Residential Electrical Fires and How To Prevent Them

Written By: Heidi Harris

Posted: October 1, 2022

Residential Electrical Fires and How To Prevent Them

It’s a scenario nobody wants to imagine, and few believe it will happen to them. However, each year there are an estimated 51,000 home electrical fires, collectively causing 1.3 billion dollars in property damage. And that is just in the United States! The best way to protect yourself, your family and your home from electrical fires is to first understand the threat, and then to take proactive preventative steps. Don’t allow your home to be a fire safety statistic. This article will help you to apprehend the most common residential electrical fire culprits, and to identify and resolve specific vulnerabilities in your household. Don’t be intimidated, we will help you tackle this task and make your home into a fire-safe sanctuary.

What Actually Are Electrical Fires?

Let’s start from the beginning: what exactly are electrical fires? Electrical fires are unwanted and unexpected conflagrations caused by the result of failure or malfunction within the electrical components or wiring of machinery, panels, circuit breakers, and/or devices. When the distribution of electricity is inadequate, for example in an electrical panel, the panel and circuits become overloaded. This produces an overabundance of electricity, which generates tons of heat undetectably. The extreme heat causes undue stress on the internal wiring system, and can
ultimately ignite a fire. Occasionally, lighting equipment can also act as a source of too much heat, and when close to easily combustible materials, a fire can ensue. It is the invisible and noticeable aspect of this undue heat which makes electrical fires so dangerous. Stay vigilant and
stay fire safe.

Common Causes of Residential Electrical Fires and How to Mitigate Risk

The following is a list of the most common causes of home electrical fires. Each fire culprit is identified and explained, and practical solutions to each potential hazard are provided.

1) Faulty Outlets and Appliances. Old appliances and faulty outlets are among the most common causes of electrical fires. A frayed or worn cord directs large amounts of heat into nearby combustible surfaces, such as a rug, curtain, bed sheets or clothes. This is a recipe for a fire. As for your outlets, if they look melted or discolored, are hot to the touch, or you see a spark when plugging in, they need to be replaced.

Solution: Inspect all appliances and outlets, and immediately replace those that show any signs of malfunction. Always consult a licensed electrician when making electrical repairs to your home.

2) Tampering with Electrical Plugs. Appliances with three-prong plugs have three prongs for a reason! Such appliances require pulling extra electricity, and the third prong is a grounding plug. When this plug gets removed in order to force a three-prong plug into a two-prong socket, you are literally playing with fire.

Solution: Use the correct plug for the correct outlet, and never remove a grounding plug.

3) Overloading Extension Cords. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, improper use of extension cords causes around 3,300 residential fires a year. Overloading a single extension cord by plugging in multiple appliances creates an excessive power load that it is not designed to bear. When this overloading occurs, too much heat is generated and the internal wiring system gets stressed. This dramatically increases the risk of a fire.

Solution: Read the instructions for your extension cord and take care not to exceed its stated power requirements. Use this power socket calculator to ensure you are not overloading your cord. You can also utilize a surge protection extension cord to mitigate the risk of overloading.

Extension cord tip: Our best advice is to not use extension cords, ever. However, if you are in a pinch utilize heavy-duty extension cords for running your appliances. Lay the cord somewhere out of the way so no one will trample it. Do not run cords under area rugs, as this can easily generate excessive heat. Extension cords are never a permanent solution. If you need more power, hire an electrician to install additional outlets.

4) Outdated Wiring. A 40-year old home will not have the wiring capacity to bear the load of power-hungry modern appliances such as smart televisions, gaming PC’s, fancy washing machines and dryers, and air conditioners. Wiring problems are easily overlooked and can result in too much heat being generated and a fire breaking out.

Solution: Stay vigilant for the following signs of outdated wiring:

Shocks or sparks from appliances
Overloaded circuit breaker
Flickering lights
Frequent power outages
Burning smell

If you notice any of the above danger signs, hire an electrician immediately to modernize your home’s wiring. The expense of hiring an electrician, while significant, pales in comparison to losing your home and all your belongings in an electrical fire.

5) Light Fixtures. Light fixtures, or luminaires, are devices which contain an electric lamp that provides illumination. Be extremely careful with light fixtures in your home. If you install a bulb with too high a wattage for that particular light fixture, you are at risk of starting an electric fire.

Solution: Check (and double check) the maximum suggested bulb wattage for the light fixture. Bulbs are never one-size-fits-all, so read the guidelines properly. Moreover, do not place a cloth, paper, or anything remotely flammable over the fixture. As a general rule for your household, keep anything combustible away from anything electrical.

6) Poor Maintenance. Keeping a close eye on the wiring and appliances in your house is necessary. For example, if you see a frayed cord in your home, it needs to be replaced immediately. If you smell smoke or see sparks when you use an outlet, stop using that outlet and have it replaced immediately. Consult an electrician when replacing damaged cords or outlets.

Solution: Schedule an electrician to perform regular comprehensive maintenance of your home’s electrical system, including wiring, panels, circuit breakers, appliances and light fixtures. Arrange for monthly or yearly electrical system check ups to keep your home’s power supply in optimum working order, and to minimize potential fire threats.

7) Portable Heaters. Admittedly, there is something cozy about having a personal portable heater to keep you toasty on a cold day. However, it’s important to be very cautious when placing a portable heater in your home. Keeping such a robust source of heat anywhere near combustible surfaces such as curtains, bed sheets or upholstery is a recipe for disaster.

Solution: Use radiator-style portable heaters. These devices diffuse heat over the entire surface of the appliance, and thus reduces the risk of an incendiary incident. That said, it is still important to keep them away from flammable objects. Again, as a general rule in your home: keep anything electrical away from anything flammable. Avoid coil-style space heaters. These little monsters are dangerous because the coil gets incredibly hot and can easily cause a fire.

Vigilance + Maintenance = Electrical Fire Safety

We hope this article inspires you to take the necessary steps to protect your home and family from electrical fires. Invisible and undetectable, excessive amounts of heat generated by faulty electrical components pose a very real danger to both person and property. However, armed with the right knowledge and by following the above steps, residential electrical systems can be kept in top working order, and the risk of electrical fire can be mitigated. Thank you for taking the time to learn about electrical fires and for implementing these preventative measures. Working together, we can lessen the number of devastating electrical fires that occur each year.