What are the risks associated with electricity in our homes?

Winter typically means spending more time indoors and using more electricity to heat our homes and power the devices that keep us entertained.  Local residents have questions about the risks associated with electricity and what they can do to lower those risks. Because it is so frequently used, residents tend to underestimate the risk and dangers that come with electrical fires.  Unfortunately, electrical fires are to blame for nearly 500 deaths and more than 1,400 injuries each year.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), electrical fires account for the highest share of civilian deaths. In fact, fires involving electrical failures or malfunctions are to blame for 60% of deaths. The NFPA also reports that electrical distribution and lighting equipment was the third leading form of equipment involved in fires in U.S. homes between 2012 and 2016. 

Over 80% of residential electrical fires occurred in one and two family homes.  These fires occur most often in the winter due to increased use of heating appliances and lights.   When electrical fires start, they often spread quickly to other areas of the home.  Although most electrical fires start in the bedroom, they are also common in attics and crawl spaces.  However, no room in your home can escape all the risk.  Experts report that electrical wire, cable insulation, and structural framing are the items that are first ignited in electrical fires.

Knowing how electrical fires start will help you take action to prevent them from occurring in the first place. While most electrical fires are caused by faulty electrical outlets and malfunctioning appliances, many electrical fires are started by frayed cords, outdated wiring, the misuse of extension cords, and ignoring wattage guidelines for light fixtures and lamps.

Outdated wiring often causes electrical fires. If a home is over 20 years old, it may not have the wiring capacity to handle the increased amounts of electrical appliances in today’s average home, such as computers, wide-screen televisions, video and gaming players, microwaves and air conditioners.   Normally, breakers should be triggered when circuits get overloaded by too much electricity. However, outdated breaker boxes often have worn connectors that do not work. If breakers do not function properly, the electricity overloads the whole system and can start a fire.

There are some warning signs of impending electrical failure. Flickering lights, buzzing sounds, circuit breakers that often trip, or fuses that frequently blow are indications that there is something wrong with the electricity in your home.  Addressing these warning signs is an important step to protecting your family. If a breaker trips, do not just reset it.  It is important to contact an electrician.

It is also important to inspect the cords on your appliances and to never use an appliance with a worn or frayed cord.  The frayed cord can send heat onto combustible surfaces like floors, curtains, and rugs and can start a fire.  You should also never run a cord under a rug.  This is dangerous because the added insulation of the carpet can cause the cord to overheat and start a fire. It is also likely that you will not notice if the cord is damaged if it is covered by a rug.

The misuse of extension cords is another cause of electrical fires.  Do not use extension cords with heating units, air conditions, or appliances.  These pieces of equipment should be plugged directly into the outlet and should not be plugged into an extension cord.

Light fixtures, lamps, and light bulbs are another common cause for electrical fires. Light bulbs are not one size fits all, so be sure to follow wattage guidelines for all light fixtures around your home. A 100-watt light bulb in a light fixture that calls for a 60-watt bulb can cause the whole fixture to catch on fire. That is why it iss important to always use light bulbs that match the recommended wattage for the fixture or lamp.

In addition to these tips, it is also imperative to practice general fire safety habits. This includes installing smoke detectors in every room of the house and testing them monthly to ensure their batteries are working.  It also includes creating and practicing an escape plan periodically with family members to ensure preparedness in the event of an emergency. Perhaps most importantly, make sure you have a fire extinguisher nearby and you know how to use it.

Remember if you smell anything burning or see smoke coming from an appliance, cord or the plug, or if you see an outlet that is discolored, contact the fire department immediately.  Electrical fires can pose a significant danger, but proper precautions can help minimize the risk of injury or death to you and your family. For more information about electrical fires, visit www.nfpa.org, or call your local fire department.

This column was written by Jane Perkins, Fire Safety Specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and Captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please e-mail her at askafirefighter@yahoo.com.

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