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The top 5 causes of electrical fires and how to prevent them

electrical fire causes outlet overload

Cold winter months bring opportunities for cozy moments indoors  — but also some potential hidden dangers. More than 45,000 electrical fires occur in homes each year, according to the U.S. Fire Safety Administration. December through March is the deadliest time for electrical fires each year. These damaging and potentially deadly blazes occur most often between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. — when most people are asleep in their beds.

Common Sense Tips

With some common-sense tips you can easily reduce your risk of an electrical fire. Here are the top five causes of electrical fire causes and how to avoid them, along with some tips for safety.

1. Ancient appliances and outlet issues

Yes, it’s great to get the maximum mileage out of your appliances — but do you own a fridge or washing machine that might make a better museum piece? Worn out appliances are the culprit in many electrical fires because they draw a lot of power, and units with frayed and damaged cords pose an extra risk of igniting a blaze.

Update any outdated appliances in your home. New models are more efficient, which will save you money on your utility bills to boot!

Bonus tip: Forcing three-prong plugs into two-plug outlets is a major no-no. Don’t modify a three-prong plug! Have a licensed electrician update any damaged or two-prong outlets.

2. Wonky and worn-out wiring

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you have old and unsafe wiring because electrical work is mostly hidden behind the walls of your home. Remember, however, that wiring problems are a major fire threat. Pay attention to these signs of hidden electrical issues and then get safe by consulting with a pro:

  • Frequently overloaded circuit breakers
  • Flickering lights or intermittent power outages
  • Appliances or electrical devices that feel excessively hot
  • Shocks or sparks from appliances or outlets
  • Unexplained burning smells

If you live in an older home, it’s not a bad idea to determine the condition of your house’s electrical work by having a home inspector or electrician perform an inspection.  

Tips to avoid a fire when dealing with a blown fuse or breaker

electrical fire causes outlet extension overload

3. Excessive and improper extension cord use

Extension cords should never be a permanent solution for powering appliances or devices. Always insert plugs directly into the wall when possible, and only use extension cords as a temporary measure. Don’t overload cords with multiple devices. If you find you need an extension cord to power an everyday device in your home, have an electrician install an outlet instead.

Never run cords of any kind under rugs or carpet. Replace damaged or frayed cords immediately.

electrical fire causes too high wattage in lighting

4. Light fixture liability

Lamps and other light fixtures provide necessary illumination but can also pose a risk. Placing a bulb with a higher wattage than a fixture can handle poses a risk for igniting a fire. Heed the maximum wattage allowed for all fixtures and decrease the wattage or replace ones that seem to get excessively hot when lit.

Never decorate a lamp with paper or cloth that could ignite, and keep fixtures away from textiles, like bedding or curtains. Replace cords that are frayed or damaged.    

5. Unsafe space heaters   

Sometimes you need a little extra warmth and a portable heater makes an appealing option. Unfortunately, they can also be a hazard. According to the U.S. Department of Energy:

“The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 25,000 residential fires every year are associated with the use of space heaters, resulting in more than 300 deaths. In addition, an estimated 6,000 people receive hospital emergency room care for burn injuries associated with contacting the hot surfaces of room heaters, mostly in non-fire situations.”

To reduce the risk of starting a fire when using a portable heater, only use a up-to-date model that includes all modern safety features and an Underwriter’s Laboratory label. Make sure you have the appropriate-sized unit for the room you wish to heat. Position the heater away from areas of foot traffic, as well as furniture, curtains, bedding and anything flammable.

As with other appliances, plug it directly into a wall outlet. Use a heater only as directed and don’t leave a unit running when you aren’t present.

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Tips for Electrical Safety

Follow these quick tips to avoid electrical hazards in the colder months and year-round.

  • Avoid plugging more than one heat-producing appliance — which includes microwaves, coffee makers and space heaters — into a single outlet at one time.
  • Plug appliances directly into wall outlets instead of extension cords when possible, and never attach a major appliance — like a washer or dryer — to an extension cord.
  • Unplug small appliances when not in use.
  • Insert plugs all the way into an outlet before using an appliance or electrical device, and don’t pair three-prong plugs with two-prong outlets (or vice versa).
  • Use extension cords only temporarily.
  • Replace extension cords that become cracked, kinked or otherwise damaged over time.
  • Hire a licensed professional electrician for any electrical work, and install outlets in places where you regularly need extension cords or power strips.   

5 Important Electrical Safety Tips Every Parent Needs to Know

Call a Professional

If you are worried about old and faulty wiring, or have your doubts about electrical safety in an old home, call John C. Flood for an electrical safety inspection to put your fears to rest. Proactively keeping loved ones safe from fire while protecting your home is definitely a worthwhile investment.