SOURCE: Baltimore City
Jan 16, 2019 9:30:00 AM EST
By Lee Jolley, Chief Electrical Inspector
Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections
Though there are many new devices designed to make our home safer, we still see a lot of electrical house fires. In fact, faulty electrical distribution or lighting equipment is the third leading cause of home fires in the U.S., behind cooking and heating equipment.
We all have electricity in our homes, and most of us aren’t licensed electricians. So we may not understand how electrical fires can start.
Most electrical fires are caused by:
Buildup and ignition of flammable dryer lint
Improper use of extension cords
Old appliances not approved by Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL)
Worn out or broken switches and receptacles
Electrical fire in a wall outlet.
The U.S. Fire Administration puts the number of residential electrical fires at about 26,000 each year. Electrical issues are a factor in about one in ten home fires and 18 percent of fire deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
A little knowledge and some diligence on your part can prevent most electrical fires in your home.
Never use extension cords as a permanent wiring method. The wires in a cord are significantly smaller than the wiring in your walls and, over time, will heat up and catch fire. Consider the use of UL-rated cords and the addition of surge- protected power strips.
Empty the dryer lint tray after each load. Lint is extremely flammable and can ignite from heat from the dryer.
Old appliances, switches and receptacles should be replaced periodically. They wear out, and the connections inside separate slightly. When this happens, the electricity has to jump through the air to make the connection, heating the air around the connection and starting a fire.
How often to change devices depends on how often the device is used.
Usually, light switches should be changed at least every 10 years. They crack internally and dry out. You can’t see the problem, so it’s impossible to know that it needs to be changed. Use your best judgment with switches; older switches were more solid and were actually capable of withstanding much more use than modern switches.
The safety of receptacles is a little bit easier to judge. When the plugs no longer fit firmly in the socket, it’s time to replace the receptacle. When you replace receptacles, you must bring them up to current (2017) National Electrical Code. Most receptacles in dwellings are required to be tamper resistant and Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter-protected (AFCI). When appliance cords become worn or when an appliance begins behaving badly, it’s time to replace or repair it.
If you have aluminum wiring in your home, always have a licensed electrician make any repairs. Improper connections or connection to devices that are not designed for aluminum wiring can start a fire.
If you see your lights continually dim and grow bright, there could be a loose connection. Contact your utility company.
If you hear a sizzling noise coming from a switch or appliance, find the circuit breaker for that circuit and turn it off. Contact a licensed electrician to check the circuit.
If you smell ozone or an unusual electrical smell, something electrical may be heating up. Find the source and turn it off. Call a licensed electrician.
If you observe smoke or sparking, call 911. Trained firefighters will respond.
It is always a good practice to make sure circuits in the breaker box are properly identified. This will help you find the source of a circuit quickly if you have an emergency.
Always check to make sure any appliance you purchase is approved by UL (Underwriters Laboratory) or another recognized testing laboratory.
Never use unlicensed electrical contractors. Baltimore County licenses more than 4,900 electrical contractors who are qualified to serve you.
And of course, install properly working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. The Baltimore County Fire Department offers a Smoke & CO Alarm Education Program that provides personalized guidance on preventing home fire and carbon monoxide incidents. You can request a visit from firefighters through the County web site: https://www.baltimorecountymd.gov/Agencies/fire/safety%20education/smokealarmprogram.html
If you have any questions or concerns, please call us at 410-887-3960 Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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