Where there’s electricity, there’s always the risk of an electrical fire. They are notorious for spreading with lightning speed through wiring – even behind walls, dangerously out of sight. In fact, an average of over 400 deaths, 1,500 injuries and well over $1 billion of property damage occurs annually because of electrical fires according to the National Fire Protection Association. By the time you see or smell the smoke, an electrical fire may already be out of control. It’s essential to know the signs of increased electrical fire risk so that you can make repairs to mitigate the situation immediately – and what you need to do if the fire has already sparked.
Signs of Electrical Fire Risk
An electrical fire can start and spread due to issues such as overloaded circuits, aging, weathering, faulty installation and materials, and more. Because there are so many possible causes of electrical fire, it makes sense to have a regular electrical fire safety inspection in your facility to check for these and other potential hazards. If you or the inspector see or smell any of the following, take action immediately to repair or replace the problem and reduce the risk:
- Discoloration or smoke marks around sockets, outlets or switches.
- Sockets, outlets and/or switch plates that feel warm to the touch.
- Fuses that blow frequently or breakers that frequently trip.
- Flickering lights.
- Poorly wired plugs (look for loose colored wires or debris in the plug area).
- Sockets that are overloaded (too many appliances plugged into the same outlet can cause overheating, which can lead to fires).
- Cables or leads that are worn or frayed.
- Especially notice outlets near any heat or water sources; make sure any outlets near wet areas (kitchens, bathrooms, etc.) are ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets.
- Cables that have been run under carpet (they can become worn before someone notices).
- Outlets, cables, plugs and switches too close to fabrics, oils and other flammable materials.
A qualified electrician should regularly inspect these and other aspects of electrical safety throughout homes and buildings to reduce the risk of electrical fire, and protect lives and property.
What to Do If You See an Electrical Fire
- Never put water on an electrical fire. Mixing water with live electricity can shock you to death.
- Shut the electricity down in the building if you can. This should slow the progression of the fire, possibly saving other areas that have not yet been affected. Make sure that you know where the circuit box is and that it is easily accessible and not obstructed by any other objects.
- After the electricity has been shut off, use a Class C Fire extinguisher to put out the local flames. Make sure that you and occupants know exactly where the fire extinguishers are and have them inspected regularly so they are at the ready. Also ensure that Class C fire extinguishers are placed near locations where there is a higher risk of fire (kitchens, workshops, utility rooms, etc.).
- In a pinch: If you cannot quickly access a Class C Fire extinguisher, you can also use dry baking soda on the fire — as long as you have a lot of baking soda and the fire is not very big.
- If you cannot find the circuit breaker to turn off the electricity, can’t access a Class C Fire extinguisher, or don’t have any baking soda on hand, evacuate everyone out of the building as quickly as possible and call 911.
- Even if you are able to get the fire under control yourself, do not turn the electricity back on until the fire department has a chance to inspect the area.
As always, prevention is the best way to never have to deal with an electrical fire; but if you do encounter one, make sure you and your building’s occupants are equipped to handle it safely.
John J. Pempek, Inc. and Andrew Pempek, Vice President, has been a leading Chicago electrical contractor, specializing in industrial electrical power, maintenance services, control services, electrical safety, and more.
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