5 electrical fire risks you may not be aware of

Authored By Ashley Hopkins

Most of us are aware of a few things that we just shouldn’t do around the home-like plugging in space heaters too close to fabrics and walls, plugging too many strings of Christmas lights in an outlet or piggybacking surge protectors. But there are some less obvious causes of home electrical fires that can be just as devastating.

“Ignoring these risks could cause a fire or even death due to electrocution or fire,” said John Watts, EPB energy and communications services senior supervisor. “If you are seeing any of the problems listed, you should contact a licensed electrical contractor to find the problem. These are not DIY projects.”

According to the federal agencies that track fire incidents, three of the five leading causes of fires were electrical problems, which resulted in the most property damage and injuries.

Number of fires  Causes Deaths  Injuries Dollars in property damage
172,000  Cooking 570 5,430 $1.1 billion
56,800 Home heating 510 1,470 $1.1 billion
37,000 Electrical/lighting 600 1,290 $1.4 billion
18,100 Smoking 590 1,200 $502 million
9,000 Candles 70 840 $284 million
Source: 2013 data from the U.S. Fire Administration and National Fire Prevention Association

“Always have working smoke detectors in each bedroom and outside the bedrooms in the hallways,” Watts said. “Smoke detectors are an affordable and reliable way to prevent as much damage as possible, as long as you have them installed properly and keep the batteries changed.” 

To help prevent disaster from striking in the first place, being more mindful of these five common electrical hazards could literally save the day in your home.

Using the wrong light bulb
The numbers and specs on light bulb packaging are there for a reason. People should understand what they mean, especially the wattage, and make the right choice before buying or using the bulbs.

“Using a bulb with a higher wattage than the fixture is rated for can cause overheating and is a fire risk,” Watts said. “You always want to check the manufacturer’s wattage rating of the fixture you are installing a light bulb in.”

That rating is typically labeled on the lamp or light fixture itself.

Using extension cords improperly
The most important thing to remember about extension cords is that they are designed for temporary use. Even if you are using the correct extension cord for the correct purpose, if you’re doing so as a permanent fix, you’re still bringing a fire risk into your home.

Another danger lies in running extension cords under rugs or carpet to keep them out of the way. Yes, leaving them on top of the carpet is a tripping hazard, but the heat buildup and friction caused by placing them underneath something poses a serious fire risk.

And like light bulbs, extension cords have wattage ratings that you should be aware of. If the wattage rating isn’t at least as high as the appliance or tool plugged into it, it’s a fire risk. And if you are using an extension cord outdoors that isn’t rated for outdoor use on its packaging, then that could be hazardous.

“Use extension cords for what they’re meant for, only when necessary and only on a temporary basis,” Watts said.

Using damaged or tampered-with cords
All cords, extension or otherwise, should be checked frequently for signs of wear and tear. If you see breaks, tears or fraying in the cord, throw them away. You can buy rewiring kits for lamps and the like at home improvement stores.

“If a cord feels hot or like the plastic has softened, it could mean the cord is overloaded, or that wires or connections are failing,” Watts said. “Discard the cord and replace it.”

Don’t insert a three-pronged plug into a cord intended for only two prongs, either by removing the third (round or U-shaped) prong or leaving it hanging out the bottom of the cord. The third prong is a safety feature designed to reduce the risk of shock and electrocution, but you are only increasing the chance of a fire by not using it or removing it.

Ignoring warning signs
Don’t think “it isn’t a big deal” if your lights try to tell you something by blinking or randomly going from dim to bright-it’s a warning that you should never ignore.

For example, sometimes a recessed light (one that is flush with the ceiling) will go off but later work again. This is most likely caused by the built-in safety cutout that is keeping the light from overheating-which means you have the wrong style or wattage of bulb in the fixture, or that ceiling-space insulation is too close around the light, Watts said.

If you have an appliance or two that have died recently, light bulbs that pop or lights that are extra-bright while others are dim, it’s probably caused by a bad main neutral connection (or a bad neutral connection shared by two circuits).

“This will continue to be a problem and continue to be destructive to your home until addressed,” Watts said.

A flickering or blinking light represents a poor connection somewhere along the circuit; if the blinking is happening throughout your home, a main wire connection is probably the one that is the source of the trouble.

Being careless in the kitchen
A seemingly benign activity, cooking has long been the leading cause of home fires and home fire injuries. It’s also the third-leading cause of home fire deaths.

“Diligence in the kitchen is very important,” Watts said.

Don’t leave anything unattended on the stove while cooking, and make sure you are using appropriately sized pots and pans, as overflow or spatter can increase the risk of a stovetop fire.

Although it takes longer for something in the oven to catch on fire, it’s still important not to lose track of the time and let something burn to a crisp. Always use a timer to remind yourself when it’s time to check on the dish.

“Cooking isn’t a mindless activity,” Watts said. “Eliminate distractions as much as possible when you are working in the kitchen.”

John Pless is the public relations coordinator at EPB.

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