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Fire & Water - Cleanup & Restoration

Your Home Appliances Pose a Fire Hazard

7/22/2020 (Permalink)

A pan is on fire on a stovetop One way to prevent a devastating house fire is to follow these guidelines for the safe use of your home appliances.

Every year, approximately 370,000 homes catch fire in America, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and those household fires cause billions of dollars in property damages. 

Of these house fires, about 9%—approximately 34,000—involve electrical equipment. Each year, these electrical home fires account for approximately one in ten fire deaths.

While home electrical appliances—used for cooking, heating, cleaning and more—make our lives easier, they are also potential fire hazards, causing 7% of home fires and 4% of deaths. By following safety guidelines and doing regular maintenance and cleaning, homeowners can operate their appliances safely.

In general, when using any electric, gas or heat appliances:

  • Clean, inspect and maintain appliances regularly, especially those 15 years or older.
  • Run appliances only when you're at home.
  • Purchase appliances with a UL mark, which proves the item meets Underwriters Laboratories safety standards.

The Two Most Common Appliance Fire Risks

The worst culprits in appliance fires are clothes dryers and gas water heaters. Read on for tips that will help you prevent an appliance-caused fire disaster in your home.

Clothes Dryers

Even if you empty your lint tray every time you dry clothes, lint can still build up inside the dryer cabinet, causing a blaze at the heating element or burners. Especially dangerous are dryers that are vented with flexible vinyl hoses, which can easily catch on fire.

  • Remove lint after each use by keeping vents and filters clean.
  • Don’t place items stained with combustible fluids, like gasoline or furniture polish, in the dryer.
  • If your furnace is close to the laundry room, don’t hang clothing or drop dryer lint near it.

At least once a year, clean the lint from the exhaust hose at the back of the dryer, from the dryer cabinet, from around the drum and from the vent line. Replace vinyl vent lines with smooth-walled metal ducts. Follow these steps to clean lint build-up from your clothes dryer.

  • Lint trap: Pull out the lint screen, push a snorkel brush straight down into the trap and twirl the brush to clean out any lint at the bottom of the trap. (Using a shop vac with a long crevice tool will also work.) Shine a flashlight down the trap to make sure it's clean.
  • Ductwork: Disconnect the duct from the dryer exhaust and the exterior vent. Take the duct outside and clean all the parts with a round dryer-vent brush. If the duct is plastic or ribbed metal, replace it with a smooth metal one. Reassemble the metal ductwork and seal the joints with aluminum tape. Don't use screws, which snag lint.
  • Outside vent: Working from inside, spin the vent brush a few inches into the duct, then pull it back and clean off the bristles. Repeat until the bristles reach as far as the exhaust hood on the outside wall. Then go outside and clean the vent hood if necessary.

Water Heater

Because water heaters are frequently located near the washer and dryer, clothes can get piled up against the water heater near the flame, posing a direct fire hazard.

  • Store paint and other flammable liquids in their original, labeled and sealed containers away from heat sources.
  • Don’t keep anything flammable near a furnace or water heater, such as debris, combustible materials and rags. Use masking tape to mark off a “combustible-free” zone three feet away from your water heater.
  • Keep burner/element access doors closed and combustion chamber covers in place.

Be Safe in the Kitchen

While most kitchen fires are cooking-related, not all are. Non-cooking related fires typically originate in refrigerators, freezers or dishwashers. Follow these tips to help prevent non-cooking related fires from starting in your kitchen.

  • Plug all kitchen appliances, including microwaves, toasters and coffee makers, directly into a wall outlet, never into an extension cord.
  • For larger appliances, such as ovens and refrigerators, use only properly grounded outlets with circuits that match the rating plate on the appliance.
  • If you have older two-prong outlets in your kitchen, don’t use an adapter. Hire a qualified electrician to replace the old outlets with properly grounded three-prong outlets.
  • When moving kitchen appliances, be careful not to roll over or pinch power cords.
  • Unplug small appliances when they’re not in use.
  • Regularly clean stove hoods, filters and vents.
  • Never use a gas or propane oven to heat your home. 

Oven/Stovetop

Every year, an average of one out of every eight homes suffers a kitchen cooking fire. Cooking fires cause 23% of home fires and 9% of home-fire deaths.

Cooking fires mostly occur on the cooktop, usually in the first 15 minutes of cooking. If a fire starts on your stovetop:

  • Turn off the burner and slide a lid over the pot or pan.
  • Don’t throw water on a grease fire—it may cause it to spread and intensify.
  • Don’t try to carry the pot or pan outside—you could spread flames throughout your house.
  • If the lid does not stop the fire, use a fire extinguisher.

Follow these guidelines for safe cooking:

  • Keep flammable material, such as oven mitts, dishcloths, paper towels and napkins, three feet away from the stove.
  • Clean your oven and range thoroughly at least once a month to remove built-up food splatter and grease.
  • Never leave food cooking on a stovetop unattended.
  • Don’t hang dishtowels on the oven door.
  • Keep aerosols far away from flames.
  • Cook on back burners and turn pot handles inward to prevent spills and burns.
  • Turn gas stovetop flames off before reaching above the stove.
  • Dress appropriately when cooking; avoid loose clothing and keep sleeves rolled up.
  • Keep an operating fire extinguisher in the kitchen.
  • For a gas stove, periodically check that its pilot lights haven’t gone out.

Microwave

  • Use only microwave-safe containers.
  • Don’t heat food or materials that are flammable, such as aluminum foil, Styrofoam or some plastic containers.

Toaster/Toaster Oven

  • Clean out accumulated crumbs that can build up and catch fire on the bottom of the toaster.
  • Never use these appliances unsupervised, because the heating elements can become faulty over time and may not turn off.

Be Safe Using Your Other Appliances

Bathroom Appliances

  • Use GFCI outlets and don’t overload them.
  • Don’t use hairdryers or other electrical appliances near the sink, bathtub or shower.
  • Keep curling irons, hairdryers, straighteners and other hot equipment away from combustible materials.
  • Unplug electrical appliances, such as curling irons and hairdryers, when not in use.

A Note on Vintage Appliances

While they may still work, old-fashioned plug-in appliances—a decades-old fan or vintage coffeemaker—were designed to meet outdated safety codes and may have wiring that’s frayed or damaged. If you are determined to use an antiquated electronic appliance, have it rewired by an electrician.

Make Sure Your Home’s Electrical System Is Safe, Too

Since electrical appliances are connected to the home’s electrical infrastructure, preventing an appliance-related fire disaster includes making sure your home’s wiring and electrical equipment is operating safely. Overloaded extension cords, hidden electrical shorts, bad connections and oversized bulbs and fixtures can melt wire insulation and ignite nearby flammable items and materials, potentially causing a house fire.

Pay Attention to These Signs of Danger

It’s important to recognize the signs of impending danger in your electrical system. Shorts, overloaded circuits and bad connections generate heat that can ignite combustibles such as wood framing, rugs or the insulation around a cord or wire. These are some of the signs of dangerous concealed wiring hazards:

  • Electrical cords that are warm to the touch.
  • Charred or plastic burning odors, which may indicate oversized bulbs and light fixtures.
  • Warm-to-the-touch switches or receptacle plate covers, which may mean a poor electrical connection.
  • Fuses that regularly blow or circuits that often trip, which may be caused by a defective circuit breaker or a short in the cables buried in walls or ceilings.
  • Lights that dim, flicker, are unusually bright or have bulbs that regularly burn out prematurely.
  • Appliances that give off a rubbery or burning smell when you run them.
  • Appliances that spark.

When you see any of these signs of electrical trouble, hire a licensed electrician A.S.A.P. to make the necessary upgrades or repairs to prevent a fire.

Lamp Safety

  • Never place anything that can burn—such as towels or scarves—over a lamp or heat-producing appliance.
  • Make sure bulb wattages don’t exceed the fixture’s recommended maximum. Prevent overheating by checking all the light bulbs in your home and changing them if necessary.

Outlet Safety

If you plug in an appliance and the cord slips out of the electrical outlet, the blades inside the outlet may have loosened—and can generate intense heat that can lead to fires. You should replace electrical outlets as soon as you notice that plugs don't fit snugly in them.

Homes built before 1965 typically have ungrounded two-pronged outlets, while newer houses usually have three-pronged outlets. If your home is older, consider upgrading wiring to accept three-pronged outlets, particularly if you are replacing older outlets that may be cracked, damaged or covered in paint.

Follow these good practices when plugging in appliances to minimize fire risk:

  • Turn off appliances before unplugging them to avoid creating an arc inside that could start a fire.
  • Plug only one high-wattage appliance into a receptacle outlet at a time.
  • Plug only one heat-producing appliance, such as a toaster or coffee maker, into a receptacle outlet at a time.

Hire an electrician to make sure your outlets are as safe as they can be:

  • Install tamper-resistant (TR) receptacles in outlets near where children will be present. 
  • Help prevent shocks by installing ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) in the kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, basement, garages, outdoor areas and other places where water is nearby or electrical equipment can get wet. (A GFCI can either be installed in your electrical system or built into a power cord.)
  • To help prevent fires, have a qualified electrician install arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs), which can help protect against arcing and sparking.

Power Cord and Extension Cord Safety

Damaged power cords pose a serious fire risk, so evaluate the cords in your home:

  • Make sure electrical cords are not trapped against walls or under carpets where heat can build.
  • Never use electronics with frayed or exposed wires. A short circuit can result in a spark, which can cause a house fire.

Intended for temporary use only, extension cords are often used more permanently. Consider having a qualified electrician add more circuits or outlets so you do not have to use extension cords.

  • Stay within the electrical limits of extension cords and power strips. Exceeding the recommended power rating—for heavy, medium or light duty use—can be dangerous. Replace undersized cords with larger-gauged ones.
  • Plug major appliances directly into outlets, never into an extension cord.
  • Don’t run extension cords under carpets or furniture.
  • Inspect your extension cords and replace those that are undersized or frayed.

Sources: This Old House, Nationwide, Family Handyman, The Travelers

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