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6 Common Electrical Fire Hazards to Watch Out For

It’s hard to imagine living life today without the convenience of electricity. Even if your home’s heating, hot water, and cooking energy all come from fuel oil, propane, or natural gas, you still rely on electricity for everything from your lighting to charging your mobile devices.

Unfortunately, electrical systems are also commonly the source of ignition for fires in homes and businesses around the world. In the US alone, the US Fire Administration estimates that more than 24,000 house fires are the result of an electrical appliance or electrical system failure.

Preventing an electrical fire requires being vigilant and keeping an eye on all of the electrical systems and devices in your home. Here are six common hazards to keep watch for.

Electrical Fire Hazard #1: Faulty Electrical Outlets/Switches

As the parts of your home’s electrical system that encounter the most traffic, your outlets and switches are the components most likely to wear out and fail. When that happens, shorts inside the outlet or switch can cause wires to get hot, loose connections can spark, and components themselves can overheat and catch fire.

If you notice any of the following from an outlet or switch, replace the failing component or call an electrician ASAP:

  • Sockets that don’t grip the plug tightly so that the plug readily falls out of the socket
  • Light switches that are balky or have become excessively easy to switch (no “click” or friction)
  • Illuminated light switches that flicker or blink irregularly
  • Any component that sparks, smokes, or emits an acrid smell

If you do replace an outlet, make sure to replace it with the same type. Failure to match outlet types can lead to a dangerous overload condition that creates a whole new fire hazard.

Electrical Fire Hazard #2: Faulty or Insufficient Wiring

Each wire in your home has a specific “capacity,” the amount of current it can safely carry without getting excessively hot. A wire’s capacity is based on several factors: the length of the run, the diameter of the wiring, and what the wire is made of.

If your home is more than 20-25 years old, the circuits may have been designed and wired based on the average electrical consumption of the time, which was lower than it is today. If it was built during the period stretching from about 1965 to about 1975, it may even contain aluminum wiring, which is a known fire hazard.

If your home has faulty or insufficient wiring, the wire runs inside your walls and attic could be getting dangerously hot – potentially hot enough to melt the insulation, ignite wooden frame members, or even cause the wire itself to melt or burn.

If you suspect that your home’s wiring might need updating, contact an electrician and discuss how you can bring your home’s wiring back up to speed.

Electrical Fire Hazard #3: Distribution/Breaker Panel Faults

The first line of defense against electrical hazards is your home’s distribution, breaker, or fuse panel(s). The fuses or breakers in these panels are designed to “blow” or “trip” whenever the circuit is pulling more current than the wiring and other components are designed to handle.

Circuit breakers, however, have been known to fail, not opening when an overcurrent is detected. Panel wiring carries high current loads from several circuits in close proximity, leading to a risk of shorts and sparking. And substandard repairs or replacements can ultimately defeat the valuable safety factors these devices provide.

If your box has a breaker that trips continually or a fuse that blows regularly, that may indicate a problem with the circuit or a problem in the panel. Get an electrician to evaluate the situation and determine where the problem lies.

Electrical Fire Hazard #4: Heating Elements

The majority of electrical and electrical-related fires are caused by one simple appliance: the electric space heater. Convenient sources of heat during frigid weather, space heaters are nonetheless a common source of ignition for household fires, particularly in cold climates like ours here in Pennsylvania.

Other electrical heating and cooking appliances – toasters, air fryers, etc. – can cause the same kinds of problems. Usually, these kinds of appliances start fires when something flammable, like curtains, a tablecloth, upholstery, or paper, comes into contact with the hot heating element and ignites.

Make sure that appliances that are designed to get hot are kept far away from any flammables in the home, and never leave them unattended. If a fire starts, unplug the heating device immediately and use a fire extinguisher, or evacuate the house and call the fire department.

Electrical Fire Hazard #5: Faulty Appliances and Cords

Frayed cords are another common cause of electrical fires. If you have an appliance or device with a frayed cord or a cord that’s damaged near the plug or where it enters the appliance, stop using the device until you can replace it or replace the cord. With more and more appliances using removable cords, replacing a worn power cable is a relatively simple job.

Another common cause is entirely preventable: intentionally defeating electrical safety features. If your home features any of the old-style two-prong outlets, you may have been tempted to cut the third prong off of some of your appliance plugs to enable them to fit. Don’t do it!

Cutting off that third prong defeats a vital safety feature that protects you not only from fires but also from electrocution. The third prong (also called ground, earth, or safety) is called “case ground,” and it’s what allows manufacturers to build electrical appliances with metal bodies safely. If a wire inside the device gets loose and touches the metal case, the connection through the third prong returns that electricity safely to the ground; the subsequent rush of electricity will usually blow the appropriate fuse or trip the appropriate breaker.

When you cut off the third prong, and a fault inside the device causes the case to become electrified, then there’s nothing to force the breaker/fuse to stop the flow of electricity. If you were to touch the device, you could receive a dangerous shock – and if the device is left energized, the current flow can cause it to overheat and catch fire very quickly.

Electrical Fire Hazard #6: Extension Cords

Sometimes, we all tend to ask a little too much of an extension cord. Most of the time, we get away with it. Occasionally, we don’t. Overlading an extension cord is an all-too-common means of starting a devastating house fire.

Always make sure that an extension cord is rated for the job you’re expecting it to do. If a cord is only going to be supporting one small table lamp, then a two-wire, lightweight extension cord in 18- or 16-gauge wire will be plenty for your needs. If you’re planning to run several power tools and high-intensity lights at a distant corner of your yard, you’ll need a much heavier 14- or 12-gauge cord with heavy insulation.

If you’re using an extension cord and any part of it feels hot to the touch, you’re overloading it. Unplug the cord immediately and swap it out for a heavier-weight cable.

Have You Suffered an Electrical Fire or Electrical-Related Fire? Contact the Certified Fire Damage Restoration Team at AfterCare Restoration: 215.515.1000

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