Category: Podcasts


Bee Careful: How to Avoid a Stinging Issue in 9 Bee Safety Tips

“Every man for himself!” is the battle cry of one of our VP’s sisters when it comes to bees.

If you’ve ever been stung by a bee, you know it can hurt, and it can be deadly for those with a bee allergy. Bees (and wasps) can also harm your house and bring unwanted pests. Couple that with the infamous “murder hornets” and these buzzing insects may not be your favorite guests.

So, what do you need to know about bees, wasps, and your home? We reached out to Ian Williams, a technical services manager for Orkin Pest Control. Ian has been in the pest control industry since 2009 and shared important bee and wasp safety tips, so you and your loved ones can avoid these stinging insects at home!

Tip #1 – Know where the bees live, work, and play 

There are thousands of species of bees native to the US, but the majority of homeowners see and interact with honeybees, bumblebees, and carpenter bees.

Most Common Bee Nests - Bee Safety Tips

Tip #2- Respect the bees 

According to Ian, most of the bees we interact with here in the US aren’t a menace. Yes, they can sting, and that can be a real danger for a family member with a bee allergy. However, for a healthy adult who doesn’t have an allergy, stings don’t present a large threat.

One of the best bee safety tips is simply to “respect” them.

“We want to keep our distance from bees and wasps,” says Ian, “If we’re just out in the yard and there’s flowers and there’s bees around, they’re happy, we’re happy. Unless you threaten them or accidentally squish or step on them, they’re not there to bother you.”

Fun Bee Fact - None of the male carpenter bees have stingers - bee safety tips

Tip #3 – Prevent woodpeckers from attacking your home 

Carpenter bees can cause damage to your home.

They burrow little holes in wood and wooden structures,” says Ian. “That’s where they put excrement and pollen bits. These holes can be on the side of your home, underneath your deck or in the wood holding up your child’s swing set.”

While this can damage paint and wooden areas of your home, the real issue is if a woodpecker discovers the carpenter bees.

“Some of the larger woodpeckers, especially, can do pretty significant damage in their attempt to get to the carpenter bees and their larva,” says Ian. “Honeybees, too, can become a nuisance when they nest inside a wall.”

Tip #4 – Seal up your home

We’ve had to remove honeybee nests with a couple hundred pounds of nesting material and honey that’s been building up inside of a wall,” says Ian.

The problem isn’t necessarily when the bees are living in the home as they’re maintaining the beehive. The area becomes an issue once the bee colony leaves.

“As the nest degrades, the honey will start to ferment,” says Ian. “You’re going to be attracting a lot of other pests with that, and you can potentially start to see mold issues.”

Once you remove a honeybee colony from inside your home, you need to address the entrance to the space and make sure they don’t try to return.

While this is one of the best bee safety tips, it’s also great for all homeowners to follow! Before winter, you may have applied sealants to your windows and doors or old mortar on brick. As parts of the country undergo a freeze-thaw cycle, some sealants degrade leaving behind open spaces perfect for bee nests. So, it’s important to reseal those holes and complete necessary exterior maintenance to deter bees from your house.

“All the things that homeowners say, ‘I’ll get to it eventually,’” says Ian. “Those are things that’ll make a direct impact on whether bees decide to show up.”

Tip #5: Call a professional if you have “killer bees”

“When we talk about killer bees, we’re talking about an Africanized honey bee,” says Ian, who explains that they’re a hybrid subspecies of the European honeybee created and accidentally released in Brazil in the 1950s. Unfortunately, they eventually made their way into North American and the southern region of the US.

“Africanized honeybees are defensive bees,” says Ian. “If you’re a homeowner in an area that has established Africanized honeybees, you want to be really careful.”

If you don’t know what type of bee you have, call a professional like an Orkin technician who can devise a pest management plan for your home.

Tip #6 – Be mindful but not terrified of the so-called “murder hornet”

Picture of a murder hornet - bee safety tips

Beware of the murder hornet.

Murder hornets in the US have only been seen in Washington state, and they’re actually Asian giant hornets, which were introduced accidentally from Japan. While it’s important to be aware of them, Ian recommends staying calm.

“I wouldn’t be terrified of them,” says Ian. “They do have a more potent sting than the hornets we have here, but again, a healthy adult without an allergy is probably not going to have an issue.”

It’s important to note that state and federal officials are trying very hard to eradicate Asian giant hornets since they can be dangerous to honeybees.

“The Asian giant hornet actually goes after honeybees and will attack them,” explains Ian. “They will decimate a honeybee hive, scavenge the young, and eat the honey.” This is a real problem for hobbyists and commercial beekeepers alike.

Tip #7 – Like to barbecue frequently or house parties? Call a professional

If you have a good party going on, bees and wasps might show up! Bees are plant feeders that seek out nectar, which means they’re attracted to sugary substances, such as sweet drinks. Yellowjackets are protein feeders, meaning they love a good barbecue.

“You throw hot dogs or hamburgers on the grill and the yellowjackets are there,” says Ian.

Yellowjackets can be difficult to tackle late in the season due to their large nests. That’s why it’s important to call a professional.

“Have them do an assessment of your entire yard and property to make sure they don’t see something you’ve missed,” says Ian.

If you end up using commercially available traps to prevent bees and wasps from crashing your party, make sure you place them away from your entertaining spaces to draw the pests away from your home.

“If I’ve got an area where I want a grill and have a patio, I’m going to put the jacket trap on the other end of the yard to try and draw them to that.”

Bees vs. Wasps vs. Hornets - bee safety tips

Tip #8 – If you do get stung, get out of there

When you’re stung, the bee or wasp tags you with a pheromone that says you’re a threat to the nest. 

“You need to leave that area immediately,” says Ian. “I’m sure all too many homeowners know the sting of having dealt with these before, so just be careful out there.”

Tip #9 – Don’t hate on the bees

“The vast majority of the thousands of species of bees and wasps that we deal with, or that exist in the US, are beneficial,” says Ian. “They’re really amazing pollinators and on the wasp side, do a really great job of going after a lot of other pest insect species.”

When to get rid of a bee or wasp problem

Even when talking about aggressive killer bees and yellowjackets, they’re only an issue when they’re right around your house. Professionals like Orkin can help you figure out the best way to handle your stinging insect issue and if need be, help remove the bees or wasps. 

“A bald-faced hornet nest in a tree 60 feet off the ground in your backyard is different than on the eave of your house, and handling those is different,” says Ian.

Orkin has the right tools and equipment to handle beehives and nests, and even helps to prevent an issue from happening again. This requires removing any of the nesting material, cleaning the area to eliminate the scents and pheromones, and inspecting the exterior to find where to seal.

“At Orkin, we know each situation is unique. Looking for a custom solution to keep our customers safe, to keep our customers’ property intact – that’s really what we’re all about,” says Ian.

Stay up to date with home maintenance

The vipHome.app can help! Our home maintenance app sends you personalized reminders for home maintenance and tailored recommendations for home improvement. The app’s vipTips help you know what to do and when to do it around the home, and our weather alerts help prepare your home for whatever Mother Nature has in store! Simplify your homeownership with the vipHome.app. Download the app today! 
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Got Recalled Consumer Products? Follow These Steps to Keep Your Home Safe

Last year was a record-breaking year for recalls. More than 1 billion units of food, drugs, medical devices, automobiles, and consumer products were recalled in the United States, and unfortunately, some of these products may still be in your home. That’s why we reached out to Patty Davis of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Patty shared with us important tips to help you handle recalled products, so they don’t harm you or your family.

What is a product recall?

“When a product is recalled, that means there is a hazard associated with that product,” says Patty, who has been with the CPSC for more than 18 years. “[The CPSC is] working alongside the company to get it out of consumers’ homes and off the marketplace, so that it does not harm anyone.”

Most major product recalls are voluntary, and most products are recalled when there hasn’t been any injuries or deaths associated with them. Unfortunately, sometimes, there has to be a mandatory recall.

“In those cases, the CPSC has to go to court to force a company to do a recall,” explains Patty.

Thankfully, most companies work with CPSC, want to protect their customers, and make sure consumers receive recall notices.

Common product recalls to look out for

While there isn’t one type of item that sees the most product recalls, toys are one of the first categories consumers should review. Recently, the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play, which was initially recalled in 2019, received a new warning.

“Kids are the most vulnerable among us,” says Patty, “so kids’ products in your home are especially important.”

Parents should also go through their children’s toy chests periodically and check items against the product recall list on the CPSC website.

Baby cribs, too, have had issues in the past and now have a mandatory standard.

A baby reaching out of a crib

Check that your crib has not been recalled!

“Cribs can no longer have that drop side,” says Patty. “Cribs have to be sturdier, so you want to check your product and see if your crib has been recalled.

Of course, kids and baby products aren’t the only types of products to be recalled. Dehumidifiers have also caused issues over the years as well as stoves, refrigerators, electrical items, even bicycles.

“You’ll be amazed that you may find something in your home that has been recalled,” says Patty.

How do you get alerted to a product recall?

“Recalls can affect so many products,” says Patty. “You can see why it’s difficult for us to make sure consumers know about each and every one of them.”

There are quite a few ways you can learn about a product recall. Sometimes, you may be alerted by the company or even the news, in the event of a massive recall. Other times, you may have to do some research yourself.

1. A company may contact you via mail or email.

Most major products, such as cars, appliances, and nursery products, require registration. That means if a product is recalled, you’ll be notified, either through the mail or by an email from the company itself.

If your product doesn’t require registration but you have the option to register, you should consider it.

“If you register your product, it is the absolute best way for a company [to contact you] because they know you now,” says Patty. “They know you have that product, they know you have the serial number, they know you have that model number.”

Registration generally takes only a few minutes, and it helps keep you informed regarding product recalls.

2. Sign up for CPSC alerts.

“Every year we issue about 200-plus recalls,” says Patty. “We issue them every single week.”

A person typing on a phone

Get recalled alerts right on your phone.

The CPSC sends out recall information through a variety of sources, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can sign up to receive recall announcement emails directly from the CPSC.

“We usually put them out on Thursdays,” says Patty. “That’s recall day around here, so you can immediately get an email that evening or the next morning.”

3. Be proactive.

Don’t wait to receive updates. Instead, check the CPSC website or even check the CPSC Recall App when you’re shopping or simply going through your home!

Though retail stores are required to pull products off the shelves or even stop you at the register, the app can come in handy when you’re shopping at secondhand markets, including online outlets like Facebook Marketplace.

I love shopping on those secondhand marketplaces,” says Patty, “but I’m finding that I need to check to see if that product has been recalled before I buy it. You don’t want to bring something [dangerous] home.”

Since it’s illegal to sell a recalled product, make sure to check the CPSC product recall list before you post or sell your products. If you’re buying, run all the checks before you purchase an item.

What to do if you have a recalled product in your home

The CPSC negotiates with companies on behalf of consumers, so consumers will receive a refund, a replacement product, or a repair.

“If it’s a repair, we look to make sure that it actually is going to fix what’s wrong with that product, so it’s safer for consumers to use,” says Patty.

You don’t have to show your proof of purchase because some products may have been brought weeks, months, or even years ago.

A person putting a phone in a recycling bin

You may not be able to throw out a recalled product.

“As long as you have the product, you are eligible to take part in that recall,” says Patty.

The company or CPSC recall announcement will explain what you need to do. You may need to take the product to a dealer to be serviced or dispose of it once you receive your refund or replacement item. Some products, such as lithium-ion batteries, are not safe to put in the trash. In that case, you may have to go to the dump or contact your local department of waste management for disposal options.

Do you have an unsafe product at home?

The CPSC urges you to head over to the Safer Products website, where you can voice any product safety concerns.

“If you have an incident, you’re hurt – say you’re weeding your garden with one of those trimmers and it cuts you or throws something at you – you need to let us know about that,” says Patty.

If possible, homeowners should provide pictures and the item’s model number, as well as other important information.

“You can also choose to remain anonymous if you don’t want to give that information,” says Patty, “but definitely let us know about the issue.”

Of course, the most important part of a recall is when consumers take action.

“Pay attention to those recalls because there are many products inside your home that may potentially be a fire hazard or may harm your child,” says Patty. “By keeping on top of recalls, you can protect your family.”

Homeownership can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be.

The vipHome.app can help! Our home maintenance app sends you personalized reminders for home maintenance and tailored recommendations for home improvement. The app’s vipTips help you know what to do and when to do it around the home, and our weather alerts help prepare your home for whatever Mother Nature has in store! Simplify your homeownership with the vipHome.app. Download the app today! 
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Top Fire Safety Tips from NFPA That Can Save Your Family and Home

In the unfortunate event of a home fire, you may have less than two minutes to escape your home safely from the time your smoke alarm sounds. Are you prepared?

While vipHome.app wants to help you prevent a home fire from happening in the first place, you need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. That’s why we reached out to the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA)! We spoke with Susan McKelvey, Communications Manager for NFPA, to learn the fire safety tips you need to know to best protect your family and home from a home fire.

Understanding the danger

“People tend to be overconfident when it comes to home fires,” says Susan, who has worked for the NFPA for more than eight years. “While the number of home fires has generally declined over the past 20 years or so, they can and do still happen.”

The vast majority of fires are preventable, but there’s much more work to do to reduce the risk of death and injury.

“Because of that overconfidence, people don’t always consider home fires something they should be concerned about, but in reality, it continues to be a risk,” says Susan.

While there is no way to completely eliminate the risk of a home fire, there are two basic but essential steps you can take to protect your household from fire.

“Make sure you have working smoke alarms everywhere you need them and create an escape plan,” says Susan, “so that when the smoke alarm sounds, you and your family can use that time as wisely and effectively as possible.”

Here’s how to do just that.

#1 – Install and maintain smoke detectors

“Most homes have at least one smoke alarm, but they’re not always maintained or working properly,” says Susan.

NFPA data shows that almost three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms (41%) or no working smoke alarms (16%). Many homes have smoke alarms that aren’t working properly, either because of dead or missing batteries. That’s why it’s imperative for homeowners to check their smoke alarms monthly to make sure they are working properly.

NFPA suggests completing these steps to install and maintain your smoke detectors:

  • Install at least one alarm on every level of your home, near all sleeping areas, and inside each bedroom.
  • Install interconnected smoke alarms, so when one sounds, they all sound.
  • Use combination alarms, which detect smoldering and flaming fires.
  • Test your smoke alarms once a month to make sure they are working properly.
  • Change the batteries when the alarms indicate.
  • Replace smoke alarms every 10 years or sooner if the chirping doesn’t stop when you change the batteries. (“Many homeowners don’t realize that smoke alarms are not designed to work forever,” says Susan.)

Not sure how old your smoke alarms are? Check the date of manufacture on the back of the alarm. Your alarm needs to be replaced 10 years from that date.

#2 – Get out, stay out

Explains Susan, “Today’s home fires burn faster than ever, and you have such a small window of time to escape safely in a typical home fire. You may have as little as two minutes to get out safely from the time the smoke alarms sound.”

Not sure how to make a fire escape plan?

Susan suggests completing these essential steps to create an effective escape plan for your household:

  • Draw a grid of your home with all the rooms.
  • Identify two exits from each room (typically a door or a window).
  • Make sure exits are not blocked (by furniture or clutter) and are in working order.
  • Determine a path from each room’s exits to the outside.
  • Select a meeting place outside the home, generally in front, where everyone knows to gather.
  • Practice the plan (and different escape scenarios) with your household regularly, at least twice a year.

That last step is crucial and should not be overlooked.

Practice promotes safety

A smoke detector surrounded by smoke - fire safety tips

When the smoke detector sounds, get out and stay out.

“Practicing your plan creates muscle memory around what to do when the smoke alarm sounds,” says Susan. “As simple as it sounds, ensuring that everyone has actually practiced the steps they’d take in a fire situation can have a potentially life-saving impact. Everyone will be able to snap into action, know exactly what to do, and use the precious little time they have to get out quickly and safely.”

Equally important is practicing different scenarios, so your family will know how to escape a home fire if certain exits are blocked.

If possible, grab a cellphone on the way out or include going to a neighbor’s home as part of your plan, so you can call 911 as quickly as possible.

But NFPA stresses, “Get out, stay out.”

The next wave of fire safety – sprinklers

NFPA sees sprinklers as the next step in fire safety evolution as the home fire death rate has remained steady over the last few decades.

“What we’re seeing is that when people have fires in their homes, they’re still having trouble escaping safely,” says Susan. “Sprinklers dramatically reduce the likelihood of your risk to fire in terms of fatalities, but also injuries and property damage. They’re safer for firefighters, too.”

An arm of the NFPA is the “Fire Sprinkler Institute,” which works to require sprinklers in new home constructions. As for the homeowners who fear seeing sprinklers in their homes, Susan assures that’s not a problem.

“If you look at the way modern sprinklers are designed, it’s just like a little tap flush with your ceiling, so you really can’t see them. They’re very tastefully done.”

Awareness saves lives

The best life-saving measure when dealing with home fires is taking preventative steps and precautions.

Notes Susan, “In a real fire situation, it’s scary. It’s hot. There’s smoke. You need to be prepared in advance to ensure that everyone in your home knows how to protect themselves.”

That is why having a home fire escape plan and correct smoke alarm placement is so critically important.

“Having an awareness of the ways you can reduce your risk of home fire and protect yourself, your family members, and your home can really make such a tremendous difference.”

Prevent the preventable in your home

Homeownership can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. The vipHome.app can help. In less than four minutes, enjoy a new way to manage your home. Simply download the app, register your home, and enjoy a simplified homeownership experience.

Download the app today!

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How Do Wildfires Start? The Most Common Causes & How to Save Your Home

This summer, Canadian wildfire smoke spread across the U.S. and engulfed more than a third of our country’s population. While this may have been an anomaly, wildfires are common in many parts of the United States with more than half of all U.S. properties at risk for wildfire damage. 

Michele Steinberg, Wildfire Division Director, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), recently stopped by the vipHome Podcast to share how wildfires ignite and spread, so you can protect your home and family! 

Wildfires occur naturally. 

While many wildfires start due to human activity, wildfires are reoccurring natural events that frequently happen in remote forested areas.

“Most of North America has what we call ‘fire adapted ecosystems,’” says Michele, who has been helping homeowners with the NFPA since 2002. “Those are places where, over millennia, the plant and animal species have adapted to fire.”

Wildfires in these areas have several benefits, where they act as “nature’s cleanup crew.” They clean up debris and remove old dry brush. Additionally, they add nutrients to the soil and bring extra benefits to the landscape. Unfortunately, wildfires are now catching attention because of the great devastation they’ve been causing to communities.  

“We are getting bigger wildfires,” says Michele, “and we’re certainly seeing more and more impacts on our built environment and on our communities.”

Why are we seeing such devastation with recent wildfires?

Though the number of wildfires hasn’t changed, there are three reasons why wildfires have made headlines and created record-breaking damage in the past few years.

#1 – Fire-adapted environments haven’t burned as they have needed.

Though fire is natural and needed in certain ecosystems, humans have entered these environments and at times, have helped to prevent ignition. 

“We have lots of land that hasn’t been restored to its health and its natural environment, partly because again, ironically we’ve been trying to keep fire from happening in these landscapes where it does need fire,” says Michele. 

This means the natural cleanup of the landscape hasn’t occurred in some places for more than a century. The natural landscape has accumulated brush and other debris, which has helped to create additional fuel for recent fires.

“When fire does start, you’re going to have a tendency to have a worse fire, a bigger fire, a hotter fire, and potentially a more disastrous one.”

#2 – Human construction has invaded fire-adapted environments.

a wildfire burning near a neighborhood - how do wildfires start

Communities have been built in fire-adapted environments.

In recent decades, society has expanded into fire-prone areas in the southern and western U.S. Unfortunately, necessary precautions have not been taken.

“Most of the time, we’re not designing our communities and our buildings in a way that would be compatible with the fact that there is wildfire on the landscape,” says Michele.

Also, some areas that do not have fire have also suffered greatly from human development, such as Hawaii. 

“Development over time is also doing things like disturbing the natural cycles of some of these plants and animals, introducing fire in places where it hasn’t been traditionally,” says Michele. 

Certain types of development have also been detrimental, such as the introduction of grasses that carry fire well. This has led to greater devastation.  

“One person in Hawaii described it to me as the locals have sat there with the fire hazard growing up around them, quite literally with these grasses and things that are happening on the landscape,” says Michele. 

#3 – A volatile environment has helped to fuel recent wildfires. 

More extreme weather events have also led to wildfires. In the last decade, warming ocean temperatures, hurricane-force winds, and droughts on land have helped fuel wildfires.  

“We can’t look back a hundred years to say this is how we should do things,” says Michele. “We have to look forward to say, “‘Now we need to expect more significant events, more drought, more heavy rain in the seasons, etc.’”

How to prevent human-caused wildfires 

According to a joint study by the University of Colorado and the University of Massachusetts, eight out of 10 wildfires are caused by humans, and these fires are responsible for nearly half of all area burned. Thankfully, many human-caused fires are preventable. 

How to prevent wildfires from open burning and intentional fires 

Wildfires can happen when small fires, such as opening burning and unattended campfires, burn out of control. To avoid starting wildfires, listen to state and local alerts and be aware of the laws.

“If you’re following your local emergency manager or fire service, they will note a red flag day, which is a day with those hot, dry, windy conditions,” says Michele. 

opening burning - how do wildfires start

Avoid certain activities during hot, dry, windy conditions.

They’ll also let you know when there is a burn ban in effect, which is when a state fire marshal or your local county fire service may say conditions are too dangerous for open burning. 

(Opening burning occurs when homeowners burn items, like leaves or debris, in their yards. Not all states allow open burning, so make sure to know your laws and regulations!) 

How to prevent wildfires from equipment sparks 

One of the leading causes of wildfires is a spark from mechanical or electrical equipment when the weather conditions are right. 

“Our electrical power lines, for example, are the culprit of fires when we have those hot, dry, and windy conditions,” says Michele. 

A recent campaign in the Western U.S. called for “One Less Spark – One Less Wildfire” after research found many wildfires started by roadways in California, Oregon, and Washington. 

“This is maybe somebody dragging chains on a trailer or maybe somebody’s car is overheating,” says Michele. “They pull over to the side of the road, and that hot motor can ignite the dry grass underneath it.”

Similarly, grills, campfires, and fire pits can cause wildfires unintentionally, so it’s important to be cognizant during all fire use. Homeowners should also consider not mowing the lawn or using fireworks if there is a red flag warning. 

“Fireworks are a massive cause of fire every single year around the Fourth of July,” says Michele. “Any kind of use of something that could spark a fire is a bad idea.”

Simple wildfire home preparedness tips 

“Wildfire is going to happen at some point if you live in a place where wildfire is part of the landscape,” warns Michele. 

With more than half of all U.S. properties at risk for wildfire damage, you need to prepare, and here are a few simple steps that can help!

Check the first five feet around your home. 

a rank near dried brush in a yard - how do wildfires start

Clear brush away from your home.

The five-foot zone around the home is the most important area to address when making your home more resistant to potential ignition. 

“We’re talking about the perimeter right at your foundation and out,” says Michele. “That’s the place that you don’t want any material to be able to pile up and collect, like leaves or debris. You don’t want to have anything that can burn in that area.”

Make sure not to pile firewood or flammable construction/home improvement materials near your home. Also, consider landscaping choices that can help make the area safer, such as adding gravel or even bare earth. 

Check your home from the ground up. 

Stone or concrete foundations help prevent embers from getting inside your home, but some homeowners have siding that reaches the ground. For these situations, consider adding at least six inches of metal flashing or other fire-resistant material to prevent ignition. 

“Again, it’s a very small space,” says Michele, “but it creates that little barrier for embers piling up and starting to ignite anything that’s combustible on the siding.”

Also, check your home from the top down. 

Clear out any materials near your home that can ignite. Start at the roof and work your way down. Look for debris and any place embers can land. Secure these areas by screening any vents and boxing in open eaves. Clean gutters and downspouts, and clear dead, dry materials off porches, decks, stairs, and away from the foundation.

Make it a group project! 

The conditions in the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ), or the area up to 200 feet from a home’s foundation, can help to minimize (or exacerbate) the likelihood of ember attacks. That’s why it’s important to work with your neighbors, who may be in your HIZ.  

“We may not have control over a hundred feet away from our home, “says Michele, “so the more we can get our neighbors adjacent to us to do the work – to do the cleanups and be aware of the danger – the better off the whole community is going to be.”

Prevent the preventable in your home

Homeownership can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. The vipHome.app can help. In less than four minutes, enjoy a new way to manage your home. Simply download the app, register your home, and enjoy a simplified homeownership experience.

Download the app today!

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Secure Your Smart Home: A 6-Step Guide to Protecting Your Devices

The average American home now has 20.2 connected devices inside of it, and by 2025, the number of smart homes in the U.S. is expected to reach 77 million. Unfortunately, like any connected device, smart home tech can be hacked.

“If you have a lot of smart home devices and think there’s no reason to be concerned – it’s a recipe for disaster,” says Eugenia Blackstone, Chief Marketing Officer at Iris® Powered by Generali. “It’s important to educate yourself and know what you can do to reduce your risk.”

Eugenia recently stopped by the vipHome Podcast and shared with us simple ways to help protect your smart home from hackers and other digital threats.

Is the threat real?

Almost three in four homeowners with smart home tech devices worry that someone can gain access to their device without their permission, but is the threat real? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. In fact:

  • 9% of families have had hackers gain access to a device.
  • 16% had their personal data sold to other companies.
  • 11% had suffered some sort of virus or spyware infection on their device.

“On top of that, smart tech owners deal with issues like their private information becoming public, companies using or tracking their online activity for purposes the user didn’t intend or consent to,” says Eugenia.

There have been unwanted recordings of homeowners’ voices, images, and activities, which can lead to identity theft.

“Hackers are always trying to be one, two, three steps ahead, so it’s important that you do as much as you can to reduce your risk,” says Eugenia.

Six steps to a safer smart home

While you can’t protect your home from every digital threat, these seven simple steps can help to lower your risk of a smart home hack and can help to keep personal information private.

Step 1: Gain awareness.

Before you can protect your home, you must understand the digital threats that can harm it and your smart home tech.

“Educating yourself automatically brings your risk down,” says Eugenia.

Step 2: Change your passwords.

changing your passwords

Update your passwords frequently.

This easy and simple step is often overlooked, but its importance cannot be understated.

“Anything you can do to consistently change your passwords and use unique passwords is going to drastically lower your risk,” says Eugenia.

Also, avoid reusing passwords. If one password is compromised, all the accounts that use that password will be compromised. If one of them is your email or other sensitive accounts, you could be in trouble.

“Around tax time, you may have your Social Security number in there, W-2s, things like that, in your email,” says Eugenia.

So, make sure to update your passwords frequently and limit your password usage to one account.

Step 3: Set up a separate Wi-Fi router for your smart home devices.

Some experts recommend setting up two separate secure Wi-Fi networks at home – one for your personal devices and one for your smart home products.

“Now you’ve got two different networks that you’re managing and passwords you need to remember,” says Eugenia, “but that can be beneficial and help to protect your personal information and privacy.”

Step 4: Update your devices.

a smart home device

Updates can patch vulnerabilities.

Many major data breaches in the last 10 years have been attributed to ignored security updates.

“Most of the time, those device updates are patching some sort of security vulnerability that the company has either discovered or that’s been made aware to them,” says Eugenia.

Updates are the manufacturer’s way of correcting a security issue.

“If you’re not doing the updates, then you’re really leaving yourself an open door for cyber criminals to attack,” says Eugenia.

Keep in mind: You can set your devices to auto-update and some devices may need to be plugged in or have a certain battery percentage to update.

“It’s also not a bad practice to check every 30 days or so and make sure the updates have downloaded,” says Eugenia.

Step 5: Consider security add-ons.

Add-ons can provide additional security to your smart home tech devices. The most common add-ons to security are firewalls and antivirus software, which have become ubiquitous.

“Both of those are incredibly important in protecting devices from hackers and are pretty common now on a lot of devices,” says Eugenia.

Additional security add-ons may include:

  • Anti-phishing programs that can detect software that is known for phishing.
  • Anti-ransomware that can help protect users’ data and prevent an attack.
  • A data scrambler that changes keystrokes to protect passwords and other information.

“We have some ways to go before some of the best things out there become basic add-ins,” says Eugenia. “The best thing consumers can do is really be proactive about asking, ‘What sort of additional protections do I get with this device?’”

Step 6: Do your due diligence.

a woman on the phone in front of a computer

Complete your due diligence.

Before you ever buy a smart home device, research the manufacturer. Look at their website to see which can provide you with protection and value privacy. Consider calling their customer service to learn more about their product and security protocols.

“It is something that may in the moment feel like a headache, but it may end up saving you a huge headache down the road,” says Eugenia.

Make sure to choose companies that demonstrate a commitment to data privacy.

“Companies do this by making it easy to set up automatic updates on their devices or proactively partnering with a provider, like Iris, to offer you identity protection or online data protection,” says Eugenia.

What to do if your smart home tech is hacked

There are a variety of ways that hackers can infiltrate your system. One of the most common is through your Wi-Fi network. Once hackers gain access to your network, they have access to any device connected to it.

Hackers can also enter through a particular device – a smart light bulb, baby monitor, or a video doorbell. With the exception of ransomware, most homeowners won’t know they have been hacked until long after it’s happened.

a security camera for a baby - how to prevent your smart home devices

Make sure what’s most important to you is seccure.

Once you notice anomalies, such as devices moving very slowly or acting oddly, the first thing you should do is unplug, shut off the power source, and/or disconnect the device. Then reach out to the manufacturer of the device, who can help get the device working safely and properly again. Of course, make sure you contact the actual manufacturer.

“Make sure you’re going to that device’s website and looking up the customer service for that device, not just contacting some random tech support, not asking Alexa to contact tech support for you,” warns Eugenia.

Some scammers will purposely infiltrate a system and tell you the system has been compromised to trigger a call to a phony tech support number. That’s why it’s important to keep ahead of hackers and update your devices, change your passwords, and complete other safety protocols.

“The bad guys are always working to stay one step ahead, so it’s really important that customers be vigilant,” says Eugenia.

Keep your home safe and secure

Homeownership can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. The vipHome.app can help. In less than four minutes, enjoy a new way to manage your home. Simply download the app, register your home, and enjoy a simplified homeownership experience.

Download the app today!

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Woman hiker spraying insect repellent against tick on her legs and boots

DIY Home Pest Control Tips from Orkin Pest Control

Ticks, bedbugs and squirrels – oh, my! And those are just three of the pests that look for a way inside your home. To find out how to protect your abode, we reached out to Glen Ramsey, Senior Technical Services Manager and board-certified entomologist for Orkin Pest Control.

Glen earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in entomology and works behind the scenes at Orkin with pest identification and problem solving of unique home situations.

Watch the latest episode of the vipHome Podcast now and read on to learn DIY home pest control tips.

Why pests invade your home

“We’re trying to prevent harm,” says Glen, who has worked in pest management for more than 13 years. “There’s obvious harm that some pests can do to people, but there’s also harm to homes.”

As the weather cools, homes face two major category of pests – 1) rodents that try and migrate inside, so they can survive the winter months and breed at the same time and 2) occasional invaders that don’t typically feed or breed in homes, but try to escape cold weather or high heat.

So, how do homeowners begin to combat these pests?

“The first thing to do is walk around your house,” says Glen. “Look for things that don’t look right such as scratch marks, bent gutters, and popped shingles. Those types of things are indicative of another problem.”

Make note of these areas and then seal cracks and crevices, install screens on windows and make sure they are tight. Also, caulk around plumbing lines, air-conditioning, HVAC lines, and where your cable line enters your home.

When it comes to your trees, you should cut away any branches that are overhanging or touching the home. This prevents pests from being able to jump or just walk right onto the house.

“If your bushes are 12 to 18 inches away from the foundation of your home and you cutaway on the backside, you can’t tell,” says Glen. “It still looks beautiful, but it keeps ants from being able to walk from the bush onto the house.”

The same goes for overhanging trees, which allow squirrels and cockroaches to drop onto your roof and enter your home.

Home remedies to get rid of ticks

red tick on blade of grass

Make your yard undesirable to ticks.

“There is definite evidence of new ticks being introduced into the United States, and people are being exposed to more and more tick-borne diseases,” says Glen, who lives down the street from a CDC tick specialist. “It’s extremely important for homeowners to wear repellents when they go outside.”

The CDC website has many useful resources for homeowners, but one of the most important tips is simply to cut the grass.

“Tall grass is notorious for ticks,” says Glen. “Ticks do what’s called ‘questing.’ They’ll stick out their front legs while their back legs hold onto the top of the grass stick. As you walk by, they’ll grab your pant leg or your dog, and go with you. It’s important that you keep grass cut short, so they can’t do that.”

Another suggestion is creating ecotones in the yard. If you have a wooden area and your grass leads up to it, consider adding a gravel barrier in between.

“That harsher break between the wooded area and the grass is a huge deterrent to ticks,” says Glen. “It also keeps your lawn better protected from anything that might be coming through the woods.”

Deer will transport ticks, so avoid planting vegetation that will attract deer and other animals, as well.

How to get rid of ladybugs in your house

ladybug on a leaf

Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home…

Ladybugs are very beneficial, especially in your garden. They eat aphids, which are pests of plants. However, you want to stop a ladybug infestation from happening inside your home.

“Those ladybugs can die in the attic, in the wall voids, in places where you can’t get to them easily,” explains Glen. “Those bug carcasses, for lack of better term, can attract other pests.”

You also shouldn’t smash ladybugs on your wall or your curtains, as they produce an orange stain.

“It’s a chemical that they exude to try and ward off predators, but it will stain wallpaper, paint, and fabrics,” says Glen. “By sucking them up with the vacuum cleaner, it doesn’t let them stain the surface.”

Most bugs you can suck up in the vacuum cleaner, Glen adds. It’s the ones with a pungent odor, like stink bugs, you should capture and release outside.

Have some buzzing around your home? Avoid a stinging situation with bee and wasp safety tips!

How to get rid of bed bugs in your home

bed bugs on a mattress

Hire a professional immediately for beg bug issues.

“Bed bugs really need to be managed professionally,” says Glen. “I never recommend a homeowner try and control bed bugs themselves.”

Glen has seen homeowners try to curb a bed bug infestation themselves. The situation only grew out of hand.

“It was to the point that when you walked in, there were bed bugs on the ceiling and dropping on your head as you walked through the room,” says Glen. “They could sense the carbon dioxide that you’re breathing out, and they were trying to find a food source.”

Let professionals know as soon as possible, so they can get rid of the bed bugs. The longer it goes, the more expensive it’s going to be, and the harder it’s going to be. As soon as you see bugs as small as apple seeds upon your bed or in the usual infested areas, call a professional.

And homeowners should not be embarrassed by bedbugs.

“People pick them up from travel, from going to camp and coming back. Hotel rooms and airports might have them. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not that your home is dirty.”

Beware of scorpions

scorpion in a red shoe

Do not grab a scorpion by its tail.

If you live in the southwest United States, you may need to protect your home from scorpions. They are notorious for getting into rock piles, gravel and woodpiles, so getting rid of those around your home is key. Unfortunately, gravel around your house is recommended to keep insects out since they don’t like to cross that barrier.

“Scorpions like it, though, and they’ll hide and nest in them,” says Glen.

Seal your home with chalking or weather stripping and use door sweeps.

“Scorpions can smash really flat and get in,” says Glen. “Make sure that your door sweep touches the doorframe and when the door is closed, you can’t see light around it.”

In the unfortunate event that a scorpion does enter your home, you shouldn’t try to grab its tail.

Notes Glen, “Trained professionals do that; other people don’t. They can sting you.”

The best course of action is to scoop the scorpion into the dustpan and throw it out the front door.

When to seek assistance for your home

raised bed garden in the backyard of a blue house

Take a proactive approach to your pest control.

Homeowners should use integrated pest management (IPM) that monitors all year long.

“IPM is an ongoing repetitive process where you assess the situation, implement control measures and then monitor the situation for any new activity,” says Glen.

It’s a proactive way to handle pests. Orkin generally sees homeowners bimonthly, monthly or quarterly basis.

“If you’re in a really cold climate, you may not need it as often, so the technicians may come quarterly,” says Glen. “But it is important that somebody is looking year-round because there’s different pests that will come in the fall, then the spring, then the summer and finally the winter.”

Most companies, including Orkin, do free inspections. They provide a comprehensive overview and may uncover something a homeowner missed.

“Maybe it’s the squirrel in your wall, or we may make a recommendation that we could really help with mosquito control.”

Orkin also realizes that some homeowners may not have the funds to fix certain areas of their homes at this time.

“We’ve seen the struggles that people have had during this time with continuing service, and we’re working with them to keep themselves pest free,” says Glen.

Take a proactive approach to your pest problems with the help of Orkin Pest Control

Keep your home safe and secure

Homeownership can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. The vipHome.app can help. In less than four minutes, enjoy a new way to manage your home. Simply download the app, register your home, and enjoy a simplified homeownership experience.

Download the app today!

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Is My Tap Water Safe to Drink? Check Out Your Consumer Confidence Report

Here in the U.S., we have some of the safest drinking water in the world, but unfortunately, not everything that comes out of your tap is safe to ingest. How can you tell if your home has safe drinking water?

The annual Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), or the Annual Drinking Water Quality Report, can help. We recently spoke with Bryanna Poczatek, Technical Affairs Manager for the Water Quality Association (WQA). Bryanna walked us through what the CCR says and how it can help you make decisions about your drinking water.

What is the Consumer Confidence Report?

The CCR is a report that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires public water systems to make available to their consumers each year.

“The report provides important information about the quality of drinking water in the area and can help customers make informed decisions about their water,” says Bryanna, who has been with the WQA for five years.

The CCR includes the following information:

  • The water source (groundwater, aquifer, wells, etc.).
  • Details from the recent water quality testing for the system.
  • Regulated contaminants and their concentrations, if any.
  • Comparison of regulated contaminants to EPA drinking water standards.
  • The source of any contaminant.
  • Any violations of standards, including any potential health impacts.

“When you get your report, the first thing that I would recommend is to see if there are any violations of the drinking water standards,” says Bryanna.

Most reports have a column that reads, “average level detected” (or similarly), which you should compare to the “maximum contaminant level (MCL).” The MCL is the maximum level of a contaminant allowed in the water of a public water system.

“If you compare those two levels, you can see how much is in your water compared to what is allowed in the regulation,” says Bryanna.

You’ll also see the maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG), which is a non-enforceable public health goal.

“This is not a level that the public water systems are required to meet, but it’s essentially the level at which no expected health impacts would occur,” says Bryanna.

For some contaminants, the level is set at zero. You may ask, “How close to the MCLG is my water quality?” Knowing what levels of contaminants are in the water can help consumers determine whether they should take additional actions to improve the quality of their home’s drinking water.

What if all contaminants are below EPA limits?

Three water quality taking water samples from a river

Does your water pass the test?

“That means the water is meeting all federal and state drinking water regulations (MCLs),” says Bryanna.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the water meets that non-enforceable public health goal, the MCLG. The water also could contain unregulated contaminants that public water systems are not required to test or treat.

“In the U.S. we have some of the best drinking water quality in the world,” says Bryanna, “so it’s going to be pretty good quality. But there are steps you can take to improve that water quality even further.”

What is the most dangerous contaminant that could be in your tap water?

Certain populations are more at risk for certain contaminants, so the most dangerous contaminant can be different for different people.

“Children are more susceptible to lead poisoning because they’re absorbing a lot more lead than adults are,” says Bryanna. “Nitrate is another contaminant that is especially dangerous to infants. It can cause blue baby syndrome or low oxygen levels in the blood.”

Some contaminants have acute impacts from which you could experience health effects within a few hours or days. Others can have a chronic impact, and you may not know for months or years.

“Bacteria and viruses can cause issues very suddenly,” says Bryanna, “while exposure to very low levels of certain chemicals like arsenic you might not know for years.”

The danger depends upon the person and the concentration, among other factors.

Warning signs of water quality issues

a woman scowling into her glass of water - Consumer Confidence Report

Some contaminants are not easily noticed.

Cloudy or discolored water, specific orders, or taste issues are easy-to-spot indicators of an issue with your water, but there are many contaminants and other concerns that you would never be able to notice without testing.

To improve water quality, the WQA recommends homeowners take advantage of the following resources:

“If you know what contaminant or what issues you’re dealing with in your water, you can search on our websites for water treatment products that have been tested and verified that they remove contaminants and other concerns from your water,” says Bryanna. 

Did you receive your CCR?

Private wells are not regulated by the EPA, so any homeowner with a well will not receive a CCR. However, you are encouraged to get your water tested regularly by a water quality professional.

Renters in apartment buildings, houses, and condos – anyone who does not pay their city water bill directly – may not receive a CCR.

“Renters will likely have to contact either their building manager or a landlord and request a copy of the reports,” says Bryanna. “They can also check to see if it is available online.”

A renter could search for the water provider online or check the EPA’s search tool, which can help locate a local CCR.

What happens if there’s an issue with your water now?

The EPA’s Public Notification Rule requires that public water systems notify all their customers if the safety for the drinking water has been compromised.

“You’re definitely going to know if there’s an issue,” says Bryanna, “but how soon and how you find out is going to change.”

How and when homeowners are notified depends upon the severity of the issue. Homeowners could be notified anywhere from 24 hours to up to a year.

“It could be over TV or news, email, mail,” says Bryanna. “If it’s one of those more long-term issues, such as a late water sample test, you might not know anything until you get next year’s Consumer Confidence Report.”

Updates to the EPA CCR

The EPA is in the process of revising the Consumer Confidence Report requirements and is seeking to finalize the new requirements in early 2024. The new report should be easier to read and understand, so consumers can know what steps to take to make sure their drinking water is safe.

“The Consumer Confidence Report you receive in the future could look different than it does now,” says Bryanna. “Hopefully it changes for the better and will help everyone better understand their water quality.”

Enjoy a new way to manage your home

Homeownership can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. The vipHome.app can help. In less than four minutes, enjoy a new way to manage your home. Simply download the app, register your home, and enjoy a simplified homeownership experience.

Download the app today!

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(At Least) 21 Super Simple Kitchen Safety Tips to Prevent a Home Fire

Cooking is the number one cause of home fires and home fire injuries, and the second leading cause of home fire deaths.

Since most cooking fires happen in the kitchen, we reached out to Andrea Vastis, Senior Director of Public Education at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Andrea shared with us an abundance of simple kitchen safety tips (at least 21!) that can help prevent a home fire from happening in your cooking space.

Simple kitchen safety tips to prevent a cooking fire

“The number one cause of cooking fires is unattended cooking,” says Andrea. “It’s usually a scenario where someone will say afterward, I left something going on the stove and forgot about it I left the water overflowing and boiling, I left my pan for just a minute.”

To prevent a cooking fire, Andrea suggests following these simple tips:

  • Staying in the kitchen while you are cooking.
  • Staying alert while cooking and not being distracted in any way.
  • Keeping children and pets at least three feet away from the cooking area.
  • Double-check your timer to make sure you set it for the right time.

“Did you do three minutes or 30 minutes or 30 seconds?” asked Andrea.

Simple kitchen safety tips to prevent cooking appliance fires

Before ever buying a cooking appliance, check to see that it was listed by an independent testing laboratory.

“You want to make sure that what you are using a product that has been tested to approved safety standards,” says Andrea.

Then, you want to use it safely. This means you should:

  • Plug the appliance into a wall properly and never use an extension cord.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Place your product on an appropriate surface.

“Most products are safe for most countertops,” says Andrea, “but you need to think – if I have a laminate countertop, should I be using a granite base or a marble base, something that doesn’t conduct heat and doesn’t have the risk of melting?”

Also, replace appliances that become hazards with frayed wires or irregularity in performance. Of course, big appliances should be left to the professionals.

“If it’s an appliance like your range top or your oven, get it serviced by a qualified professional who can either repair it or help determine if it’s time for a new one,” says Andrea.

Use your appliance properly

a woman setting the timer on a microwave - kitchen safety tips

Did you set the timer for 30 seconds or 30 minutes?

If you fail to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, you can create a dangerous situation in your kitchen. This is especially important with cooking temperatures.

Explains Andrea, “If you have a slow cooker and the recipe calls for it to be on low and you’re putting it on high, you’re risking burning the food. You’re also creating the potential for something that can happen, including contact burns.”

Electric range tops manufactured after 2015 are required to have temperature-limiting controls.

“If you have an old coil stove top that was manufactured before then, you can actually retrofit it with a burner that is temperature limiting,” says Andrea.

That is important because “the majority of [cooking fires] are on the range top, and the majority of those are actually on electric range tops,” says Andrea.

Keep your appliances clean

Kitchen appliances – whether they be cooktops, microwaves, crockpots, etc., – all require proper cleaning.

“Leftover food – grease, oil, any kind of spills – can heat up and catch fire,” says Andrea.

Leftover oils, butters, food remnants, etc., can create dangerous situations, especially during the holidays or big family dinners.

“This is why we also talk about the times of the year where there are the most cooking fires – like Thanksgiving,” says Andrea. “You have all these dishes going in the oven. Maybe you didn’t clean the oven beforehand, and there’s all this leftover stuff that’s now overheating and is just very easily ignitable.”

When cleaning any appliances, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you didn’t keep your appliance’s manual, like most homeowners, there’s one easy solution.

“If you know what make and model it is, you can just very easily find [the manuals] online,” says Andrea.

Dirty stove top - kitchen safety tips

Clean appliances are safer appliances.

Simple kitchen safety tips to prevent home fire injuries

One of the easiest ways to prevent cooking home fire injuries is to wear appropriate clothing.

“It’s important that when you are doing the cooking, you’re not wearing any loose clothing,” says Andrea. “You’re either wearing short sleeves or tight sleeves. You’re not wearing anything that’s billowy that can come in contact with the range and catch fire.”

You should also use tools designed to keep you safe, such as oven mitts. Also, avoid creating dangerous situations by placing an appendage or your face where it doesn’t belong.

“We have this weird tendency to always want to stick our face into things, right?” says Andrea.

Home chefs should be careful as heat from an oven or heat from steam can burn. Even just opening a bag of hot popcorn can cause injury.

“The number one burn injury for children, especially under the age of five, are scalds and burns from things like hot foods and liquids,” says Andrea. “That’s why we really stress the three-foot zone – no kid, no pet. Also, no coffee in one hand, kid in another. Just take your time.”

a couple pulling a pan out of the oven - kitchen safety tips

Wear tight sleeves and oven mitts!

What if the worst-case scenario happens – a fire in your kitchen

Andrea runs down easy-to-remember steps to help you remain calm and stay safe in the kitchen if a fire happens.

If an article of clothing catches fire

Smother it quickly. Perform the stop, drop and roll technique by stopping where you are, covering your face with your hands and rolling back and forth or over and over until the flames are out.

“Stop, drop, and roll really can make a tremendous difference in reducing the risk of burns,” says Andrea. “It’s about smothering the flames.”

For older home chefs who may not be able to stop, drop, and roll, try smothering the fire with a blanket.

“It’s all about getting rid of any oxygen for that fire to be able to take hold and get to you to burn.”

If your pan catches fire

“Grease and frying pan fires make up a large portion of the home cooking fire problem,” says Andrea.

To prevent a grease pan fire, NFPA suggests remembering and practicing these catchy phrases – stand by your pan; keep an eye on what you fry.

“Always stay with what your frying, poaching, and braising,” says Andrea.

It’s also a great idea to have a heavy lid or a cookie sheet nearby.

“Having a lid nearby can help quickly and effectively put out a grease pan fire,” says Andrea. “Carefully slide the lid over the pan, turn off the heat, step away and just let it cool down completely.”

Andrea notes that if the fire, at any point, starts to get bigger where you can’t safely slide a cover over it to extinguish the flames or the flames continue to grow, immediately get yourself and anyone else at home outside and call the fire department for assistance.

If your oven catches fire

Shut the door, turn off the oven, and call the fire department.

With a microwave oven – shut the door, turn it off, and unplug it. If any sign of fire remains, call the fire department.

When in doubt, get takeout

One of the most important kitchen safety rules is knowing when not to cook. There are times when you should play it safe and order takeout.

“It doesn’t even matter if you’re using the microwave or other small appliance,” says Andrea. “If you’re using medication that makes you sleepy, if you’ve had a few drinks, that’s not the time to be cooking or using electrical equipment. Just get takeout.”

Learn more cooking safety tips at nfpa.org/cooking, and help children learn cooking safety at sparky.org.

Prevent the preventable in your home

Homeownership can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. The vipHome.app can help. In less than four minutes, enjoy a new way to manage your home. Simply download the app, register your home, and enjoy a simplified homeownership experience.

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a mother and a child watching a tablet while sitting on the couch

Top Home Internet Safety Tips from the NCA to Keep Your Info Secure

Do you have more than three computers in your home? According to the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, one of those computers has malware on it. Almost half of all American adults (47%) have had their personal information exposed by cyber criminals, and 600,000 Facebook accounts are hacked daily.

How can you keep your family and information safe when surfing the internet at home?

“It’s not as complicated as some of us can make it out to be,” says Lisa Plaggemier, executive director of the National Cybersecurity Alliance (NCA). “The worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Lisa recently shared with us important home internet safety tips every homeowner needs to know (including you)! 

To connect or not to connect?

Most households are now running an entire network of devices that are all linked to the internet. Before purchasing your next device or even start on your smart home journey, consider if you really need that smart toaster.

“I don’t have anything that doesn’t absolutely positively need to be connected because there’s an old phrase in cybersecurity,” says Lisa, who has headed the NCA for more than four years. “If it’s connected, it’s hackable.”

Even smart lights come with security risks and have been used to plant malware.

While many smart home devices help with energy efficiency and convenience – thermostats, TVs, lights, cameras, locks – they also come with risks to our privacy and security. 

“We’re very quick as a society to trade off convenience for those other things,” says Lisa. “In most cases, we don’t understand the tradeoff we’re making and the role we play in making sure that our security and our privacy are protected.”

Top home internet safety tips

a router on a table in a home
Change your router’s default name and password.

A few quick tips you can do to protect your information and privacy include:

1. Change your default router name and password.

“Don’t use the name of your router or the password that it came with,” says Lisa. “There are default passwords on routers when you take them out of the box, and unfortunately, you can Google those. They’re very easy to find online.”

2. Keep your devices’ software up to date.

“A lot of those updates include security fixes known as patches,” says Lisa, “so it’s really, really important to run those.”

NCA recommends homeowners set up automatic updates, so homeowners don’t hit “remind me later” and miss an important update. If you can’t set a device to update automatically, then complete the updates your device notifies you.

“My device flashes color when there’s new updates,” says Lisa. 

3. Set up a guest network.

“You should have a network for your family and then a guest network for guests,” says Lisa. “Then you can also use the guest network for all those devices that we talk about – the Internet of Things devices or IoT devices.”

This way, your private information – banking, home insurance, emails, etc. – stays private.

If you work from home, use your guest network for work-related business and use your company’s VPN to secure the connection.

4. Use VPN when away from your private network.

Virtual private networks (VPNs) are generally used for remote work as they provide the same protections to workers and computers at home that are provided in the office on the corporate network. They are also great for personal use.

“I like VPNs for personal use as well, especially if you are not at home and you’re in a hotel or at a coffee shop,” says Lisa. “They’re a lot more affordable than they used to be for individuals.”

Read before changing your passwords!

A strong password written on a piece of paper - home internet safety tips
Make sure your passwords are strong.

The advice on passwords has changed over the last couple of years. Many organizations used to encourage people (and employees) to change passwords every 60 days or so. That’s not the case anymore.

“The National Institute of Science and Technology discovered that [recommendation] led to a whole bunch of bad habits,” says Lisa. “We started using patterns like just changing a few numbers or letters but using the same core password.”

This makes it easy for hackers to use software to crack those passwords by working through iterations. If even one password is stolen in a breach, more than one account could be vulnerable.

Today, you may be able to keep your password indefinitely if you complete the following simple steps.

1. Use complex passwords and multifactor authentication (MFA) for every single account.

a person logging into an account with multifactor authentication - home internet safety tips
Keep your account as safe as possible.

“If your passwords are long and complex and you’ve secured the account with MFA, then you don’t need to worry about changing the password,” says Lisa. 

Since there have been so many data breaches and many of us use the same password for multiple accounts, MFA can help to keep your information safe.

Explains Lisa, “MFA means that if somebody has your password or a version of your password, they can’t get into your account with just that password alone unless they also have access to your phone or your computer.”

NCA recommends authenticator apps with facial recognition.

“I find the authenticator apps incredibly easy to use if you have facial recognition on your phone,” says Lisa. “You get that push notification. All you have to do is look at your phone and boom, that’s it. You’re into your account.”

2. Use password managers.

“Even though there’s some bad press on those lately, we’re still fans of password managers,” says Lisa.

You may wonder about the safety of a password manager since many people assume they are “putting all their eggs in one basket.” However, password managers are very secure. All you have to do is keep track of the password for the password manager, and it remembers everything else.

“It can also think of a long complex password for a new account a lot faster than I can,” says Lisa, “and it can type my credentials a lot faster than I can.”

Password managers also make it easier and safer to share passwords, especially with family members.

“We all text passwords to each other. We have emailed passwords to each other. All these things are much less secure than a password manager,” says Lisa.

3. Log out of accounts.

“If a device isn’t powered up and not connected to the internet, it can’t be accessed,” says Lisa. “I’ll say the same for your online accounts. If you’re not logged into them all the time, it’s a lot harder for somebody else to break into that account.”

4. Only give access to data when necessary.

A phone with location settings on - home internet safety tips
Only give your apps the information they need.

“A rule of thumb as far as security and privacy settings go – you should give [apps] access only to the data that they need to provide the service or convenience to you,” says Lisa.

One such example is OpenTable, which is an app used to find local places to eat and make restaurant reservations.

“Clearly, OpenTable needs access to my location data on my phone,” says Lisa. “It doesn’t need access to things like my photos or my contacts.”

However, when people are hungry and downloading the app for the first time, they may accept certain settings without reading the terms and conditions. App users need to change their mindset and prioritize their privacy with apps.

“Just enough data and not a bite more,” says Lisa. “That’s a good way to think about it.”

You’ll also need to be conscious to setting changes and terms and conditions updates.

“Settings that we configured six months ago might have gotten reconfigured in the process of running updates without us realizing what was going on,” says Lisa.

It’s a good habit to check your privacy updates on a routine basis (monthly or quarterly) and see what changes have been made. Sometimes, these settings and terms and conditions may be difficult to find, which is why staysafeonline.org created a list of these for social media and other frequently used websites.

Where to keep your home information

As mentioned earlier, your phone and your email are not secure, and even your photos can easily be compromised. Random apps may have access to the information on your phone, and you do not want your homeowners insurance or other important documents available to hackers.

“In our house, we keep the originals in a bank safe deposit box,” says Lisa, “and then we keep scanned copies in the cloud.”

Keep your documents in a secure cloud - home internet safety tips
Keep your home documents in a secure digital location.

This is especially important in the event of a home disaster, such as a fire or terrible flood.

“If you think about the worst-case scenario, you need to be able to access these documents,” says Lisa. “What if it were the beginning of a three-day weekend holiday and the banks are closed until Tuesday? That’s why I say don’t just keep a paper copy in the safe deposit box.”

Keeping scanned copies in the cloud can help you get access to your documents with a simple computer or device and an internet connection.

The vipHome.app can help! (Learn more below.) 

Where and how to start your home internet safety efforts

The important thing is to start, and an easy place to begin is with a password manager. First, pick one after completing research. (Tom’s Guide and Consumer Reports have reviews on password managers.) Then, start small.

“You don’t have to put all your passwords in there at once or change all your passwords on everything all at once,” says Lisa. “Load in your most important accounts, like your financial services accounts, your homeowner’s insurance, etc.”

Once you install the manager on your browser, it will ask you if you want to add different accounts that you visit as you visit them. If you’re using the same password in multiple places, it will prompt you to change that. If you’re using passwords that are too weak, it will prompt you to change those as well.

“Don’t be intimidated,” says Lisa, “Just start somewhere, and you’ll see how easy it can be.”

Keep your home information secure

Between hurricanes, home fires, and hackers, you need some place to secure your home information. The vipHome.app can help! Our home management app gives you one secure place to store all your home documents and receipts, and our servers are HIPAA-compliant. So you know your information is safe.

In less than four minutes, you can download the app, claim your home, and enjoy a simplified homeownership experience.

Get the app today!

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A lithium-ion battery that caught fire

How to Prevent a Lithium-ion Battery Fire in Your Home

Pete and his family say the pictures of their destroyed Illinois home don’t do the damage justice. At one a.m., on a night like any other one, the non-manufacturer’s battery on their stick vacuum overheated and exploded in their laundry room.

“The fire was violent and reached over 500 degrees, enough to melt the blades of a ceiling fan,” Pete explains. “We’ve always kept our vacuum plugged in…doesn’t everyone?”

Ceiling fan blades melted after a lithium-ion battery fire
Damage from a lithium-ion battery fire (photo courtesy of Pete)

Unfortunately, 80% of the house needs to be stripped to the studs, and Pete’s family will be out of the house until, most likely, early 2024.

Lithium-ion batteries have been known to cause destructive fires, just like Pete’s. Though the chances of a lithium-ion battery failing and catching fire is one in 10 million batteries, they caused 200 fires and six deaths in New York City last year alone. 

That’s why we reached out to Brian O’Connor, technical services engineer at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Brian shared with us important safety tips to help you and your family safely use devices powered with lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium batteries vs. lithium-ion batteries

There are two types of lithium batteries, but only one of them is known to be extremely combustible.

“Lithium batteries are lithium metal one-time-use batteries,” says Brian. “Lithium-ion batteries are the rechargeable batteries that we’re seeing infiltrate everywhere.”

A lithium-ion battery (or li-on battery) uses lithium salt, which is a highly reactive metal.

“The thing that makes them dangerous is the same thing that makes them useful,” says Brian. “They have a lot of energy in a small envelope.”

You’ll find lithium-ion batteries in your cell phones, watches, laptops, electric vehicles, even your power drill and other tools. When energy is released from a lithium-ion battery, it can generate toxic and flammable gases and heat, which can lead to an explosion.

“If you’re using them correctly, if you’re using properly-listed batteries, [the threat] is pretty low,” says Brian.

Why are lithium-ion battery fires so dangerous?

The differentiating factor between lithium-ion battery fires and other home fires is its fast rate of spreading.

A lithium-ion rechargeable batteries heats up when it starts to fail and pressurizes with flammable gas. As soon as that flammable gas is released, it creates a dangerous and potentially deadly situation. 

“Think of a lighter that breaks in half,” says Brian. “It creates a very quick gas fire, so it’s able to spread to adjacent cells. It can also eject those cells into other parts of the room, so it can become a multiple-point fire.”

Since these fires spread so fast, homeowners don’t have a lot of time to react, which can lead to injury or even death.

How to prevent lithium-ion battery fires in your home

A washer and a dryer destroyed from a lithium-ion battery fire
Damage from a lithium-ion battery fire (photo courtesy of Pete)

Using lithium-ion batteries safely includes the storage, charging, and buying of devices with these batteries.

How to charge a lithium-ion battery safely 

You can lower your risk of a fire by following five simple steps for lithium-ion battery charging:

  1. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  2. Use the charger that came with the product or make sure the charger and battery are compatible. (“Different batteries need different charging rates,” says Brian.)
  3. Avoid charging lithium-ion batteries all the time.
  4. Avoid charging lithium-ion batteries overnight. (This includes your cell phone.)
  5. Unplug lithium-ion batteries once they are fully charged.

“There’s no reason to leave something charging all the time,” says Brian. “It opens you up to a higher probability of something bad happening.”

“The manufacturer recommends that even with their batteries, you charge them for 3 1/2 hours and then unplug them,” says Pete, recalling his home fire. “Only charge them when you are home and paying attention. It’s not only just product. It’s every single lithium battery that you have in your home.”

How to store your lithium-ion battery safely

a plugged-in E-bike
Store your devices in safe places.

Where and how you store your devices with lithium-ion batteries is equally important. The NFPA suggests the following protocol for lithium-ion battery storage:

  1. Avoid storing devices with lithium-ion batteries in precarious positions, such as on the stairs where they can fall, be punctured, crushed, etc.
  2. Avoid storing your devices in your bedroom or next to a door or room exit.
  3. Be mindful of extreme heat and extreme cold temperatures.

Always check the manufacturer’s instructions, but lithium-ion batteries generally cannot withstand temperatures below freezing or above 120°F.

“If you’re living out in Arizona and your garage is unconditioned, it’s going to get pretty hot in there,” says Brian. “That’s when it really increases the risk of a fire.”

Additional tips to prevent a lithium-ion battery fire

When buying a device, batteries, or charging equipment, make sure they’re listed by a nationally recognized testing lab and labeled accordingly.

“[These labs] go through a lot of testing to make sure [lithium-ion batteries] can survive impacts and different temperature ranges,” says Brian.

Also, buy replacement parts, batteries, and chargers from the manufacturer when possible.

Pete’s home fire stemmed from a replacement battery.

“The lithium battery was not from the manufacturer, but a third-party replacement battery that we bought on Amazon that I think you can still buy today,” says Pete. 

Also, as mentioned earlier, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

“The manufacturers of these batteries know what they’re talking about,” says Brian. “They want the product to do well, so make sure that you’re using the charger and you’re charging within the temperature limits.”

How to properly dispose of lithium-ion batteries

A person putting a phone in a recycling bin
Your local DPW may collect your old devices.

Lithium-ion batteries should not be disposed of in the trash. Instead, check with your local big box stores for disposal options for small devices, such as a cell phone or tablet.

Many big box stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s often accept tools powered by lithium-ion batteries, Brian notes.

Your local department of waste management (DPW) may also provide lithium-ion battery recycling. Many offer an annual household hazardous waste day, when you bring these devices for disposal, even if they have caught fire. If your DPW doesn’t accept these devices, contact your local fire department for more options.

Warning signs that your lithium-ion battery may be critical

There are a few warning signs that may indicate your device’s lithium-ion battery may catch fire. First, you may notice a very strong, toxic odor. Second, the device or battery may start to inflate. 

“The electrolyte turns into a gas,” says Brian, “and just like when you boil water, the gas takes up more volume than the solid. It’s going to puff out a bit.”

an inflated cellphone battery
A battery may inflate before catching fire.

Many times lithium-ion battery systems are encased in a plastic or metal container. With layers of protection between you and the battery, you may not be able to see them puff up, but you may be able to hear or smell them.

Next signs include seeing or smelling smoke and hearing loud, popping noises.

“If you start smelling or hearing them, evacuate first, then call the fire department for assistance,” says Brian.

Also, never touch the device.

“It’s really hard to tell when that pressurized vessel’s going to burst,” says Brian, who equates a lithium-ion battery explosion to a blow torch. “You don’t want that in your hand or pocket or anywhere near you when that happens.”

Thankfully, Pete and his family weren’t home when their vacuum caught fire, but they lost so many of their personal belongings.

“This is no joke,” says Pete. “You may have read articles about this happening, but it can happen to you. We certainly didn’t think it would happen to us.”

Ultimately, we need to change the way we approach and use lithium-ion batteries.

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