Protect yourself and your home from electrical hazards
February 06, 2011
Many fires are due to unsafe or improper wiring or other preventable electrical hazards. The unfortunate truth is that many home fires could have been averted.
Learning more about the various electrical hazards within your home and learning a few steps you can take to protect yourself, your family and your property might make all the difference.
Arcing and arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs)
Arc faults occur when electrical current openly flows through typically nonconductive media, e.g., air. According to the NFPA, nearly half of all home electrical fires are caused by arcs.
An arc (similar to an electrical short) produces intensely hot sparks that can set fire to nearby combustible materials. Arcs often happen in appliance or extension cords that have become frayed or cracked.
To prevent arc faults, have Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) installed in your home. AFCIs are able to detect certain types of dangerous arcing conditions. They look and work just like conventional circuit breakers and fit into electrical panels in the same way. Not only do they protect against overloads and short circuits, but they also electronically sense arcing.
You should strongly consider using AFCIs in older homes that may have aged or damaged electrical wire insulation. Since 2002, AFCI interrupters have been required for use in bedroom outlets in new residential construction.
When an AFCI breaker trips, have an electrician determine the cause and fix it.
Fuse and circuit breaker boxes
Fuses are the first line of defence when it comes to electrical hazards. Know where to find your breaker box and check it regularly.
Things to consider
- Enclose fuses and circuit breakers in a panel box. Interior wiring should never be visible. Always keep the panel door closed and latched.
- Keep the area around the electrical panel free of combustible materials like gasoline, lighter fluid and paint thinner.
- If you notice burn marks, hear buzzing or cracking, or smell burning plastic around or inside the electrical panel, have a qualified electrician check the panel immediately.
- Keep a variety of spare fuses near your fuse box, and familiarize yourself with the different sizes and kinds of fuses your home’s particular circuitry requires. Consult with a qualified electrician to learn how to safely manage your fuses and your fuse box.
- Over-fusing, or intentionally using fuses that allow too much electricity to flow through your home’s wiring, presents a severe fire hazard. NEVER over-fuse your home for the sake of convenience or to avoid blowing fuses.
- If fuses blow or circuit breakers trip frequently, it may be an indication that your home’s circuits are overloaded. Have a qualified electrician inspect the circuit and make the appropriate repairs.
Service entrance lines
Use caution around above-ground service entrance lines. Contact with entrance lines by objects such as ladders or a child's kite could result in electrocutions.
Always contact your utility company before digging around underground service entrances.
Extension cords are a temporary, not permanent, wiring solution. They offer convenience, but they shouldn’t serve the place of rewiring your home. They can become frayed or damaged, and that could lead to a fire.
Regularly check cords for damage, and never repair them by splicing. Also, avoid using "octopus plugs", which allow many cords to be plugged into a single receptacle.
GFCIs, electrical appliances and tools
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) are outlets with built-in circuit breakers to protect people from shocks and shorts. You’ve probably seen the white and red “Reset” and “Test” buttons in the middle of GFCI panels. Almost all building codes require the use of GFCIs in any potentially wet location, like kitchens and bathrooms. If you don’t have them in your home, talk to an electrician.
You should also hire a qualified electrician to replace two-prong outlets with three-prong GFCI outlets. Not only will this give you more flexibility, but it will reduce the potential for electrical hazards in your home. Never remove the grounding prong on an appliance cord.
And, finally, unplug any appliance or tool that gives even the slightest shock. Don’t plug it in again, and don’t try it later. Instead, have it checked by a qualified electrician or repair person.