What Should You Do If There's an Electrical Fire?

House fires are one of the scariest and most devastating things any homeowners can experience. Not only can they devastate your property, but there's also the risk of extreme injury to you and your family.

Electrical fires can seemingly come out of nowhere, and there are several ways that an electrical fire can start. Prevention is the best course of action to take against these tragedies, but there are several things that can cause electrical fires that may not be obvious to the average homeowner.

Preventing Electrical Fires

According to the National Fire Protection Association, an estimated 47,700 house fires reported to fire departments in the United States were the result of some kind of electrical failure or malfunction that resulted in ignition (in 2011). Many of these fires lead to injuries and deaths, and they are caused by any number of electrical components, including:

  • Wiring and related equipment
  • Lamps, light fixtures, and light bulbs
  • Cords and plugs
  • Transformers and power supplies

Preventing electrical fires is as simple as making sure that your electrical system is safe, but for many, that's not a cut-and-dry task. The first step toward making sure you're not in danger is familiarizing yourself with these common warning signs:

1. Old or Outdated Wiring

Most electrical wiring has a lifespan of around thirty to forty, but around a third of homes in the U.S. are more than fifty years old. If your home's wiring is outdated or worn, you'll notice some problems that you shouldn't ignore:

  • Circuit breakers tripping repeatedly
  • Fuses frequently blowing
  • Over-reliance on extension cords

These are all meant to be temporary solutions, and if they're a regular part of your home life, you're probably at risk of an electrical fire and need to have your home's wiring updated.

2. Aluminum Wiring

During the 1960s and 1970s, aluminum wiring was commonplace. Unfortunately, aluminum very quickly oxidizes, which can lead to corrosion. This kind of wiring is adequate for a short time, but it does not have lifespan that copper wiring does-and once it's corroded, it's only a matter of time before an electrical fire occurs.

You may need to have your entire home re-wired, or you may only need to have copper installed at the power receptacles and breakers. Either way, it's important that you have a professional electrician inspect your wiring and make sure that your home is safe.

3. Arc Faults

Arc faults occur when an electrical current veers from its intended path, and they are a leading cause of electrical fires.

Arc faults can be caused very easily: they may occur because a tree falls on a power line during a storm, or because you damaged the wiring inside your walls while moving furniture-or there may simply be a loose connection in an outlet.

Regardless of the cause, arcs can produce temperatures of more than 10,000°F, but fortunately, they are preventable. Arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) can detect arcs and cut off the circuit before it overheats. AFCIs can prevent anywhere between 50% and 75% of fires caused by arc faults.

If you're unsure of whether you have AFCIs where you need them in your home, call an electrician for an electrical safety inspection. Especially if you live in an older home, these devices could easily prevent a disaster.

What to Do if an Electrical Fire Occurs

Hopefully, you've taken all the preventative measures you can and used your electrical system safely. However, if you do happen to encounter an electrical fire, you'll need to know how to put it out.

The first and most important thing to remember is to never attempt to put out an electrical fire with water. Electricity from the fire can travel up the water and potentially electrocute you. You also run the risk of making the fire worse.

If you can do it in time, unplugging the whatever is on fire will cut off the electricity that is causing the fire.

If you can't unplug the device, you'll need to use a fire extinguisher labeled A-B-C, which indicated that is effective against fires involving ordinary combustible materials, flammable liquids, and electrical equipment.

Not all chemical suppressants will be effective against an electrical fire, so be sure that your fire extinguisher is. If the fire spreads, immediately leave your home and contact your local fire department.