Electricity powers our lives. It heats our homes, lights up our neighborhoods, broadcasts ideas across the globe and does so much more.
But if not treated with respect and caution, it can easily start a fire. In fact, this time of year is when electrical fires occur most often.
Every year, about 51,000 home fires are caused by electricity, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International. Nearly a third of those fires occur between November and February, reports the National Fire Protection Association.
Electrical fires should be treated as a constant threat in our homes and businesses. Once an electrical fire gets started, it can be difficult to stop.
Further complicating the situation, modern homes are built with materials that are much more flammable than in older homes. According to Underwriters Laboratories, a person has just three minutes or less to escape a house fire in a modern home; 30 years ago, they had up to 17 minutes.
“This time of year, a lot of folks use space heaters, but they should do so with extreme caution,” Clark Public Utilities Safety Manager Justin Zucconi pointed out. “When in use, they need to sit on a hard surface with at least 3 feet of space from anything flammable. Plus, it’s important to remember to shut them off whenever you leave the room.”
It’s a good idea to periodically inspect your space heater. If it is hot to the touch while in operation, you should consider replacing it. Never run it with an extension cord or power strip; instead, plug it directly into the wall.
In addition, you should make sure the cord to your heater — and all other electronics — is in good shape and not hidden under rugs or behind furniture that could easily move.
Perform an occasional electrical hazard survey around your home. Don’t expect new appliances to be any safer than older ones. Everything electronic is a potential hazard and should be treated that way.
Don’t run any electrical cords under rugs, through doorways or behind any furniture that is easily moved.
Occasionally inspect electric cords for any breaks, frays or exposed wires, and replace any that are damaged. If the cord is damaged, have it repaired by a professional or bring it to one of the many free community repair events that are hosted around Clark County.
Whether it’s in the home office, around the entertainment center or decorating for the holidays, we’ve all found ourselves without enough outlets for all the electronics we want to plug in. In those times, it’s tempting to connect them all to a power strip or a multi-outlet connection, but doing so can be dangerous.
“Overloading your outlets can easily cause a fire at the point of connection or somewhere else along the circuit,” Zucconi said. “If you have to plug several things in, it’s best to find an additional outlet.”
Whenever you use an extension cord, make sure it’s rated to handle the power demands of the device you’re connecting it to. Many electronics, especially power tools and cooking appliances, use much more power than their size might suggest.
As safe as we try to be, accidents still happen. Protect your home with working smoke alarms and at least one fire extinguisher designed to combat electric fires. Above all, it’s important to stay alert at all times.
“If something doesn’t seem right, then it’s not right,” Zucconi said. “If you ever notice that distinct burning electrical equipment smell, notice outlets or appliances getting hot, or discoloration in casing or cords, or think you see smoke, don’t take any chances — either disconnect the device or shut off the circuit at the breaker box.”
Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to email@example.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.