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Electrical Hazards

Dishwashers. Refrigerators. Computers. Toasters. Exhaust Fans. Our homes are filled with appliances and electronics, but most of us do not think of them as potential fire hazards.

5 Common Culprits in Residential Electrical Fires

Culprit #1: Cords & Powerbars

Power and extension cords that are pinched, pierced, bent or otherwise damaged do not look very threatening, but they are serious fire and shock hazards. To prevent a cord or power bar failure from catching you off guard make sure you do the following:

Keep power bars and cords away from moist or wet environments. Salt-water aquarium electrical should be installed by a professional to provide protection from moisture and contaminants. Normal power bars and extension cords will not do. Also keep weather-proofing covers closed on all outdoor outlets.

Look behind the sofa. Pressing furniture against an outlet where a cord is plugged in can cause damage to the plug. Make sure there is enough space behind the couch, bookcase, bed, or desk to ensure you are not pushing against the plug.

Check your kitchen counters. Pinching a cord under or behind an appliance or wrapping it around a toaster or kettle can damage or melt the insulation around the wire.

Keep cords away from carpets. Running a cord under a carpet may keep it out of sight, but it also keeps it from properly cooling and makes it easy to damage by foot traffic or furniture.

Keep cords free and clear. Leaving combustible items near cords or power bars is a bad idea: they will just feed the fire in the event of a failure. Do not place boxes or furniture on the cords either.

Keep animals away. Do not let your pets chew on cords. If you have mice in your house they can do some serious damage.

Inspect regularly. Check for nicks, damage or signs of overheating at the plug connections. If your cords are hidden away or in a tangled mess, you will probably be less likely to check them. Spending some time bringing order to your cords is well worth the effort.

Replace damaged cords. Never patch power and extension cords. Look out for corroded and bent plug blades. It is far safer to replace the cord—or even the entire appliance—than to tape a damaged cord.

Use as intended. Extension cords are classified as temporary wiring. Do not drape wiring over nails or fix extension cords to walls to create an extra outlet. Get a permanent outlet installed by an electrician instead. Avoid long runs and daisy chaining multiple cords together. A heavy duty cord is always a safer bet.

Culprit #2: Appliances

Dishwashers, refrigerators, toasters and dryers are all common household appliances that can cause fires due to manufacturers’ defects or misuse.

  • Dishwashers: The heating element can be defective and water infiltration can cause circuit board failures.
  • Refrigerators: compressor components and wiring can fail.
  • Toasters and other small appliances: circuit boards and electrical contacts can fail. Food can catch fire during use or afterwards if left in toaster.
  • Dryers: thermostats can fail, allowing the dryer to over-heat. If the main heating element fails, it can send molten metal into the drum, igniting your clothes.

To prevent an appliance fire from catching you off guard make sure you do the following:

Register your appliances. If there is a manufacturer’s defect, you will automatically be made aware of any recalls. Sign up on Health Canada’s Recalls and Safety Alerts Database to get email alerts for your products.

Unplug it. Not only should you be disconnecting your kettle, coffee maker and toaster when you go on vacation, you should also unplug them whenever they are not in use! Even when your appliance is not on, the cord is still energized when plugged in. If you don’t already do this it will take some time to get into the habit of unplugging the appliance after you’ve used it, but it is a practice that literally can save lives…and save energy!

Stay close when appliances are in use. People often run their appliances overnight while they are sleeping or out for the day. Although these times may be more convenient, they pose a possible threat to your safety! Appliance failures are not an infrequent occurrence, they happen all the time, at any time. If you are home and awake when an issue occurs you can detect danger, escape to safety and call for help much more readily. And, of course, working smoke alarms are a critical safety precaution.

Get your dryer cleaned by the pros. Call in a company that will clean your dryer interior and exhaust ductwork. You would be surprised how much flammable material (lint) can build up in there.

Culprit #3: Electronics

Lithium ion batteries that power our gadgets cram a lot of power in a very small package. When they fail (usually due to damage, improper charging, or defect) their high-energy density can cause an explosion with a fire that can be fierce and spread rapidly. Faulty circuit board components can fail and catch fire too. To ensure your safety:

Charge electronics according to manufacturer’s instructions. Keep your laptops, tablets, cell phones and wearable electronics from becoming fire hazards by charging them with the right charger in the right setting. Aftermarket chargers should be selected with care. Do not just look at the price tag!

Unplug it. Remember, when the cord is plugged into an outlet, it is energized even if the device is off. Better to disconnect and be safe, especially when sleeping or when leaving the room or house.

Culprit #4: Cooking Stoves & Ovens
Fires on cooking appliances are caused more often by user error than by manufacturer defects. A few basic tips we recommend you implement as house rules in your home:

Stay in the kitchen when you’re cooking. Unattended cooking is one of the most common causes of household fires. BFES hears it all the time: “I only left the room for a minute!” Consider using an electric deep-fryer instead of a pot on the stove to make fries.

Do not overuse the self-cleaning feature. It uses temperatures greater than 900°F to burn off particles – much higher than anything used for cooking. Some claim that it can wear away the oven’s electronics and cause the control panel or other features to stop working properly. Be sure to follow the instructions in the user manual; if the recommended frequency of the self-cleaning feature use is unclear, call the manufacturer to inquire. When using it, keep the cooktop and storage drawer under the oven clear so the extreme heat does not melt or ignite combustibles.

Culprit #5: Exhaust Fans

Bathroom and laundry room exhaust fans are another common source of electrical fires. Dust on a fan that has not been cleaned is an excellent fuel source for a fire, should one break out due to a fan malfunction. Sometimes it’s unclear that the fan has caused a fire inside the ceiling space. An ignited plastic fan grille can drip down and set fire to bath mats, clothes and other flammable items.

Check for heat. Feel the plastic grille while the fan is operating. If there is a lot of heat radiating from it, you may have uncovered a problem.

Open and dust it. This is probably the easiest way to see if there is a problem. After removing the dust, examine the fan for signs of overheating such as discolouration or melting of plastic components around the motor. If you detect any signs of overheating, stop using the fan immediately and call a professional to replace it.

Courtesy of Canada’s Largest Consulting Forensic Engineering and Fire Investigation Firm, Mena Constandi , Forensic Engineer, P.Eng., CFEI

Aluminium Wiring

Barrie has seen an increase in fires in homes with aluminum wiring and advises residents to be aware of the potential hazards associated with this type of wiring.

The Danger of Aluminium Wiring

Aluminum wiring connections have been found to have a very high probability of overheating compared to copper. The wiring expands when heated and, over time, the expanding and contracting can cause the connections to loosen. A loose connection can cause arching between the wires, which can cause a fire in your home. The arching often occurs behind a light fixture or receptacle making it difficult for the homeowner to tell a potential fire is occurring.

These fires often occur when the home handy person decides to perform repairs or change the electrical devices without knowing the dangers associated with aluminum wiring.

What to do if your Home has Aluminum Wiring

The best solution is to re-wire your whole house with copper wiring. However, this can be very expensive. “Pigtailing” is another method, which involves splicing a short length of solid copper wire to each aluminum end. The copper wire “pigtail” is then connected to the circuit breaker, switch or receptacle. Any work conducted with aluminum wiring involves special devices and connections. Problems arise in home improvement projects when improper devices, such as receptacles, are used that are not compatible with aluminum wiring. Copper specific receptacles actually say “CU (copper) wire only” on the back of the unit and also have a cross through the letters “AL” (aluminum).

Aluminum wiring is safe when the connections are maintained every couple of years. Barrie Fire & Emergency Service recommends having a licensed electrician check all of your connections.

Have any electrical work involving aluminum wiring conducted by a licensed electrician. It could mean the difference between life and death.

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