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Last Updated Feb. 11, 2003

The use of candles dates back to prehistoric times. They've been used for lighting, heating, and decoration. Candles might also be causing irreparable damage to your home — and your insurance might not cover it.

Candle soot

Many of the popular scented candles today are made by mixing oils into the candle wax. The more oil in a candle, the stronger the scent.  More oil also means a higher potential for soot, which can eventually coat your carpets, drapes, and furniture.

After the soot settles, cleaning it off your walls, carpet, couch, and appliances can become impossible. The electrically charged bond is too strong for household cleaners to break. You have little choice but to replace the soiled surfaces or buy new items.

Ron Bailey, engineer and owner of Bailey Engineering in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, has tested candles. One of Bailey's tests involved using a model home as the proving ground. He burned four candles for 15 hours. Soot deposited on the walls, appliances, and drapes.

Bailey says he’s seen homes, where candle soot has caused tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage. "It's eye-opening. They had to replace the carpets and clean up and repaint the walls," he says.

One homeowner in Texas faced nearly $200,000 in damages and replacement costs because of candle soot. The soot particles infested her heating and cooling ductwork, which had to be replaced.  Much of her furniture was covered by candle soot.

Frank Vigil, a building specialist with the Applied Building Science Team at North Carolina State University, says the problems from candle soot are becoming more and more evident. Vigil has investigated several cases, including one in which he was hired by State Farm. "There was quite substantial property damage [in that case], over $10,000," he says.

Vigil says he knows of many claims made against insurance companies as a result of soot from candles. "This is becoming a big issue, near epidemic in proportions," he says.

Home insurance might not pay

Insurance companies have not addressed candle soot specifically in homeowner's policy language, and the industry's stance on the issue is ambiguous.

"There's a potential for coverage, but like every other claim, it will be investigated on its own merits," says Phil Supple, a spokesman for State Farm. "We would look particularly closely at the 'named peril provision' in the policy." That's the provision spelling out what is and what is not covered. In addition, home insurance policies have what's called a "sudden and accidental occurrence" provision, which separates harmful events that happen suddenly from those that develop over time.

Candle makers warn customers about soot

Candle-Lite Incorporated, based in Leesburg, Ohio, does provide specific warnings on its candles about soot. Some of its warning labels read, "For best burning performance and to reduce soot emissions, trim wick to ¼ inch, and do not burn candle near a draft."

Most labels don't say why consumers should trim the candle's wick before lighting. "The labels are to ensure the candles burn evenly," says Maryanne McDermott, executive vice president of the National Candle Association, a group that provides guidelines for the industry. McDermott says an even-burning candle won't produce soot.

"There could be deposits that certainly would be noticeable," says Jim Becker, an engineer for American Greetings' candle unit. "I've had experiences in my home in which I've burned a candle and there was a lot of smoke that was generated. I'm sure a very bad situation could arise."

McDermott points out, "Candles have been used for hundreds of years without problems." Of course, the tremendous popularity of aromatherapy and scented candles presents problems that no one has dealt with before. McDermott also says burning candles in drafty places — which can create soot — is a "dumb thing to do. You can see [the uneven burning]. I think it's common sense."