How to: Prevent & Stop Electrical Fires
Electrical fires can range from a minor inconvenience to incredibly damaging. By taking a few precautions, you can minimize the risk of an electrical fire in your home. We spoke with our master electrician, Bryan Butler, to learn how electrical fires start, how to stop them, and how to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
What Causes Electrical Fires? How Do They Start?
Resistance to Current
The suggested size of an electrical wire is the minimum size needed to deliver electricity where it needs to go without too much heat build up. This is why some wires are bigger than others; the amount of current flowing through the wires has to increase so it doesn’t get overheated. If the current encounters resistance, meaning that the current is slowed down, the wire will heat up and catch on fire. For more information on what wire size gauge you need for a certain amperage, please visit this website.
Resistance—and the resulting electrical fire—can also be caused by amateur electrical work or products that have simply failed.
Lightning strikes can cause power surges and create electrical arcs. Without surge protectors, the wires can spark, then catch materials near them on fire. About half of the electrical fire cases that Bryan has seen have been caused by lightning. For more information on the damage that a lightning strike can cause and how Butler Electric can assist in these situations, check out our blog on being prepared for lightning strikes.
Flammable Materials Near Electrical Equipment
Any materials that have the potential to catch on fire need to be kept far away from electrical equipment in case any of the electrical wires start heating up. This way, the heat can be contained to the wire, rather than spreading to materials and potentially lighting them on fire.
How to Know if an Electrical Fire is Happening / Has Occurred
If you hear a pop sound, smell smoke, and none of the outlets are working, odds are that an electrical fire has happened. Usually, this occurs in the breaker box, either when the box connections get loose or resistance increases, causing wires to burn up completely.
In Bryan Butler’s experience, electrical fires will most often result in minor service calls because the wires are contained within the breaker box, so nothing else lights on fire. However, this is where amateur work can go wrong; people will splice wires, twist them up, and then put them right next to wood, creating the perfect conditions for a very dangerous electrical fire. If your wires keep tripping— meaning that the breaker repeatedly shuts off to prevent overheating—that may also be a sign that an electrical fire has occurred.
How to Put Out an Electrical Fire
Your first instinct might be to throw some water on the fire, but this is actually the last thing you would want to do. Since water is conductive, when it comes in contact with electricity, it could give you an electric shock! In the case of an electrical fire, you should first cut off the source of the fire. If the fire persists, extinguish it by smothering it with a blanket or using a fire extinguisher. Lastly, call 911 to ensure the fire is completely out.
How to Prevent Electrical Fires
Recently built homes are required to have certain kinds of fire barriers. For example, all floors are supposed to be fire caulked, which prevents fire from spreading through the levels of the house. However, old homes may not have floors that are fire caulked; so, if you have an older home, you are at an exponentially higher risk of having a severe electrical fire. Bryan Butler suggests that anyone in an older home checks their smoke detector to make sure it is functioning, as there will not be anything to prevent the fire from spreading.
To minimize your risk for electrical fire, make sure you replace electrical components every 15 - 25 years. Some outlets fail within a few years after installation, which usually shows through discoloration, damage, or cracks to the outlet.
Wondering if your house has had an electrical fire? Questions about how to prevent an electrical fire? Give us a call at 616-643-8287. We are passionate about electrical safety and wired to serve.