California Fire Code BBQ grills

Outdoor grilling means good eating—but California’s concerns about the environment and fire safety have led lawmakers to enact controversial rules

Fires caused by barbecue grills are not unique to California, but the Golden State has seen some major fires with grills as the point of origin. And when they happen in apartment complexes, the potential for property damage, disruption of housing, and injury or death is severe:

  • A 2012 fire in Hayward, California—not far from San Francisco—left nine people temporarily without a home and caused over $100,000 in damage. A mother left the grill unattended while watching her children, and the fire got out of control, according to a fire official.
  • A San Diego, California apartment building was severely damaged and a family’s cat killed just two years ago. A witness reported that a gas grill on a second-story porch exploded.
  • Another propane explosion related to BBQ grilling, this time in Aurora, Colorado, displaced 30 people when the tank “exploded and set the roof on fire,” according to fire officials.

Roughly seven in 10 American households have at least one grill (or outdoor, open-flame cooking device). And the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that more than 10,000 grill fires start in homes every year—with most incidents peaking in July. So, how have recent editions of the California Fire Code tried to tackle this problem in 2018 and 2019—and what does it mean for grilling in 2020?

For those retrofitting apartment buildings to be a little more grill-friendly—or others readying themselves for safe outdoor cooking—our residential fire sprinklers, sprinkler components and accessories, and fire extinguishers may come in handy.

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The California Fire Code of 2016 restricted the use of BBQ grills in 2018, and the new 2019 edition impacts apartment dwellers in 2020

In apartment buildings, including condominiums and townhouses, fires in one unit can quickly spread to another. As a result, the California Fire Code—in section 308.1.4 on “Open-flame cooking devices”—restricts what kind of grilling is allowed in or near them. Both the 2016 and the 2019 versions of the code have the same restrictions, with the latter edition taking effect in 2020.

The 2019 California Fire Code restricts BBQ grill use—and the use of any open-flame cooking device—in the following ways:

  • Open-flame cooking devices can’t be operated on “combustible balconies.” Wooden decks and similar structures can easily catch and spread fire, making them risky places to operate a BBQ grill.
  • At least 10 feet of clearance is required between active grills and “combustible construction.” Many apartment balconies or porches are very small, so getting more than 10 feet away from a wall clad in wood or vinyl siding is often impossible.
  • The 2016 and 2019 versions of California Fire Code do allow grilling in “one- and two-family dwellings,” as well as structures “where buildings, balconies and decks are protected by an automatic sprinkler system.”
  • One type of open-flame device is acceptable around combustible construction or balconies: propane (“LP-gas”) grills with especially small tanks. Those tanks may have a “water capacity” no greater than 2 1/2 pounds. The water capacity measures how much water, in pounds, the container could hold. But, in short, these tanks are of the small, portable variety used with camping gear.
LP gas tanks

The tiny tank on the right might be acceptable—but even the small tank on the left is too large under the California Fire Code. Source: MotoCampers

To sum up: sprinklered balconies in apartment buildings, along with single-family dwellings and duplexes, appear to be exempted from California Fire Code’s BBQ grill rules (both under the 2016 and 2019 editions). However, local governments or lease agreements may not allow grilling even when state code permits it—and some common interpretations of these rules are even more restrictive.

California began to restrict outdoor grilling as early as the 1990s for environmental and fire safety reasons

In October of 1990, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD)—an agency tasked with managing air pollution in one of the most densely-populated regions of California (and the United States)—outlawed the sale of charcoal lighter fluid. The ban also took charcoal soaked with lighter fluid (or similar accelerants) off the shelves.

These restrictions didn’t directly tackle the use of gas grills, electric grills, or other outdoor cooking devices. Nor did they ultimately stop consumers from buying lighter fluid: later, the AQMD adopted a rule allowing retailers to sell reformulated versions. But the rules did give a preview of the heated debates to follow.

In January of 2008, California passed laws limiting or eliminating outdoor grilling on apartment balconies and porches. According to an article from the Bay Area-based Mercury News, these new rules left many apartment dwellers frustrated. Faced with modest penalties (a warning for first-time offenders and a $500 fine or misdemeanor charges later), some rebelled: “Let them fine me,” said a resident interviewed by the Mercury News. “They’re going to have to break my door down to get [my grill].”

It’s unclear how often the law is enforced. When the ban first passed, officials explained that it’s up to neighbors to complain—and left to firefighters to issue citations. And years later, the residents of cities like Laguna Woods have balked at efforts to apply those restrictions. But with the backing of fire officials and leading safety organizations like the NFPA, cities as varied as Seattle and New York have placed tighter restrictions on grill use.

Hayward CA apartment fire

This charred townhouse embodies the worries driving grill bans: an unattended grill displaced nine people in Hayward, California. Source: CBS SF BayArea

To keep cooking, Californians must adapt their buildings and/or their choice of grilling equipment

Cities—and not the state of California itself—give the force of law to the California Fire Codes. But that’s not saying much: state law only allows cities to make state laws stricter, or to modify codes “to address a local geologic, topographic, or climatic condition.” The statewide grilling rules discussed earlier are the bare minimum. Local laws may be even more restrictive.

As such, anyone living in an apartment should consult their landlord and authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) before grilling. That AHJ may be local building code authorities, fire departments, or other organizations tasked with interpreting and enforcing fire code.

California Fire Code appears to have relaxed slightly on the subject of larger gas-powered grills. The 2007 edition didn’t even permit them to be stored on combustible balconies or near combustible construction—whether or not fire sprinklers are installed. Later editions seem to treat them just like charcoal grills, however, prohibiting only their use near unprotected combustible construction.

That said, some jurisdictions may still prohibit both the storage and use of larger gas grills in these circumstances. And additional rules may prohibit transporting larger propane containers through most stairways, making the use of gas grills impossible above ground-level.

Electric grills don’t qualify as an open-flame device and, as such, are acceptable under these rules. But that doesn’t mean that no regulations (or commonsense practices) apply. Users should make sure that extension cords are rated for the amperage being drawn and suitable for outdoor use. Fire officials also recommend using only equipment that’s listed—meaning certified and tested—and properly installed.

Grill safely wherever you are with some commonsense precautions

Grill somewhere else if you can’t grill safely and legally on your balcony

For those who love to grill—and are shopping for an apartment complex—look for a home that provides an outdoor common area suitable for grilling and entertaining. If designed properly, this satisfies the requirements of the California Fire Code and allows the use of any accepted type of BBQ grill. Public parks may also provide grilling areas. When using shared equipment, make sure grilling surfaces are clean and check on the condition of gas tanks and lines before use.

Safe residential grill

This apartment complex provides a safe location and a high-end gas grill. Source: NFPA

Grilling equipment, apartment-friendly or not, is not without risks

As mentioned in some of the stories above, tank explosions and gas leaks can occur with any size or type of LP-gas system. Always use gas grills in areas with plenty of ventilation, and test grills for leaks at least once per season. Don’t forget to take refillable tanks to a certified professional for refills. While refillable 1 lb. tanks do exist, many are DOT 39 cylinders. These are designed for one use only and should never be refilled, as the video below explains:

Charcoal grills also require care in handling. Use only approved types of lighter fluid and never spray it on an existing fire—this will cause a dangerous flare-up. NFPA adds that charcoal should be left in the grill until “completely cool,” and that debris should be placed in a metal container.

Electric grills are not designed to be an “open-flame cooking device,” which is why they’re often permitted in situations where other grills aren’t, but that doesn’t mean they can’t start a grease fire like any other cooking surface. As mentioned earlier, make sure extension cords are outdoor-grade and rated for the amperage being drawn by the grill. Watch the grill whenever it’s in operation.

Electric grill fire

Regular cleanings are essential, even for “safe” electric grills. This one caught fire when the grease from some hamburgers reached ignition temperature. Source: Reddit

Keep fire safety equipment handy when grilling

As with all cooking operations, fire safety should be top-of-mind when grilling. In many cases, simply closing the lid can starve a barbecue fire of oxygen. Additionally, keeping fire extinguishers close by could make the difference between a ruined dinner and a real disaster. Be sure to understand the different types of fire extinguishers available for different kinds of fires. A dry chemical ABC fire extinguisher works well against some flammable liquids, as well as fires in solid materials and electrical equipment. Be aware, though, that they will not be effective for fires involving deep grease. For those fires, a wet chemical (Class K) extinguisher is needed. Fire blankets are also an option for fighting grease fires or smothering flames on someone’s clothing.

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A 5 lb. dry chemical ABC fire extinguisher may be more than enough to tackle some out-of-control grill fires.

Grilling is more restricted than it used to be, but you can still do it legally and safely in many cases

Since 2008, the California Fire Code has greatly restricted the use of BBQ grills, and those restrictions have remained much the same in the edition taking effect in 2020. While many people understandably chafe against these rules, the risk to life and property from grilling on apartment balconies is real.

Municipal laws, local AHJs, and apartment managers may embrace more restrictive rules. Those who live in apartments may have few grilling choices—if they are allowed to grill at all. Further, older buildings with combustible balconies and outer walls that lack sprinkler systems don’t leave residents with many options. Grilling in an apartment complex common area or at a park may be the safest option.

If you’re a property manager considering residential fire sprinkler systems—whether for new construction, retrofit, or maintenance of existing systems—QRFS has the parts and installation tools you need.

If you’re a weekend griller looking to grill safely, take a look at our ABC dry chemical extinguishers, which can safely stop many grill fires. QRFS also carries wet chemical, 1-A: K-rated extinguishers. They’re worth a look for those engaged in fryer/deep grease cooking, as are our fire blankets. To order either of these items, call us at +1 (888) 361-6662 or email [email protected].

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