A Comprehensive Guide to Using Tiki Torches with Safety
Tiki torches are my preferred option for garden lighting, so it would be naïve and even careless not to address the risks associated with them. Let’s face it, for all but battery operated models (which simulate fire without actually producing it) tiki torches are… well, torches. There’s a flame on one end and most yards and gardens have fair amount of flammable things. The good news is, we can mitigate the risks with some simple precautions and common sense approaches in mind before we even light our tiki torches.
I’ve already addressed some smart safety considerations in a post on Tiki Torch Safety. It introduces some fundamental and common sense considerations, I thought it would be in everybody’s best interests to write a comprehensive guide to using tiki torches safely. So, with that in mind, let’s get started.
Before doing ANYTHING with tiki torches, it would be wise to know how a tiki torch works. Your average tiki torch starts with a post, stand or mount. Post mounted tiki torches are meant to be stuck in the ground and are the kinds most people are familiar with. However, table-top tiki torches are also quite common. The third option (mounted) is meant to be attached to something such as a fence post.
The next element of a tiki torch is its fuel source. Type we’re most familiar with contains a fuel reservoir at the top to hold the tiki torch oil and a cover with a wick. Less familiar are propane fueled tiki torches. Similar to a propane grill, depending on a propane tank to fuel the flame at the top.
Finally, understand how your garden torches produce flame. Regular oil or tiki torches fuel rely on a wick submerged in the fuel reservoir. As the name implies, the wick “wicks” fuel from the reservoir. When you light such torches, it is actually the vapors from the fuel that are burning rather than the wick. Think of a candle for a good example of this process. Propane model tiki torches differ from the regular models and they don’t require a wick. Liquid propane, under pressure in the propane tank post to the ignition point where it expands as a gas. If you’ve ever seen a flame at the top of a tower in some industrial area, it’s a bit like that.
With all of the above in mind, it doesn’t take much thinking to realize that, which ever model tiki torch you’re using, there’s a highly flammable fuel source involved and that’s what all the following tips will build around; keeping the flame where it belongs and off everything else.
Tiki Torch Safety Tips
Keep your fuel supply safely stored. When you’re actively using your tiki torches, fuel and flame will naturally be in close proximity. Absent that, keep flame safely away. Your jug of tiki torch oil should be stored in a cool, dry, well ventilated location. Don’t keep it in your house. Likewise, if you own propane tiki torches, keep your spare propane tanks outside, well away from your home in a shaded location.
Always extinguish your tiki torches when you expect them to be unattended for extended periods. Running inside to grab another 6 pack for the cooler is fine. But if you’ve said your farewells to your last guests and are planning to turn in, don’t just leave your torches unattended to burn out. Not only is it a waste of tiki torch oil or propane, but an open and unattended flame is just an open and unattended invitation for disaster.
Keep a chemical fire extinguisher handy. I consider a fire extinguisher a home safety essential. It is an absolutely critical item to have on hand if you entertain with tiki torches. Don’t rely on your trusty hose. Water will only spread tiki torch oil without extinguishing the flame and compound an already bad situation. A chemical fire extinguisher is the only sensible option.
In the event of a fire caused by a spilled tiki torch, divide and conquer. One person can fight the fire with the above mentioned fire extinguisher while another calls the fire department. Get the professionals on their way immediately.
Always extinguish your tiki torch and give it time to cool before moving it. The risk you’re trying to avoid here is a spill from the fuel reservoir with a flame source in close proximity. Spilling fuel from a cooled torch might leave you with some mess, but at least you won’t have a sudden flare up of ignited fuel spilling all over you and the ground. If the situation occurs, you can guess what happens next. You drop the lit torch in a panic leading to even more spillage and an even bigger catastrophe. But this tip applies to propane models as well even though fuel spills aren’t as likely a concern simply because of design. I’ve witnessed an event first hand where a lit propane torch was moved and the owner, unaware of its proximity, ignited the state flag he had hanging over his patio door. Fortunately nobody was hurt and the fire ended with the flag, but you can imagine how much worse things could have been. Play it safe and always extinguish your torch before you move it.
Ensure your tiki torch is securely placed. If your torch is a post-mounted model, be sure to insert it firmly in the ground and tamp the ground around it with the heel of your shoe. You want to be certain a casual bump won’t topple over your torch. Propane models are generally mounted to a heavy and solid base but use caution here as well. Make sure your tiki torch isn’t sitting on wobbly deck boards or uneven ground. Table top models should be set in the center of the table where bumps or jostling will have the least effect. Fence mounted tiki torches should be routinely checked to ensure the post isn’t deteriorating and that the mounting brackets are secure. Low profile tiki torches used for path lighting or decorative lighting on rock features or the like should be checked to ensure they are level and unlikely to fall over due to wind or gravity.
Look out below! Take the time to clear ground clutter from torches. Should there be a spill, you want to minimize the amount of combustible material under the likely area fuel may fall. What complicates this is that post mounted tiki torches are often placed in garden areas where decorative ground cover such as mulch is abundant. If possible, clear an area in an 8 to 10 inch radius from the tiki torch post. You can fill in this bare spot with decorative stone for a clean and attractive look.
Look out above! To the best of your ability, eliminate overhead fire risks. Generally, this means tree branches. Trim away low branches and ensure there is adequate distance between your tiki torch flame and the lowest branches. If you aren’t sure the distance is sufficient, better to be safe and increase it. A good test, though, is to hold your hand above the flame at the same height as the lowest branches. If you can’t hold your hand there indefinitely, assume your tree branch will fare no better. Having said that, don’t just worry about branches. Keep an eye out for anything that might drift over your torch flame such as streamers or flags.
Look out all around! Flames are fickle critters. They’re a lot like teenagers; willful, independent, unpredictable and they love to dance. Never place your torch adjacent to flammables. Just a small breeze can bend the flame in an unpredictable direction and ignite whatever they are near.
Do not overfill your tiki torch reservoir. There’s no need to top it off to the brim. Once the submerged end of your wick is in the oil, it will wick what’s needed to the external end. While a completely full reservoir won’t lead to a greater flame, it does increase the likelihood of spills.
Be attentive during filling and allow sloshed or spilled fuel to evaporate completely before lighting your tiki torch. I learned this lesson first hand the hard way with my first tiki torches. The jug “gluged” as I was filling the reservoir on one of my torches, leading to a generous amount of fuel missing the reservoir and soaking the natural wood torch. As I wasn’t paying attention, I lit the torch shortly after filling with, um, dramatic results. Hint: the wooden torch isn’t intended to burn. Fortunately, I had my fire extinguisher nearby. Better yet…
Remove the reservoir and fill it separately from the torch. The reservoir in most traditional torches is a removable can. You can minimize the risk of the accident I explained above by pulling out the can and filling it on a stable surface, away from the tiki torch, capping it, then reinserting it into the torch (though I still recommend allowing ample time to allow for evaporation in case some fuel spilled on the rim of the can). The only downside to this method is spills and stains.
Inspect your reservoir. As stated, reservoirs are usually metal cans. If, like me, your torches remain out and up through most of the year, they will be exposed to rain and will eventually deteriorate. It’s a good idea to inspect them to ensure they haven’t rusted through. A punctured tiki torch oil reservoir will leak constantly which increase the risk of the flame expanding beyond the wick and into areas it isn’t welcome. Replace deteriorating reservoirs as needed.
Keep a responsible distance. When entertaining, tiki torches add wonderful ambiance, but they also add risk. Keep your tiki torches in a safe distance from the areas your guests will occupy. Close enough for mood lighting, but not so close that a casual guest might unwittingly back into one and set their hair on fire. How distant will be determined by striking a balance between effective lighting and safety. If keeping your torches distant enough to be safe means reducing the available lighting to pointless levels, supplement light sources with battery or low voltage options.
Educate your guests, particularly those with children. If your guests include children, make certain their parents are aware that there are lit tiki torches in the garden and ask them to keep a very close eye on their kids. That means more than just keeping them away from the fire, it means in any games of tag they might engage in your garden.
Leash that hound! Pets are a concern when it comes to tiki torches. You should always be aware of storms too. When it’s windy out, go without. As stated, fire has a mind of its own. Fire on a windy day is like Brittney Spears on uppers. With a tiki torch, the unintended result could be your home going up in flames. Your safest bet is to simply skip the tiki torches entirely on windy days and take the party indoors.
I have written an article on all the risks and decisions that go into safely using tiki torches, you’d think these things were as dangerous as a leaky nuclear reactor managed by half-drunk chinchillas! While, yes, any open flame can be dangerous, the same can be said of cars and we get in them and drive them to work every day. When you drive to work, you take precautions. To start with, you had to study for and pass a test to get your license. You drive at, or near, the speed limit. You wear your safety belt. You stop at red lights and stop signs. You wait for green lights before you go. You don’t drive on the sidewalk. In other words, you use common sense approaches and were educated. The same rules apply to tiki torches. Knowing the risks and how to prevent them greatly reduces your chances of having an accident. Though one can never completely eliminate risk, by following the advice on tiki torch safety above you can be assured of at least greatly improved odds.