Spring is the time to pack away space heaters and look for indoor safety problems. “Unplug and clean off space heaters before storing them away,” said Michael Getman, safety manager for Clark Public Utilities. “Putting them in a plastic bag or box keeps dust off them while they’re stored in garages or basements until they’re needed in the fall.”
While you’re at it, don’t forget to wind up that extension cord when you store away the space heater. Extension cords, power strips and surge protectors are among the leading cause of electrical deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Agency. Spring is a good time to give all the cords around your home a once over.
Look for cords with signs of obvious wear. A cord that’s burned, melted, has its plug separating from the cord or other similar damage spells danger — replace it. Additionally, the NFPA also recommends never using a cord repaired with electrical tape. Generally, heavier cords can carry a bigger load than smaller ones, but always use one that’s UL rated for the job when making a connection.
“Extension cords aren’t meant for permanent use,” said Getman. “Cords hidden under rugs, winding through or between rooms are hazardous. Exposing one to wet areas in kitchens or bathrooms is risky.”
Do your kitchen and bathroom outlets have ground fault circuit-interrupters? If not replace them, because GFCIs protect against many common electrical accidents including shocks and fires caused by faulty electrical appliances. Also, teach your children not to touch electrical products with wet hands.
Power strips let you plug many devices into a single outlet and can overload a wall socket. “Add up the individual amp ratings of the appliances connected to the strip and check that sum against the amp rating of the cord so you do not overload it,” Getman said.
When you replace bulbs, especially incandescent ones, match the wattage noted on the lamp and use nothing larger. With the phase-out of incandescent bulbs, this should be less of a problem. A CFL bulb uses about 25 percent of the wattage an incandescent did. For example, a 15-watt CFL bulb replaces a 60-watt incandescent bulb. Still, read the compact fluorescent lamp or LED bulb packaging to match the bulb to the capability of the lamp socket. Replace bulbs carefully; overtightening a CFL can break it, which is dangerous because CFL bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury and need to be recycled when they are burned out.
Be careful with your lighting, because it can be overloaded too. “If lights flicker, it’s a symptom of real electrical problems,” said Getman. “We highly recommend that homeowners have a certified electrician check this out.” If you insulate your attic space, don’t place insulation around recessed lights.
The best approach to preventing an electrical accident is to respect the power of electricity. Are you a do-it-yourselfer who enjoys making your own electrical repairs or adding new outlets? Always turn off the power at the circuit breaker panel box for the circuit you’re repairing. Unplug any appliance before you clean it. And even once the power is off, treat it as though it’s electrified, just in case.
This process extends to any electrical device connected to any circuit in your home. Read the product manuals, even those tiny labels on cords and lamp fixtures. When you buy electrical products, look for the UL certification. Appliances emitting a burning smell, sparks, buzzes or smoke are perilous to use. DIY-ers should think twice before deciding to alter or modify any such electrical device. Instead, replace worn-out or broken electrical products and appliances.
We’re fortunate to have affordable, reliable electricity here in the Pacific Northwest. But there’s a reason that electricians and utility linemen undergo rigorous training over many years — electricity is powerful and it’s important to be careful and protect your home and family from common, dangerous mistakes when maintaining, fixing or changing electrical components in your home.
Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.