How to safeguard your home from electrical fires

By Gordon Williams

Here’s a three-step exercise that just might reduce the risk of a fire in your home.

  1. Without looking, estimate how many devices in your home run on electrical current  —from lamps to laptops to your electric can-opener.
  2. Walk through your home and count how many electric-powered devices you have. Chances are there are more than you thought there would be.
  3. Think back to the last time you had a professional electrician do a thorough study of your home’s electrical system. The answer to that for most of us is “never.” Mitch Metzger, fire chief for Airway Heights WA, a suburb of Spokane, finds most homeowners take electrical systems for granted. As long as something happens when we throw a switch, we don’t worry too much about the health of those systems.

Metzger sees that as a dangerous mistake. Most American households keep adding electrical devices to aging systems that aren’t robust enough to handle the load. The result is often a home fire. The Electrical Safety Foundation International, which promotes electrical safety in the home, reports that, “Home electrical fires account for an estimated 51,000 fires each year, nearly 500 deaths, more than 1,400 injuries.”

So where is trouble most likely to start? Chief Metzger offers some answers:

overloaded electrical system

It is likely you are putting heavier demands on household wiring, electrical outlets and extension cords than they were made to handle. Stay alert to signs your electrical system is being asked to do more than it was ever designed to do.

Be wary of anything electrical that sparks or gets unusually hot. Also, be aware of lights that flicker or dim, and of fuses and circuit breakers that blow repeatedly. An occasional blown fuse is normal; a fuse that blows again and again is not. Obviously pay attention to anything that smells like something is burning.

Misused electrical devices

One example would be running extension cords under carpets. Stepping on the cord breaks down the insulation, and any damage to the hidden cord goes unseen. Another would be snapping off the grounding prong to make a three-pronged plug fit into a two-prong outlet. Still another would be using cords that are frayed or damaged.

To reduce the risk of fire, plug major appliances into wall outlets rather than extension cords, Extension cords are meant for temporary use. If you must rely on extension cords to handle all your devices, consider having more wall outlets installed.

Overloaded lighting fixtures

“We often find light bulbs installed in the wrong fixture,” Metzger says. “The fixture will be rated at 25 watts but someone has put in a 60-watt bulb.” Check the maximum recommended bulb wattage of any lamp and never go over that limit.

Lighting fixtures can pose a fire danger if they are placed too close to something flammable such as curtains. “People will put stuff on a lighting fixture to dry,” he says, “They forget about it and soon you have a fire.”

Outdated wiring

The risk of fire is heightened if your home has aluminum wiring, as many homes built in the 60s and early 70s do. “Take the cover off your electrical panel,” Metzger says. “Check to see if the wiring is copper or aluminum.” Aluminum wiring tends to oxidize and corrode under use, posing a fire hazard.

Dangerous space heaters

“People place them too close to beds or couches or curtains,” Metzger says. Older heaters can pose a fire risk if they tip over and land on something that can burn. If you use a space heater, he says, get a new one that automatically turns itself off if it tips over.  Coil heaters can get so hot they could ignite almost anything nearby.  “Finally, keep anything that creates heat from anything combustible,” he says.

You can do a lot on your own — updating your space heater, making sure the right sized bulbs are in each socket, relying less on extension cords. There is no substitute, Metzger says, for a working home smoke detector. Metzger sits on the board of the American Red Cross Greater Inland Northwest chapter, based in Spokane. He points out that the Red Cross Sound the Alarm campaign can put a working alarm in your home at no cost to you. Replace alarms every 10 years. Metzger explains that smoke alarms contain a minute amount of radioactive material that degrades over time.

Better than trying to fire-proof your home all on your own, Metzger says, is to hire a professional electrician to study your whole house — upgrading wiring, adding new outlets where necessary and removing anything potentially dangerous that only someone with the right training might discover.

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