Electrical fires make up a significant portion of all house fires in the U.S. According to statistics, around 51,000 electrical fires occur in homes each year, causing an average of 1,400 injuries, 500 deaths, and over $1 billion in property damage costs.
Though electrical fires are somewhat common and can be extremely destructive, they are also largely preventable. Unsure of how an electrical fire can start within your home? Here is a list of the 10 most common causes of electrical fires and how to protect your home from damage.
When household wiring becomes old or damaged, it can struggle to keep up with the amount of power your home needs to run properly. Additionally, an outdated wiring system won’t be designed with the electronic equipment of today in mind, meaning that it’s likely to fail or malfunction even without external damage to the cables.
Besides utilizing more recently popularized electrical items like wide-screen televisions, computers, phone and laptop chargers, and complex home security systems, the majority of American households today still use the products of yesteryear, only now more advanced and electrically complex. This includes air conditioners, microwaves, and classic video and DVD players, among others.
For a home wiring system that’s upwards of one or even two decades old, performing the function of powering what would be considered a “typical” home at its time of installation might already put it at maximum capacity for usage. However, when you add on a list of additional appliances and gadgets that need to be powered by the same wiring system, you run the extreme risk of an electrical fire due to overheated wiring.
If you’re not sure how old your household wiring system is or even where it is, you’re not alone—wiring systems are intentionally placed in areas that don’t see a lot of household traffic. The majority of electrical wiring inside the home life within the walls or in other tucked away spots so as to be out of sight and difficult to be damaged accidentally.
However, you may be alerted to an issue with your household wiring through these warning signs:
- Frequent partial or full power outages
- Flickering lights or minor power surges
- Excessive heat emanating from electrical devices or appliances
- Unexplainable smell of burning
- Sparks or shocks emitting from outlets or appliances
If you are aware of your household wiring system’s primary location and are able to check it, look for fraying electrical cords, scorch marks, or signs of electric sparks. If you see indications of damage on your electrical wiring, don’t try to fix the problem on your own, as you could injure yourself or worsen the damage.
Call a professional electrician to perform an in-depth electrical safety audit of your home’s wiring system, electrical wall outlets, and external power panels. An expert will know exactly what is causing the problem and how to rewire your system so that it can maintain your home’s power output without strain and the risk of an electrical fire.
Misused extension cords
Extension cords are an extremely useful tool when you need small amounts of temporary electrical power in an area where a wall outlet isn’t already accessible, such as an outdoor space. However, most homeowners aren’t aware that there are certain parameters around extension cord use.
Extension cords can easily overheat and cause electrical fires when not used correctly; additionally, the devices and appliances you plug into extension cords can become fried after extended misuse.
Here are a few safety tips to follow when it comes to extension cord use:
- Extension cords are made and sold according to different ratings that determine whether the cord is made for indoor or outdoor use and how much electrical power the cord is designed to withstand. Make sure to check the rating of your extension cord to confirm that it can safely be used with the device you intend to plug into it, especially if you expect to leave the device plugged in for longer than a few minutes.
- Do not plug extension cords into one another. This can be very dangerous and put your home at drastically increased risk of an electrical fire.
- Always check your extension cord for damage before using it, even if you use it often. Malfunctions like frayed or cracked sockets and bare wires can make the use of the extension cord extremely hazardous.
Never run extension cords through the ceiling, floor, or wall. Extension cords often overheat, especially if they are used for an appliance with high electrical output for extended periods of time. In closed-off locations such as the ceiling, floor, and wall, the heat emanating from the cord won’t be able to easily dissipate into the air and could start a fire.
- Extension cords designed for outdoor use will have added protection from elemental factors already put in place. However, you should still do your best to keep your outdoor extension cords away from snow and standing water to prevent short-circuiting.
If you need to use multiple extension cords every day to meet your electrical power needs, you are putting a huge amount of strain on your wall sockets. Consider hiring a professional electrician to install more outlets; not only will you have increased convenience of electrical power throughout your home, but you will also run a much lower risk of electrical fires.
Portable or space heaters
Space heaters are an extremely useful appliance when it comes to keeping your home at a comfortable temperature during the winter months, especially in areas that often experience snowfall and extreme cold. These small, portable devices are very convenient for use anywhere in your home that needs a bit of extra heat.
If your household typically uses space heaters to warm your home, you should be aware of the risks associated with portable heater use and how to avoid an electrical fire. Here are some of the ways to use your space heater wisely this winter:
Be aware of the space heater’s location
Because families tend to need a portable heater most in locations like bedrooms, living rooms, and dens, many people make the mistake of placing their space heater on a rug, near a bed or couch, or near curtains. These items are very flammable and can easily catch fire when a space heater becomes too hot.
Don’t leave it on for extended periods of time.
Leaving a space heater running while you sleep or while you’re away from the house can be extremely dangerous, especially if the space heater is left on or near a flammable surface or item. Only use a portable heater in a non-flammable area where you can keep an eye on it, and if you do use it on a rug or near a couch or bed, make sure to only use it for short periods of time to avoid overheating.
Use a radiator-style portable heater.
Space heaters come in different designs for different specific functions. Many space heaters are built similarly to radiators in that the heat they produce is diffused over the appliance’s whole surface, making them less likely to catch fire due to overheating in one concentrated area. Even if you have a radiator-style space heater, paying attention to the amount of heat emanating from it as well as its proximity to flammable items is still very important.
Never use your space heater to dry off or warm up clothing.
A common practice, especially in colder climates, is to dry off damp clothing faster or warm up cold clothing faster by placing articles directly onto a functioning space heater. This poses a huge risk of fire, especially if the clothing is left on the heater for an extended period of time.
If you utilize a portable heater often, make sure you have an up-to-date model that is equipped with the latest technology in electrical fire prevention. Additionally, using a unit that is designed for a smaller space than you are using it could cause it to overheat often, leading to an increased risk of catching fire as well as reducing the working lifespan of the unit.
Similar to other appliances, avoid using an extension cord whenever possible and only plug your space heater into a wall outlet if you can. If an extension cord is needed, make sure to pay even closer attention to your space heater’s heat levels as well as the heat of the cord, as the risk of electrical fire is increased.
Of the electrical items in your home, your light fixtures are some of the most commonly used for the longest periods of time, particularly the indoor lights in rooms with the most foot traffic. Two of the most common mistakes made surrounding the proper use of light fixtures are:
Using a bulb with excessive wattage.
When purchasing bulbs for your home light fixtures, you may be unaware of what wattage is needed to properly light your spaces without the risk of overheating and electrical fires. Using a bulb with a wattage that is higher than your fixture’s maximum recommended wattage isn’t only a risk factor for electrical fires, it can make your spaces excessively warm with the heat from the high-wattage bulbs. Consult with your electrician to find out what wattage you should be aiming for when shopping for bulbs for your different light fixtures, as different fixtures in different areas of your home will have varying requirements.
Placing flammable materials near bulbs or lampshades.
Never leave a flammable material such as paper or cloth near a functioning lightbulb or light fixture, as it poses a very high risk of an electrical fire. Additionally, though lampshades are typically several inches removed from lightbulbs, they can still become very hot after a lamp has been left on for extended periods of time. This is particularly likely if the lightbulb within the lamp is a higher wattage than is recommended for the fixture.
In order to prevent an electrical fire related to your light fixtures, make sure that your lamps and other lighting devices are plugged into outlets with the right wattage. If your fixtures are having trouble staying lit or flickering, contact a light installation expert to diagnose any potential outlet or wiring issues.
Faulty receptacles (outlets)
Though many electrical fires are caused by appliances that are plugged into electrical outlets, the outlets themselves can also become hazardous when misused. Here are a few key ways to maintain good electrical socket health:
Don’t use frayed or damaged cords. If an appliance you intend to plug in has a frayed or otherwise damaged cord, you could put nearby items at risk for catching fire as well as accidentally cause a power surge to the outlet.
Don’t overload power strips.
When there are several devices in one area that need plugging in and there aren’t enough wall outlets, many people will utilize power strips. In order to avoid overloading the wall outlets that your power strips are plugged into, try to avoid having too many devices plugged in and running at once, especially if they are high-output devices.
Don’t overuse extension cords.
As mentioned above, excessive extension cord use can put the cord at risk for damage and electrical fires, but it can also cause power surges to outlets when improperly used, which could lead to a fire from a sparking outlet.
Old or damaged electrical appliances can develop issues with their wiring, putting them at higher risk for an electrical fire during extended or even normal use. Make sure to pay attention to the functionality of your appliances, especially as they age.
If you notice that your washing machine, dryer, heater, or similar device seems to be working harder than it used to in order to achieve the same result, it might be time for an electrical repair or replacement by a professional. Otherwise, your overheating appliances could start an electrical fire.
Electrical circuit overload
If your home has any particularly electricity-heavy areas such as a music studio or entertainment system, you likely utilize at least one or two power strips and extension cords in an isolated area. When too many high-output devices are drawing power from the same area, it can lead to a circuit overload or blown fuse, often causing a surge that could start an electrical fire in seconds depending on its voltage.
If reducing the amount of equipment in the area isn’t an option, here are a couple of suggestions for reducing electrical fire risk:
Only plug-in items during use.
You may have a few devices that need to be plugged in at all times for one reason or another. However, if you are able to unplug anything when not in use, it can drastically decrease the amount of pressure on your wall outlets.
Invest in surge protection.
Power surges don’t just put homes at risk of electrical fires—they can destroy expensive equipment in seconds from a single jolt of high voltage. Installing whole-home surge protection or even localized surge protection for your high-output area could extend the life of your equipment and your outlets while preventing electrical fires. Surge Protection is also a code-required component for safety.
For in-depth repairs such as fuse replacement or circuit maintenance, make sure to call a licensed electrician.
Kitchen fires are an extremely common type of household fire, and although some kitchen fires are caused by oil spills or burning food, many are caused by malfunctioning electrical equipment.
Faulty stoves, toasters, microwaves, and similar appliances can reach dangerous temperatures and begin to spark. This is extremely dangerous, especially if flammable substances are nearby. Make sure to keep a close eye on the functioning temperatures of your kitchen appliances as well as the state of your kitchen outlets.
Though both portable and ceiling fans aren’t among the highest conductors of electricity within a home, they are often left on throughout the night, which can lead to overheating and electrical fires.
Air conditioners. In addition to being high-output devices, air conditioners and vents can collect huge amounts of dust and lint build-up. These materials can essentially act as kindling for an overheating appliance, putting them at risk of electrical fires. Make sure to always keep your AC unit and vents clean, properly functioning, and technologically up to date.
As you can tell, some electrical items are at higher risk of electrical fires than others. However, overuse of any appliance, device, or wire could lead to overheating, putting your home and family at risk of a destructive electrical fire.
While you’re keeping an eye out for signs of faulty wiring, the excessive heat coming from electrical devices, or outdated appliances, make sure your home is outfitted with working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. These devices could make all the difference when it comes to keeping your family safe and minimizing damage to your home.
If you’re in need of electrical inspections, a panel upgrade, smoke detector maintenance, or any other electrical repair or replacement, call the professionals at Home Team Electric. We provide high-quality, 24-hour service for any electrical need, right when you need it.