News and Events
FIRE HAZARDS IN THE HOME: ELECTRICAL FIRE SAFETY
AUGUST 29th, 2023
The reality of electrical fires in the home
Every year faulty electrics are responsible for 4,000 dwelling fires in England, according to government figures, with 71% of those fires started by appliances. Electrical fires are a growing problem in the home, but they can often be prevented if appropriate measures are taken.
How fires start
The first step in avoiding electrical fires is understanding how they start. For a fire to ignite just three key elements are needed: combustible material, oxygen, and heat.
Some of the most common causes of fires in the home include:
Electrical devices, appliances and tools which use lithium-ion batteries are now commonplace in most households. However, charging these devices can potentially lead to a fire.
The primary risk associated with lithium-ion batteries is thermal runaway. When lithium-ion batteries enter an uncontrollable self-heating state, the heat they generate is greater than the heat they dissipate. This can lead to fire or explosions in the cell. Thermal runaway may start in one cell but is likely to spread to others very quickly, with potentially devastating consequences.
Overheating is another common fire starter. When cables overheat, their insulation casings melt, causing the wires to come into contact with each other, creating a spark. If the spark meets flammable materials, a fire could start.
This can occur when the electrical current finds a way to bypass its intended path. With no resistance, this causes a current overload which increases the temperature of the wire until it burns out, potentially causing a fire.
Electrical devices and their fire risks
So, what are the main fire risks associated with electrical devices and appliances in the home? Here are some of the most common problems.
Faulty Sockets and Outlets
Worn out sockets that are not properly grounded can cause fires. This is particularly a risk in older properties as wires can loosen and break over time. Warning signs include charring or burn marks on the sockets themselves, which could indicate a fire risk.
Light fixtures and fittings
Lights are a frequent cause of household fires. Using bulbs with a wattage that is not suited to the fixtures can lead to overheating, as can leaving lights on for an extended period. Many households use lampshades and other fabrics on their lights, which are often made of flammable materials.
Many British households have a plethora of electronics, making extension cords very popular, and with that, another fire hazard.
Faulty leads were found to be the cause of over a quarter of electrical fires in the UK according to Electrical Safety First. It is important not to overload extension leads, especially with power hungry devices. Overloading extension leads can cause them to overheat. Appliances with a high electrical consumption such as kettles, toasters, and microwaves should never be plugged into the same cord. Use fused inline cords instead of plug-in cubes and fully unwind drum extension leads.
Portable heaters often cause fires as they are placed too close to fabrics such as bedding, clothes, or blankets. Sometimes they are used to dry washing and are covered up so heat can’t escape. They do not dissipate the heat they create over an even surface, causing fabrics close by to become hot. It can be safer to invest in a radiator-style heater as they evenly dissipate the heat generated across their surface.
In homes older than 20 years, outdated wiring can be a cause for concern. The wiring installed may not have the capacity to handle the increased number of electrical appliances that are currently being used. The wiring tends to heat up quicker, which can result in fires. Outdated wiring also comes with hidden electrical issues. Signs to look out for are a frequently overloaded circuit breaker, flickering lights, power outages, shocks or sparks, and unexplained burning smells. While circuit breakers may be installed in older houses, they often don’t work. It is important to get any suspected faults checked by a professional electrician.
Old and faulty appliances
Similarly, old and faulty appliances can be an issue. They also may not be up to the current electrical standard in regard to the wattage, material quality, or the safety regulations. Counterfeit items also pose an increased risk.
Preventative home fire safety measures
It is important to take measures to minimise the risk of fire or damage to the property in your home. One method to consider would be installing a fire suppression system, such as a sprinkler or mist system. Watermist is an increasingly popular choice for homeowners due to the reduced potential water damage in the event of a fire.
Commonly used by firefighters, watermist is defined as fine particles of water which work by cooling down fire plumes and extracting heat as the water evaporates. They also deprive oxygen from the source of the fire, helping to bring it under control. Devices can easily be installed into the home as an added layer of protection. One example of a domestic watermist system is Automist, which is triggered electronically and has the capability to tackle fires 2-14 times faster than a traditional sprinkler.
Follow best practice advice when charging devices
Other ways to maximise fire prevention in the home would be to practice safe charging. Be mindful when charging electronic devices; never charge phones when sleeping, always use brand-specific chargers, unplug electronics when fully charged and always keep electronic devices uncovered. Make sure all devices are registered and check if there have been any product recalls.
Take care when disposing of electrical goods
Be careful not to dispose of batteries or electronics via household waste. Batteries are a particular issue as they may come into contact with metal objects or could become damaged and short circuit, creating enough heat to potentially result in a fire.
Check smoke alarms are in working order
People are eight times more likely to die in a house fire if there are no working fire alarms and smoke detectors. It is important to have a fire alarm on every floor in a house and to ensure these are tested regularly.
Examining electrical devices – a quick checklist
There are many signs to look out for with new and existing electronics. The following could indicate a problem:
- Loose, exposed, torn or discoloured wires
- Dimming or flickering lights
- Burning smells and funny odours
- Electric shocks
- Signs of rodent activity
- Frequently blown fuses or tripped breakers
- Electrical buzzing
- Incorrect switches in bathroom/kitchen
- Wear and tear
- Discoloured, overheating or burnt sockets
Ensure devices are safely maintained
Remember that any electrical maintenance should always be completed by a registered professional to avoid the risk of fires or electrocution.