It’s winter season once again, which means it’s also prime risk season for home electrical fires. According to the US Fire Administration, residential electrical fire incidents occur most often during the winter months, between December to January.
Winter storms, holiday decorations, and increased light and heating usage all combine to heighten the risk of short circuits and electric fires.
Home Electrical Fires by the Numbers
- The primary object failure behind residential electrical fires are wire and cable insulation faults (31%), followed by structural member or framing (18%).
- The three leading causes of home electrical fires are:
Electrical failure or malfunction – 43%
Unspecified short circuit arcs – 23%
Short circuits caused by defective or worn insulation – 11%
- Most incidents occur in the bedroom (15%), and attics or crawl spaces (13%)
- While most fires start in the bedroom, the biggest fatalities occur when fires happen in the living room or den.
- Only 17% of electrical fires cases see the fire damage limited to the object at fault. This means the vast majority of incidents have a very high chance of spreading beyond the faulty item and around the house.
Warning Signs to Watch Out For
Fire experts recommend being on the lookout for these warning signs around the home:
- Discolored switches, outlets, or electrical devices
- Unusual burning smell, even if it doesn’t trip the smoke detector
- A loose, floppy or buzzing switch
- Flickering lights
- Startling sounds like crackling or consistent buzzing in the background
- A tripped circuit breaker, especially ones that won’t reset
20-Point Electrical Safety Checklist
Before plugging in those lights and cranking up the electric fireplace, be sure your home can handle the load by going through this safety checklist.
1. Avoid overloading outlets. Always check the total wattage of all devices plugged into a single outlet to see if it can handle it.
2. Outlets near wet areas such the kitchen, bathrooms or laundry room should have ground-fault circuit interrupters, which automatically cuts off the power in case of electrocution.
3. For homes with young children or pets, consider using outlet protectors. Better yet, replace regular outlets with tamper-resistant receptacles, which are now required in newer houses built since 2008.
4. Extension cords should only be used as a temporary solution and never as a permanent outlet for home appliances, especially when it comes to power-hungry devices.
5. Never take off the third prong on a plug. This is the ground plug, and its purpose is to create an emergency path for electricity to course through in the event of a short circuit or fault. This is why major appliances like TVs, air conditioners and desktop computers have a third prong.
6. For electrical devices in close proximity with each other, use a wall mount or cable organizer to keep the plugs separated instead of leaving them on the floor.
7. Replace all plugs that wobble, fit loosely, or don’t fit at all in the socket. This is especially true for Christmas lights and seasonal decorations, whose plugs may have bent or deformed in storage. Never wiggle the plug or force it into a socket.
8. Regularly check the wires of frequently used appliances and devices. For seasonal items like lights and Christmas decor, make sure the cable is sound before plugging it in.
Last month, one of the worst home fire disasters in New York City was caused by a frayed wire. The cord on an electric space heater short-circuited, killing 19 people in the Bronx, of whom 9 were children.
9. Keep all wires and cords away from heat sources like space heaters and radiators.
10. Make sure all cords and extensions used outside are labeled for outdoor use.
11. Check that all circuits are properly grounded, and that your ground wiring is intact. After all, this carries the load for all ground wires in your home.
12. Check the fuse box well before the winter season, and replace blown fuses or tripped breakers immediately.
13. Never connect a generator directly into the house’s electrical system. This can damage appliances or cause unnecessary risk. Get an electrician to do the job.
14. Consider using a whole-home surge protector, which can be wired to your main electrical panel and protect the whole house rather than just limited appliances.
15. Make sure all family members know the location of the circuit panel, and that it can be accessed easily and without obstructions in case of emergency.
16. If your house is over 20 years old, the wiring may not have the capacity to handle today’s power-hungry appliances like flatscreen TVs, consoles, and desktop PCs. Consult an electrician before making those major Black Friday purchases.
17. Lights – Check the wattage of lights and bulbs first to see if the fixture our outlet can handle them safely.
18. Space heaters – Keep them a safety distance away from combustible items like clothing, upholstery, curtains and carpets or rugs. This is especially important for coil heaters.
19. Humidifiers – Humidifiers see a lot of use in the cold season to balance the humidity in the dry air inside. Make sure your humidifier has enough water in the tank, and avoid prolonged unattended use.
20. Electric fireplaces – Keep furniture and appliances a safe distance away. Also watch out for random household objects that may be left near the surface, like blankets, plush pillows, or books.