What Causes Electrical Fires?Electrical Fires

According to research by the US Fire Administration, there are more than 1.4 million fires every year in the United States. Experts estimate that home electrical fires account for an estimated 51,000 fires reported to US fire departments annually. These fires cause an estimated 500 deaths, 1,400 injuries, and $1.3 billion in direct property damage every year.

Electrical fires can happen at any time. However, there are more electrical fires during the holiday season because of the prevalence of Christmas trees and home light displays. There are year-round actions you can take to ensure electrical safety. No matter your home's age, basic precautions, and proper installation protects new homes and homes more than 20 years old.

Causes of Electrical Fires
The National Fire Protection Association concluded electrical systems, electrical outlets, and power transfer equipment caused about half of home electrical fires. Electrical fires are also commonly caused by air conditioners, clothes dryers, cooking equipment, and space heaters.

There are many ways that electrical systems, outlets, and light fixtures can be flawed. The most common include:

  • Faulty wiring, a frayed cord, or improperly installed wiring
  • Overloaded extension cords and circuit breakers
  • Outlets and switches that are defective, old, or improperly installed
  • A light switch that is not maintained or incorrectly replaced light bulbs

It's important to remember that old electrical wiring is also a leading cause of home electrical fires. The lifespan of an electrical system is 40 years at best. Yet, the average American home is more than 50 years old. Many electrical cords and breaker boxes installed decades ago cannot accommodate the number of amps required by standard electrical appliances today.

Signs of Electrical Fire
The good news is that the signs of electrical fires are easy to spot if you know where to look. If you observe any warnings, you should carefully unplug appliances and call a qualified electrician. Watch for:

  • A burning smell anywhere near an electric wire or electric panel. It is normal for a new appliance to have a funny smell the first time you turn it on. Although, you should not ignore any weird smell coming from an outlet or wire.
  • Your circuit breaker keeps tripping. If your breakers keep tripping, your electrical system is telling you that it is overloaded. Breakers shut off to prevent a fire and other permanent damage to the system.
  • Lights that flicker or dim randomly. When lights flicker, a large appliance might be drawing most of the electricity available from a single circuit. It is not a critical problem. But it will be once your breaker starts to trip. Consider moving lights or talking to an electrician about installing dedicated circuits for major appliances.
  • Sparking or buzzing. If you have got sparks coming from an outlet, fuse box, or electrical panel, call an electrician immediately. If the sparks are from an electrical appliance, contact an appliance professional. When your electrical system is healthy, electricity has no sound. When you have loose prongs, improperly installed outlets, or fraying wire, you get buzzing from the electrical current jumping around.

What to Do in an Electrical Fire?
If you have an electrical fire, you should first shut off electricity to your home. Shutting off the electricity is the most critical step. Your ability to confidently shut off all power will also determine your next step.

If you are sure that the electricity is off, you can put out the fire with water. When the fire is out, do not turn the electricity back on yourself. Contact an electrician to inspect the damage.

If you are not sure if the electricity is out, do not use water to extinguish the flames. Doing so might electrocute you. 

Instead, pick up a fire extinguisher that uses either carbon dioxide or dry chemicals, such as monoammonium phosphate. Fire extinguishers are classified A, ABC, BC, or K and loosely correspond to fire classifications. For instance, a Class B extinguisher will work on fires caused by an explosive or flammable liquid like gasoline. 

You should use Class C fire extinguishers or one classed for ABC or BC fires to put out an electrical fire. In addition to dry chemicals, these extinguishers also use sodium bicarbonate, an active ingredient in baking soda. For this reason, baking soda works to put out small fires, like toaster fires or grease fires caused by cooking oils.

How Long Can an Electrical Fire Smolder?
Electrical fires do not typically smolder. Once you turn off the power source, the wire or insulation initially on fire will burn out at the source. But that does not mean electrical fires cannot spread. 

They spread quickly if a faulty wire or overloaded extension cords touch a flammable material, like a curtain or insulation in a wall. The fire can smolder in the relative absence of air for weeks or months. Once the fire has oxygen again, it can reignite.

How to Prevent Electrical Fires?
With proper installation, maintenance, and placement, you can reduce the risk of electrical fires. Older electrical systems are more dangerous than older homes. If you are not sure about your electrical system's age, contact an electrician for an inspection. The easiest way to prevent a fire might be replacing breaker boxes and outdated fuses to mitigate a dangerous short circuit.

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In addition to educating yourself about your system's health, there are other steps to take to keep your family safe.

  • Do not overload outlets or extension cords. Any number of things could happen when you overload an extension cord. You place potentially excess voltage (electrical pressure) on a single circuit. You also risk having loose plugs or fraying wires touch.
  • Always use surge protectors. Surge protectors protect your circuit from sudden electricity bursts from a strike of lightning or a damaged power line. Without this extra protection, a single burst could burn out an appliance or start a fire in an already damaged system.
  • Ensure that electrical modifications meet current codes and adhere to modern best practices. Electrical codes have most likely evolved since an electrician installed your electrical system. If you DIY a project, be aware of current standards. New wiring best practice now includes using insulation tape, like heat shrink tubing, to protect exposed wires from touching each other. Ground-fault circuit-interrupters are also required so that faulty power tools do not shock you when the current is interrupted.
  • Keep cords away from flammable material and heavily trafficked areas in your home, including under rugs and across doorways. Your cable should travel the shortest, safest distance possible from your appliance or device to the outlet.
  • Protect bulbs in lamps and light fixtures. It does not take much for a light breeze to blow a curtain into an exposed light bulb. Lampshades are a great way to reduce the risk of light bulbs encountering flammable materials.

Hope that helps!

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Young Alfred