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    Also keep in mind we've had household electricity for over a century now. Things were much less safe at the beginning, and over the decades practices and devices that proved to be particularly dangerous have generally been regulated out of existence.
    – nobody
    Oct 3, 2022 at 13:04
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    Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories and Codes (fire, electrical, & gas codes mostly, for this question.)
    – Ecnerwal
    Oct 3, 2022 at 13:14
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    Soldering irons are designed so the tip sits above the surface even if you don't put them back in the proper holder. So again, you have to take some other step of foolishness like putting paper or cloth on top of the iron, and then it has to actually ignite, rather than just char away from the hot iron, and find more fuel to burn... You will, however, ruin the tip. After a few replacement tips, you might learn to turn the iron off, or stop soldering because it never works anyway because you don't replace the ruined tips and that doesn't work right.
    – Ecnerwal
    Oct 3, 2022 at 13:52
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    To be fair, my inlaws did nearly have a stove top fire a few years back. They have an extra stove/oven in their garage because she tends to cook a lot for guests and it's handy. At the time, they'd use the cook top for storage because, well, horizontal surface. There was some cardboard on the stove top and some critters were in the garage, one of whom managed to turn a burner on. Fortunately, they arrived home just after this had happened and saw the little wisps of smoke from the cardboard starting to heat, and turned it off. Again, though, exceptional circumstances, not normal.
    – FreeMan
    Oct 3, 2022 at 14:51

2 Answers 2

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A clothes iron left on, in the normal upright position they sit when not actually actively ironing has nothing in contact with the heated surface to set on fire. It just wastes electricity and heats the air a bit.

Unless at the highest settings, the heated surface is too cool to ignite or scorch anything, anyway. You'd have to have it set high and leave it face down on cloth or paper for that to be a risk. In my circle of acquaintance actually using an iron at all is uncommon in the extreme for many decades now. I think I turned mine on last when opening an annoyingly glued to make it hard to service cell phone.

An oven can run basically forever without setting the house on fire, though the contents, if any, might set off the smoke alarm after a while. They are designed to contain the heat inside them and not become so hot anything would ignite outside them.

Stovetop burners likewise can run forever without issue - only if there's a large amount of oil is there any significant fire risk, rather than heating the general area and ruining a pan (and setting off smoke alarms if there's food in a pan on them, again.)

Some more "modern" stoves also have a "feature" that will turn off a burner after 3-4 hours, which is extremely annoying if you are simmering something slowly and wander back into the kitchen and find it showing turned on, but it's shut off. There are also external timer devices for folks with known forgetfulness issues that have to be turned on to use the stove and will shut it off after an hour or so unless reset.

Smoke alarms, which I've mentioned twice, are another factor in this. They alert people that there is a problem before it gets all the way out of hand, sometimes.

It all comes down to learning from mistakes that killed people and burnt down houses and regulating to prevent future deaths and houses burning. Cities with bad historical fires like London and Chicago have rather extreme measures for the latter part.

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  • I wish I could +2 for "who uses irons?" :). It's one of my retirement goals to own nothing that requires ironing. I haven't figured out how I'll manage to attend weddings and such but I'm determined.
    – jay613
    Oct 3, 2022 at 14:00
  • London started controlling people with fire regs just after 1666...
    – Solar Mike
    Oct 3, 2022 at 14:22
  • "actually using an iron at all is uncommon in the extreme for many decades", uncommon perhaps, but uncommon in the extreme? Let's see there's weddings - a couple a year, funerals - one a year but probably increasing :( and holiday parties - 1 or 2 per year. So I would expect most average men to have 4 - 6 ironing occasions per year. So, yes this is down tremendously from 40 years ago, but I find it still necessary to have and use an iron on occasion.
    – Glen Yates
    Oct 3, 2022 at 15:29
  • I reckon even on max for long periods, an iron in contact with cloth or paper will only leave it rather brown, or possibly melt some synthetics. Irons max out around 230°C apparently and the lowest autoignition temperature for clothing material I can find is polypropylene
    – Chris H
    Oct 3, 2022 at 15:36
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A few additional points to add to Ecnerwal's excellent answer:

  • Ovens

Many modern ovens have an automatic 12-hour shutoff. This is actually a problem for Orthodox Jews on certain holidays. As a result, a number of manufacturers, such as KitchenAid, have consulted with Jewish religious authorities and created "Sabbath Mode" ovens. These do not turn off after 12 hours and are also designed so that no indicator lights or other direct electric actions happen when opening/closing the door. I don't actually know whether the 12-hour shutoff was designed as a safety measure or an energy saving measure.

Generally speaking ovens contain fires very well. If your casserole catches fire, turn off the oven but don't open the door until the fire is out.

  • Irons

I remember many years ago seeing, in close succession, both an insurance ad using "oops, I left the iron" followed by "house burning down" and also an ad for a brand of iron that included automatic shutoff after a few minutes. I'm actually not sure why this isn't a standard feature. Then again, maybe it is. Last two times I used an iron were for countertop edges and for ironing kids' Perler Beads creations, both many years ago. (And in case anyone didn't know, you shouldn't let your kids play with Perler Beads near the basement floor drain - you'll regret it weeks/months later while snaking the main drain.)

  • Cooktop

This is actually the most likely problem, in my opinion. An iron you usually use for a few minutes and turn it off. An oven can go a long time without a problem - and even a fire is not usually a problem (it might ruin the oven but it is very unlikely to damage the rest of the house). But it is quite common to leave things (e.g., soup) cooking on a burner for a few hours, so forgetting about it or leaving the house for a quick errand that turns into hours, etc., followed by the contents of the bottom drying out and starting a fire definitely happens. Aside from simply not forgetting things, keeping flammable items (cookbooks, raw ingredients, etc.) away from the cooktop minimizes the problem. But that problem does exist.

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    Re Stove top fire: See my comment
    – FreeMan
    Oct 3, 2022 at 14:53
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    You're right about cooktops and things boiling dry. The solution is often to put the pan in a low oven for long cooking (I buy pans that will go in the oven for this sort of versatility, and have done it when making huge amounts of soup that wanted to stick on the bottom) or to use a slow cooker.
    – Chris H
    Oct 3, 2022 at 15:39
  • Fire retardant chemicals and building codes for fire separation and fire rated materials are another reason why even if there was a fire there is a good chance it can be put out and not spread. My jurisdiction keeps glazing on side yards less than 20% of the wall area to minimize the chance it spreads to a neighboring house. Oct 3, 2022 at 17:01

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