Preventing Electrical Fires
Electrical fires in our homes claim the lives of 485 Americans each year and injure 2,305 more. Some of these fires are caused by electrical system failures and appliance defects, but many more are caused by the misuse and poor maintenance of electrical appliances, incorrectly installed wiring, and overloaded circuits and extension cords.
The United States Fire Administration (USFA) would like consumers to know that there are simple steps you can take to prevent the loss of life and property resulting from electrical fires.
During a typical year, home electrical problems account for 67,800 fires, 485 deaths, and $868 million in property losses. Home electrical wiring causes twice as many fires as electrical appliances.
December is the most dangerous month for electrical fires. Fire deaths are highest in winter months which call for more indoor activities and increase in lighting, heating, and appliance use. Most electrical wiring fires start in the bedroom.
Most electrical fires result from problems with "fixed wiring" such as faulty electrical outlets and old wiring. Problems with cords and plugs, such as extension and appliance cords, also cause many home electrical fires.
In urban areas, faulty wiring accounts for 33% of residential electrical fires.
Many avoidable electrical fires can be traced to misuse of electric cords, such as overloading circuits, poor maintenance and running the cords under rugs or in high traffic areas.
The home appliances most often involved in electrical fires are electric stoves and ovens, dryers, central heating units, televisions, radios and record players.
Routinely check your electrical appliances and wiring.
- Frayed wires can cause fires. Replace all worn, old or damaged appliance cords immediately.
- Use electrical extension cords wisely and don't overload them.
- Keep electrical appliances away from wet floors and counters; pay special care to electrical appliances in the bathroom and kitchen.
- When buying electrical appliances look for products which meet the Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) standard for safety.
- Don't allow children to play with or around electrical appliances like space heaters, irons and hair dryers.
- Keep clothes, curtains and other potentially combustible items at least three feet from all heaters.
- If an appliance has a three-prong plug, use it only in a three-slot outlet. Never force it to fit into a two-slot outlet or extension cord.
- Never overload extension cords or wall sockets. Immediately shut off, then professionally replace, light switches that are hot to the touch and lights that flicker. Use safety closures to "child-proof" electrical outlets.
- Check your electrical tools regularly for signs of wear. If the cords are frayed or cracked, replace them. Replace any tool if it causes even small electrical shocks, overheats, shorts out or gives off smoke or sparks.
- Finally, having a working smoke alarm dramatically increases your chances of surviving a fire. And remember to practice a home escape plan frequently with your family.
- It is important for homeowners to understand the severity of an electrical wiring fire, as it often begins behind a wall, in a basement or in the attic where the fire can spread throughout the home before setting off the smoke alarm or becoming evident to occupants. This reduces the amount of time available to escape a burning building.
- Below are additional safety tips to help homeowners create the safest home possible:
- Make sure smoke alarms are installed on every floor outside sleeping areas and in every bedroom, and are in good working order.
- Look for telltale signs of electrical problems such as dimming of lights, frequent circuit breaker trips or blown fuses.
- Ask a qualified electrician if your home would benefit from AFCI protection, especially during inspections of older homes or upgrades to electrical systems.
- Limit the use of extension cords, particularly cords used to power room air conditioners.
- Use light bulbs that are the proper wattage for the fixture - higher wattage bulbs can degrade the wires in and around the fixture.
Extension cords, surge protector safety
- Look for a certification label from an independent testing lab such as UL (Underwriters Laboratories) or ETL (Electrical Testing Laboratories) on the package and on the product itself. Products with this certification label meet current industry safety standards. For extension cords, look for a permanently attached certification label on the cord near the plug. For power strips and surge protectors, inspect the underside of the casing and make certain that it is marked with the manufacturer's name and the testing lab.
- Use electrical cords, power strips and surge protectors that have polarized plugs with one blade slightly wider the other, or grounded three-pronged plugs. These features reduce the risk of electric shock.
- Use special, heavy duty extension cords for high wattage appliances such as air conditioners, portable electric heaters and freezers.
- Extension cords used outside should be specifically designed for such use to guard against shock.
- Insert plugs fully so that no part of the prongs are exposed when the cord is in use.
- Never cover any part of an extension cord with rugs or other objects while it is in use. If the cord is covered, heat cannot escape, which can result in fire.
- Don't overload cords with too many appliances. Change the cord to a higher-rated one or unplug and relocate appliances to other outlets.
- Make sure cords do not dangle from the counter or table tops where they can be pulled down or tripped over.
- If a cord feels hot to the touch, stop using it and throw it away.
- Replace cracked or worn cords.
- Don't use extension cords to compensate for inadequate home wiring. Use extension cords only when necessary and only on a temporary basis.