Electrical Fire Safety: Prepare and Prevent

Malfunction of electric appliances, equipment and wiring is a leading cause of home fires annually. Many electrical fires, however, can be prevented simply by understanding basic electrical principles and following safe practices.

“The statistics are staggering and disturbing,” explained Rick Coons, CEO of Indiana Electric Cooperatives, “with more than 50,000 home electrical fires each year causing nearly 500 deaths, more than 1,400 injuries, and $1.3 billion in property damage.”

Electrical wiring consists of metal wires that “conduct” or move electricity from place to place, and materials like rubber that “insulate” the conductors and keep electricity from escaping its intended path. Electrical fires stem from circumstances that compromise the separation between conductor and insulator. Among them:

  • Improperly installed or outdated wiring
  • Faulty outlets
  • Exposed wires on cords, including extension cords and device cords
  • Problems with light fixtures, lamps and light bulbs
  • Misuse of electrical cords, such as overloading circuits and outlets

An “arcing fault” results when a conductor’s insulation is compromised. This creates a discharge of electricity between two or more conductors and results in heat, which can further break down a wire’s insulation and trigger an electrical fire. Arc faults can occur when older wires become frayed or cracked, when a nail or screw damages wiring in a wall, or when outlets or circuits are overloaded.

To minimize the risk of arcing faults, consider the following tips:

  • Conduct regular assessments of your home’s electrical system, outlets, electrical cords, extension cords and plugs.
  • Have your home inspected by a qualified electrician to ensure that all electrical work meets National Electric Code requirements.
  • Ask a qualified electrician if your home would benefit from an Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter.
  • Avoid overloading outlets. If needed, consider having additional circuits or outlets installed.
  • Use extension cords only temporarily and never with space heaters or air conditioners.
  • Use light bulbs that match the recommended wattage on a light fixture.

If you experience dimming or flickering lights, unusual buzzing or sizzling sounds, or circuit breakers that trip repeatedly, contact a qualified electrician immediately.

“While it’s important to do all we can to prevent electrical fires,” cautioned Coons, “we must also prepare for the worst.” Smoke detectors should be installed in every bedroom, outside each sleeping area, and on every level of a home. They should be tested monthly and have their batteries replaced annually, or in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. A fire escape plan should also be in place and practiced regularly.

With ample effort put toward preventing electrical fires and preparations put in place to handle a fire should one occur, property damage, injury and death can be significantly reduced.

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Electrical Safety Foundation International
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
U.S. Fire Administration