Thousands of house fires happen yearly because of electrical malfunctions that homeowners can easily avoid. That's why we gathered tips from Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to help you make your home safer.
In this guide, we'll let you know about the potential dangers posed by common electrical devices and appliances that may be in your home. You'll also learn safety precautions and warning signs that can protect you and your family from accidental property damage and personal injury due to electrical hazards.
What is electrical safety, and why is it so important?
Electrical safety is imperative for keeping you and your family safe. Thankfully, it's easy to maintain if you're vigilant and know what to look for. We'll start with some of the main causes of electrical fires and how to prevent them, according to the NFPA.
Faulty household wiring, light fixtures and power cords are a few electrical problems that can pose a fire hazard. These examples cause half of all home fires, and another 15% happen because of issues with cooking equipment. Short-circuiting is also a danger, which can often happen with heating equipment, fans, air-conditioning units and clothes dryers. It's important to prevent these things from causing a home fire, since 83% of home fires result in loss of life.
Home fires are more likely to happen during certain seasons and hours of the day. On average, 39% of electrical failures and malfunctions occur between November and February, and nearly half of all house fires involving these failures and malfunctions (47%) take place between November and March. But while they're more likely to happen during the daytime (between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.), most fire-related deaths in the home occur during nighttime hours (midnight to 8 a.m.).
The reasons for practicing electrical safety in your home are clear. ESFI estimates that 51,000 electrical fires occur in homes each year, resulting in 500 deaths, 1,400 injuries and $1.3 billion in property damage. Let's review the habits you can implement to avoid becoming a statistic.
Electrical safety checklist for your home
We've compiled a comprehensive checklist you can use to safeguard your home. It can help protect you from the most common electrical issues and hazards.
Certain adjustments can make your home a much safer place. Make sure your electrical outlets, power and extension cords, and power strips are being used properly. For example, only power a space heater or fan directly from a wall outlet; these items use a lot of electricity and can cause an extension cord or power strip to overheat. Similarly, your lightbulbs should be the right wattage for your light fixtures, and your home's fuses and circuit breakers also need to be the right size.
Some good safety habits are keeping flammable items away from heat sources and unplugging appliances and electronics while not in use. Make sure you have enough well-functioning smoke alarms to quickly detect and alert you to a fire, and remember to check them regularly.
Likewise, test your arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) every month. If your home's electrical system doesn't have an AFCI, it's a good idea to get one installed; this precaution can reduce your risk of an electrically caused home fire by as much as 50%. Fortunately, AFCI breakers are very affordable.
Next, we'll look more in-depth at why these tips are so important and offer some advice for preventing electrical fire hazards in your home.
Use approved GFCI outlets
A ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet can help reduce the risk of electric shock. It monitors the amount of electricity that flows through electrical appliances. It will automatically trip the circuit and cut off the power if the system determines that the amount of current flowing to the appliance isn't equal to the current it's returning. It's especially important to install these outlets in areas near water sources since water conducts electricity and makes a nearby electrical hazard even more dangerous.
Avoid overloading outlets
Overloading an outlet can damage it, increasing the risk of a home fire. Since each outlet has a maximum load capacity, applying more current than it can safely handle may cause it to overheat. This happens when you plug too many power cords into one outlet or when the wattage of the connected appliances exceeds the maximum recommended wattage for the outlet.
Doing this also risks tripping the circuit breaker, cutting off power to all other appliances connected to the same circuit. This might mean the connected devices don't receive the right amount of power, which may cause them to malfunction or break. Pay attention to each outlet's load capacity and make sure you don't exceed it.
Don't plug in multiple appliances into narrowly wired plugs
You may draw out too much electrical current if you plug two or more appliances into an outlet meant for a single appliance. If you exceed the adapter's capacity, the wires behind your wall can quickly overheat. This is especially important if you live in an older home with an outdated electrical system, which can have a higher risk of electrical fire. Overloading these outlets can also damage your appliances because the outlet may not be able to provide each with sufficient power.
Use the right extension cords
Improper extension cord use causes over 3,000 home fires each year, so if you need to use one, it's important to use the right type. This is especially important for advanced or high-powered electrical tools and devices; standard cables may be too small and increase your risk of fire or shock.
The wrong extension cord can also damage your electrical equipment, so always check to confirm that your extension cord can supply adequate power before plugging it in. Each extension cord has an amperage limit based on its length and gauge rating. Inspect each cord for damage before use as well.
Don't use extension cords permanently
It would be best if you only used extension cords temporarily. Since they can break down and fray over time, using an extension cord to power an appliance for too long can create an electrical hazard and increase the risk of a home fire. If you need additional outlets in different locations, consider hiring an electrician for the job rather than relying on extension cords for extended periods.
Avoid running cords under carpets, rugs, doors or windows
Running cords under carpets or rugs can damage the cord, leading to sparks and other hazards that increase the risk of fire. It's also a tripping hazard because you can't easily see the cord. Also, avoid running cords under windows or doors. This can put pressure on the cord, restricting airflow, which can make a fire more likely. If you must run a cord outside from inside your home, consider going through an open door or window rather than a closed one.
Keep electrical devices and outlets away from water to prevent shock
It's crucial that you keep all electrical devices and outlets away from water sources. Accidental contact with water could result in various electrical hazards because water conducts electrical currents. For this reason, always avoid touching or using electrical items while standing in water. And although water is typically the best way to put out a fire, use a multipurpose fire extinguisher for electrical fires instead to prevent further danger.
Unplug appliances after using them to reduce potential risks
Develop the habit of unplugging appliances when you aren't using them. This decreases the risk of fire, appliance failure and using too much energy. While less of a safety issue, using less energy is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, and it can save you money, too. Things like toasters, irons and space heaters can easily be unplugged when you aren't using them.
Replace or repair damaged electrical cords
If you notice that one of your cords is fraying or damaged, replace it as soon as possible. Continuing to use a damaged cord is an electrical hazard because it can produce sparks. Confirm that an extension cord has been tested and approved before you buy it to ensure it's safe to use. Independent testing labs whose logos you can look for on the label include Underwriters Laboratory and Intertek.
Keep combustible items away from portable heaters and built-in furnaces
If you have portable heaters or built-in furnaces in your home, keep a close eye on them and avoid placing paper, cardboard or other flammable objects and liquids nearby. Since these appliances can generate quite a bit of heat, it's easy for flammable materials to ignite if they are in close proximity. These items should remain at least 36 inches away from any heat source at all times.
Use the right wattage for lighting fixtures
Do you know what the right wattage is for your light fixtures? If not, take a look and make sure the lightbulb wattage does not exceed it. Using a lightbulb with a wattage that is too high for a fixture can cause overheating, which increases the risk of fire. If you're not sure how to find the proper wattage, ask an electrician or check with the fixture's manufacturer.
Turn off power before working on electrical appliances
Most people would rather turn to a professional electrician when they need to work on electrical appliances in their homes. But if you choose to handle a task like this yourself, it's crucial to always shut off the main power source in your home before you begin working. This will protect you from an accidental electric shock or a potential fire that could compromise the safety of your home and the people inside.
Wear protective gear when necessary
Even a small electric charge can pose a physical threat. To keep yourself safe when performing various electrical installations or maintenance, don't begin working until you have on protective gear such as rubber gloves and rubber-soled shoes. This can prevent electrocution and other serious injuries from handling electricity.
Hire a licensed electrician to handle electrical repairs and installations
As tempting as it is to attempt a DIY repair, hiring a professional electrician can be well worth the cost. If you lack the proper knowledge or tools to do your own electrical repairs and maintenance, consider finding someone who does. Not only will a good electrician know how to do the job correctly and safely, but they can also identify issues that may lead to bigger problems down the road.
Make sure your home has smoke alarms
Two in three fire-related deaths occur in homes that don't have properly functioning smoke alarms. That's why you should have a smoke alarm on each level of your home, including the basement. It's also wise to have a separate smoke alarm inside each room. Using multiple smoke detectors ensures a fire is detected as early as possible, giving you maximum time to evacuate, seek help and prevent damage. After you install your smoke detectors, test them monthly, change the batteries yearly, and replace them every 10 years.
Help avoid house fires and appliance failures by practicing electrical safety
Now that you know about the most common electrical failures and hazards, you can take steps to protect yourself from harm. While safeguarding your home requires some time and energy, it's the best way to prevent dangerous electrical issues like appliance failures. Practicing these safety habits regularly to prevent house fires can give you the peace of mind of knowing that your home and loved ones are safe.
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