Electrical safety and maintenance is a proactive measure against electrical fires in the home. It is estimated that in 2019 there were 354,400 house fires in the United States and electrical malfunction was the fourth leading cause. Fires caused by electrical malfunction account for 7.5 percent of the estimated 1900 fatalities and 7.9 percent of the injuries. Between the years 2015 through 2019, the Fire Department attended an average of 46,700 fires involving electrical failure or malfunction and an average of 32,160 electrical fires caused by electrical distribution and lighting equipment in the United States each year.
The National Fire Protection Association offers tools for kids, adults, and the hard of hearing for disaster preparedness, fire safety, and fire prevention. Your local fire department can give you information about common hazards in your area and offer kits for safety preparedness. This guide will cover what you need to know about electrical safety and how to spot potential fire hazards in your home.
Electrical fire safety
Fire safety and electrical safety go hand in hand. Because of the complexity and regular electrical code updates, it is a good idea to hire a professional to inspect your home’s electrical system regularly rather than wait until something goes wrong. During a professional inspection, you can expect to see the inspector test each of the receptacles inside and outside of the home, an inspection of the wires in the less visible places like an attic or crawlspace, and inspection of the fusebox or circuit breaker box, depending on the age of your home. The older the house, the less likely it is to be up to code. An inspector can make recommendations about potential hazardous installations, advise about any electrical permits required, and any upgrades that your home will need to keep you and your family safe.
Who performs an electrical home inspection?
A home inspector is trained to look at all the parts of a home that make it a space to live in. A home inspection includes the structure, foundation, framing, floor, roof, major appliances, plumbing, and electricity. With all their knowledge, they don’t always know everything about every detail of a home. It is best to seek a professional in that field for specific inquiries. Hire an HVAC specialist to look at your heating, cooling, and ventilation systems and an electrician to perform an electrical inspection of your home.
According to Fire Cash Buyers, electrical home inspections aren’t typically done for off market properties. If the house is sold as is, the new owners required to have an inspection done if they decide to fix and flip the home to their new buyer.
Why is the NEC important?
The National Electrical Code (NEC) was established in 1897 to standardize electrical safety. It continues to be the standard for safe electrical design, installation, and inspection. It is reviewed and updated every three years, and its purpose is to protect people and property from electrical hazards.
An electrical receptacle or outlet must follow the ‘6-foot rule’ – it cannot be more than 6’ from a doorway. Measurements along a wall are taken horizontally along the floor line. A receptacle is required on any wall that is wider than 24’’ and can be placed a maximum of 12’ apart. Imagine you have a floor lamp with a 6’ cord. You can plug the lamp into either receptacle if it is placed in the middle. In this way, the 6’ rule applies because the lamp is never more than 6 feet from a receptacle. All bedroom receptacles must be arc-fault protected, and this can be confirmed in the electrical panel.
Ground-Fault Circuit-Interrupters (GFCI) were introduced in 1973 and used for outdoor receptacles. Since then, the code has expanded its use to include garages, bathrooms, and kitchens to help improve safety. In modern homes, you can confirm the presence of GFCIs through a visual inspection of the outlet. If it has a reset button in between the sockets, it is GFCI. Visually inspect each outlet in your home for signs of damage or arcing that will present as scorch marks radiating out from the prong holes.
Branch circuits, simply put, run from the fusebox or circuit breaker box to the outlets. 120v can power most electrical devices like lamps and phone chargers, and 240v circuits operate major appliances like stoves and washing machines.
A circuit breaker box is a point at which the power comes to the home from the external supply, like a hydro box or hydro pole. The breaker disrupts the power when it receives a power surge or amp above the capacity of the branch circuit.
Generally, your circuits should not operate at more than 80% capacity. To check if you have enough power for your home, use the math equation (amp capacity) = (sum of all appliances). You can find the volts, watts, or amps on the electrical sticker of most of your appliances. Something like a cell phone charger can be 2.4 amps, while high-efficiency lightbulbs can be 9w. Use an online conversion calculator to convert the varying electrical outputs to one standard to simplify the maths.
When you are performing a visual inspection of your home’s wiring, you’ll want to confirm none of your wiring is out of date. Homes built in the late 1800s to 1940s used knobs and tube wiring. This type of wiring has no ground wire, and it is notorious for hazardous modifications to keep up with the ever-increasing demand at the time. Also, it should not have any insulation around it because it will cause heat to build up, creating a fire hazard.
There was a brief period when there was a shortage of copper before 1972, and it was not uncommon for homes to be built with aluminum wiring. Homes wired with aluminum are 55% more likely than copper-wired homes to have wire connections at outlets that reach fire hazard conditions.
Your electrical panel brings power from the main power source into the home. It has a main switch that can manually cut all power to the house and devices, preventing individual circuits from overloading. Keep the area around the panel clear enough that it is quickly and easily accessed, at least three feet of space. Visually inspect the panel and confirm each breaker clearly states what that breaker is for. Look for loose wires or fuses and signs of arcing, and ensure there are no combustible materials nearby.
Top tips for fire safety
Take action to protect yourself, your family, and your home from electrical fires with these top tips that include smoke detector knowledge and how to create a fire escape plan.
In the US, about 90 percent of homes have fire alarms installed, but it is reported that about 20 percent of them are not working. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors can make all the difference when faced with a fire in the home. Smoke detectors sense smoke before you smell or see it and carbon monoxide (CO) alarms detect the presence of the dangerous gas, giving you enough time to get out of the home and inspect it. Smoke & carbon monoxide detectors should be hardwired, have battery back-ups, and be tested monthly. Smoke alarms should be in every bedroom, hallway, and floor, but not in bathrooms or kitchens. When you hear chirping from any of your detectors, they need servicing. When you hear a beep, get out, stay out of the house, and then call 911.
Creating a fire escape plan
In a residential fire, seconds can make the difference between making it out safely or complete tragedy. Developing, implementing, and practicing a fire escape plan can give you and your family the know-how to get everyone to a safe location. The NFSA offers a thorough checklist on how to make a plan.
To begin, you will need a floor plan for your home and the surrounding area. Note potential danger zones like gas fireplaces, gas furnaces, stoves, etc. Make sure every room has at least two exit points. For rooms on the second floor, ensure you have a fire escape or a fire ladder stored in an accessible location near a window in each room on the second story.
- Establish an outdoor meeting place. If there are pets, designate an adult to be responsible for the pet.
- Get out and stay out. Don’t go back for people or pets.
- Call 911 once you are safely outside.
- Close all doors behind you.
- Practice your drill at night and during the day at least twice a year.
Fire safety and prevention are critical to the safety of your family and your home. Use this guide to perform a curry inspection of your wires and identify potentially more significant hazards. If there is any doubt, don’t take chances. Contact a licensed, professional electrician to confirm your home’s electrical safety and perform routine inspections.