Exploding Candles: The Why, How, And What to Look Out For
Ever wonder what makes candles explode, or why candle fires spread like a wildfire? Have you ever considered not buying candles again because of the fear of a candle explosion?
Candles, especially scented and decorative, have aesthetic value in many homes and businesses.
They’re beautiful and aromatic elements that enhance and accentuate your space. Candles, such as aromatherapy for example, can even be therapeutic. But, despite the vastly remarkable features of today’s candles, there is usually an inevitable downside.
Today, I want to talk a little about one of those "alleged" downsides: how and why candles can explode and what to look out so that you can prevent them from happening.
If you’ve never experienced an exploding candle, then great because it’s not something that you ever want to experience. But if you have, had a candle explode on you, then you know that it’s not something that you ever want to happen again, and you’re likely afraid of the very thought of it.
I’m going to talk a bit about what goes on with exploding candles so that you can know why it happens and also find out what you can do to avoid having a candle explode on you.
First, I have to say that having a candle explode isn't something that happens often, but it is something that you want know a little something about, if there's a possibility that it could happen.
So onto the question that many of you have asked.
How Is Candle Explosion Scientifically Possible?
So let's take a look at why a candle could possibly explode, and we'll start with what would constitute as a candle explosion.
A candle explosion is referred to more as a "candle fire" that has been interrupted by an added substance (other than the elements that are "supposed" to be in the candle's composition).
When water comes into contact with wax that is melted at high temperatures, there is a reaction that causes the candle wax to splatter uncontrollably. Since the hotter area of the candle is generally the center and the wax pool becomes a little cooler as it spreads out to the edge, the hot splattering water/wax, and fire combination reaches out towards the glass container causing the candle to break or “explode.”
Here’s what happens.
The chemical reaction between the heated wax and water results in enlarged flames coming out from the already existing flame.
An exploding candle fire can happen with just a minimal amount of water and wax, so just imagine how big the explosion or fire could be it it’s used in much larger amounts.
The Chemistry Behind Candle Explosion
There is a scientific explanation behind candle explosions. To examine this a little closer, let's look at the fire triangle. The fire triangle follows a basic rule in order for burning (combustion) to take place. In that basic rule, there are 3 key ingredients (or sides). They are fuel, oxygen, and heat.
In a candle, the top surface is the only surface that is exposed to oxygen, which is why there is a slow fire progression. As long as the upper surface of the melted wax (fuel) is the only ingredient that has access to oxygen, there is minimal to no danger of a wax fire or explosive like reaction.
Why? Where does an explosion come from?
A candle only needs three ingredients to properly burn: wax, heat and oxygen. The wick is the catalyst that holds the heat and draws the fuel, so while a candle does have a wick, it's acting as heat's helper in the candle.
Since your candle’s flame will already have a source of oxygen from the air, water (H₂O) can create an interruption in the connection by the way the oxygen reaches the flame to create a fluent process.
Here’s another way to look at it.
There are actually two possible things that could take place when you combine heated and melted wax with water.
- To begin, water has a lower density than wax and so it would sink and settle to the very bottom of the candle or wax container.
- The water vaporizes as soon as the heated wax progressively reaches a temperature that is hot enough.
The instant vaporization of water creates a reaction as the water is transformed into vapor (gas). There is, then, a violent expansion of water vapor. This ultimately results in the hot wax layer being thrown into the air with like small water droplets.
Since the thrown wax has (at this point) been exposed to oxygen in a much larger surface area, the candle combustion hastens, meaning that the burning is happening faster.
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Wax Explosion in other Applications
This chemical reaction between water and heated wax is exactly the same reason why it's never safe or recommended to extinguish a fat or grease fire with water. Other flammable liquid fires (similar to candle wax) also aren't extinguishable with water, since using water would result in the same chemical reaction.
With other liquids, petrol for example, the water keeps its chemical properties and allows the fire to spread because the fire floats on the water, causing burning to happen on top of the water. In this case, the water becomes an aggravating factor that exacerbates the problem and makes matters even worse than before.
Example of the Chemical Reaction
My favorite example of this is AMC’s The Walking Dead Season 6, episode 9. A gas tank is used to fuel a lake with hopes of drawing zombies away from the residents of Alexandria. Once there’s combustion, the fire is able to float across the water, causing the fire to spread across the moving waters of the lake. If you’re not a Walking Dead fan, no worries. Here’s a clip for you to see what I’m talking about. (Disclaimer: There is a considerable amount of violence against zombies is in this video).
As you can see, any combination of fire and fuel, when left unaddressed, could become an intensely dangerous situation. So, it’s always advised that you stay in the room with a burning candle.
Putting Out These Fires.
Breaking the fire triangle is the only way to stop a fuel based fire.
What does that mean, exactly?
Take a look at this Infographic.
When you’re considering a barrier, water is simply NOT your answer for a wax fueled fire. This will only make the problem worse.
However, using something such as baking soda as a barrier between the oxygen and heat is a more effective way to extinguish a wax or oil fire instead.
But Water Has Put Out My Candles On Occasion!
Just to clarify, there are times when water will extinguish a candle flame.
For example, let's say you’re outside enjoying the weather and you have some candles going. Then you notice it starts raining outside. You’ll probably notice that your candle flame will extinguish in the drizzles of the rain.
It’s not exactly a contradiction because, in this particular case, even though the flame is fueled by the wax, it’s also:
1. in a contained environment
2. being consistently hit with trickles or droplets of water rather than a douse of water in an open oil fire.
The hot, melted wax isn’t spreading across the contained surface, fueling the flame source along the way.
Also, those droplets of water have the ability to absorb large amounts of heat, quickly creating vapor (or steam), which interrupts one of the sides of the fire triangle by creating a foggy mist in the air that cools down the fire as it sprinkles on the candle fire and therefore retards it.
This is much more reliable in a situation when a flame is contained and doesn’t have the ability to spread (and pick up its intensity).
What Should I Do If My Candle Gets Wet?
With all that being said, if you have a candle that gets a little wet in the rain while you still have a hot wax pool melted around the wick, I’d be very hesitant to using it again. In fact, that would be a candle I’d quickly throw away.
On the other hand, if it’s a candle that’s completely solid, an absorbent paper towel can be used to sop up small amounts of drizzled water that has surfaced on the candle. Allow it to further dry for about 48 hours before lighting it again.
Tweet This: Never re-light a candle that has become wet while there was a melted wax pool See why: https://ctt.ec/nu017+ #fireprevention
So What Other Ways Can Water End Up In Candles?
There are a number of opinions as to who is, exactly, at fault when it comes to candle explosions.
The consumer base will often point the finger at the faulty creation of candles that could trigger explosions while candle manufacturers will, just as often, blame it on buyer usage errors.
Whatever the case may be, there are specific facts that lead to the hazardous combination of heated candle wax with the elements in water. These facts are the roots of the problem, and knowing that will help with the consumer side.
On the other hand, buying from a candle manufacturer who is trustworthy and who knows the chemical processes of candle making is the best way to reduce the risk of water in candles. Get to know your candle maker.
Remember Candle Safety Tips by Heart
Sometimes accidents are inevitable, and when wax fires happen, the best way to safeguard your life, family, and property is to know and remember the candle safety tips by heart. Check out some of the most effective, tried and true tips to prevent candle fires:
- Follow instructions how to use your candle. Most candle manufacturers indicate how you can use your candle and prevent accidents such as candle combustion and explosion. Read the instructions carefully before even lighting the candle.
- Keep the candles away from pets and children. Do not put your candles in areas where they could be easily tipped over especially when lighted.
- Avoid using water as candle fire extinguisher. There is a dangerous reaction between the chemicals in water and heated candle wax that result in candle explosion and fire. Use baking soda and make sure you have them within reach at all times.
- Don’t leave your candle burning. Keep an eye on your lighted candle and put it in a room where it doesn’t get contact with flammable things.
Take a look at these examples.
The flowers in the picture above are away from the flame with no danger of particles falling into the candle fire. However, the flowers in the picture below could end up with dropping petals dropping, interrupting the flame, and causing a candle fire.
Candles can explode due to a chemical reaction when water combines with certain fuel types. This explosion may also be referred to as a candle fire. By breaking the fire triangle, a fire can be extinguished safely, without intensifying the matter. The safety warning on your candles will provide you with specific measures, that when followed correctly, will help you to best prevent these explosions from happening. In addition to following safety measures, keep your candles dry and away from water when they have a hot wax pool, and effectively extinguish the wax fire when needed. Should water get into your hot wax, discard it and do not reignite the candle.
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You may also like our post on why candles lose their scent. Read that here.