How do I practice electrical safety around my home?

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Learn about electrical safety with this guide.

Electricity is fundamental to civilization. Hot showers, warm meals, and a good hair day from the blow dryer are all the result of an ample supply of electricity.

But electricity is powerful and has the potential to be dangerous.

Being exposed to an electric current can cause electric shock or electrocution, physical burns, neurological damage, and even ventricular fibrillation, causing a heart attack. A faulty electrical system can spark a fire, destroying property and potentially the lives of people unable to get to safety.

“Despite all the efforts to deliver education to the public – from fire departments visiting schools and having information sessions – we still see incidents,” says Brian Metzger, the U.S. Fire Administration’s fire protection engineer.

That’s why it’s important for people to have an understanding of the many ways electrical fires start and spot the warning signs that a problem is possible. It’s especially important to understand dangers and share that knowledge with others, especially young children. Being able to practice safe habits at home and identify possible dangers is the best way to ensure your home is as free of risk from an electric shock or an electrical fire as possible.

What are electrical safety concerns?

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, electrical fires account for 51,000 fires annually, causing 500 deaths, 1,400 injuries, and $1.3 billion in damage each year.

Electrical failures or malfunctions are the second leading cause of home fires in the country, according to the National Fire Safety Association. These accounted for 13 percent of home structure fires between 2012 and 2016. Among the causes of home fires, only unattended equipment causes more fires than electrical issues.

But fires from electrical failures or malfunctions accounted for the highest share of civilian deaths and direct property damage. Half of all home electrical fires involved home wiring or lighting equipment.

Winter is the most likely time for an electrical fire. This is typically when people use electric or space heaters to keep warm. According to the NFPA, 40 percent of all electrical fires between 2012 and 2016 occurred between the months of November and February.

Stay safe around electrical units.

How do electrical fires start?

Electrical fires occur when a current ignites a flammable material, such as insulation or fabric. Compounding the danger is that people often attempt to put out an electrical fire with water, which exposes them to a higher risk of electrical shock and can make the flames worse.

In nearly three of five home fires involving an electrical failure or malfunction, arcing was the heat source. Electrical arcing happens when a current jumps a gap in a circuit or between two electrodes. Electricity then flows or discharges along an unintended path, igniting particulates in the environment and causing an electrical fire. These types of fires are most likely to be caused by malfunctioning appliances and electronics.

What are other typical electrical accidents?

Along with causing house fires, electricity can cause bodily harm. Electrical accidents range from mild to deadly, depending on the strength of the electrical current and other factors such as water nearby.

Electric shock occurs when someone comes in contact with an electric current that causes the current to run through the body. Shocks can range from mild and unpleasant to severe. The most severe electric shocks can cause heart failure and death.

Electrical burns usually occur when a shock burns the skin’s tissue. Such burns can leave scarring. In more severe conditions, these burns can be internal as the electric current travels through the bone and burns surrounding deep tissue.

How can I avoid accidents?

The Electrical Safety Foundation International developed the Home Electrical Safety Challenge to help raise awareness about potential home electrical hazards. ESFI recommends an electrical system inspection by a licensed and qualified electrician if your home is 40 years old or older or your home has undergone a major renovation. You should also hire an electrician if you added a major new appliance in the last 10 years.

Metzger says one of the most common issues leading to electrical fires is overloaded electrical outlets or the long-term use of extension cords.

“People will set a couch on the electrical cord or under a rug and the abrasion over time wears through the jacket of the cord and now you have an exposed wire in contact with a combustible rug,” Metzger explains.

Though many rely on extension cords when they don’t have enough electrical outlets, extension cords are only intended to be temporary solutions. That’s because the insulation inside a cord can deteriorate.

Here are some tips to avoid electrical accidents:

  • Keep appliances and cords away from water. Never touch anything electrical with wet hands or while standing in water. 
  • Do not use frayed or broken power cords. Replace these cords immediately.
  • Do not plug in anything with a missing prong. Prongs are there to protect your home in case of a power surge.
  • Do not unplug appliances by yanking the cord. Gently pull by the plug to remove the plug from the outlet without causing damage. 
  • Read the instructions for your home’s appliances. This will ensure you are using them safely and correctly.
  • If in doubt, call an electrician to install equipment or appliances. The same goes for fixing or maintaining appliances. It’s always safer to hire a professional.
  • Use a surge suppressor. This is also sometimes called a surge protector and will help prevent damage to electronic equipment from voltage spikes. Typically, a surge suppressor is a small box with several utility outlets, a power switch, and a three-wire cord for plugging into a wall outlet.
  • Know where your electrical panel is and how to use it.
  • Stop using devices that have a damaged power cord. Either toss the device or have the cord repaired at an appliance repair shop.

Keeping children, seniors, and pets safe from electrical accidents

Able-bodied adults can react quickly to dangers posed by electrical fires or shock. Those dangers are even greater for children, seniors, and pets who may not understand the risk or could be physically unable to escape from danger.

Children tend to be curious. It is how they learn. Curiosity can turn to tragedy if a child is electrocuted or unable to escape a house fire.

Seniors, likewise, are also at greater risk. Adults over the age of 65 are at the greatest risk of death from fire and this risk continues to increase with age, according to the National Fire Protection Association. For those 75 and over, the risk is 2.8 times higher than the general population.

What’s more, many older adults have remained in the same home for an extended period, and electrical fires are more common in older homes with aging electrical systems.

Consider these tips to keep young children, elderly family members, and pets safe:

  • Cover unused outlets. 
  • Consider replacing outlets with tamper-resistant receptacles. Know that TR receptacles are now required in all new and renovated homes.
  • Keep metal objects away from outlets. Metal items such as silverware should always be kept away from outlets so that children do not stick those objects into electrical outlets.
  • Keep cords away from pets that like to chew. Your furry friends are also at risk in the event of an electrical fire or malfunction. Make sure cords are safely out of reach.

How can I perform an electrical safety assessment?

Different rooms in your home hold more risk than others, depending on the types of appliances or the amount of water that’s being introduced into the system. You can perform a room-by-room assessment of any risks and take steps to reduce the likelihood of an electrical accident.

Kitchens

The kitchen is the heart of the home and also the location for many of your home appliances. All of the cooking goes on there so there is heat from the oven, cooktop and microwave oven. This means kitchen appliances such as the dishwasher and refrigerator are potential sources of an electrical malfunction.

In the kitchen:

  • Check the range, oven, and exhaust hood for debris that could catch fire.
  • Make sure the cooking area is free of towels and napkins. Also, check to ensure that heat-producing appliances, such as toasters and coffee makers are away from combustible materials. Unplug those appliances when not in use.
  • Ensure there is room for air circulation behind the refrigerator.
  • Clean the refrigerator coils.
  • Remove electrical appliances near the sink.
  • Test GFCIs each month. These are ground fault circuit interrupters and should be located in outlets near sinks.

Bathrooms

Like kitchens, bathrooms see heavy use for appliances such as hair dryers and curling irons. Bathrooms are also potential sources of moisture coming into contact with electrical sources.

Water and electricity don’t mix. One of the best ways to avoid electric shock risk is to install fault circuit interrupters. These devices will make rooms where water is more likely to be in use safer. An arc-fault circuit interrupter, or AFCI, is a circuit breaker that breaks the circuit when it detects the electric arcs that are a signature of loose connections in home wiring.

In the bathroom:

  • Always unplug hair dryers and other such tools when not in use.
  • Never use a portable heater in the bathroom. Safer options are ceiling units or strip heaters placed up high.
  • Do not leave appliances plugged in while you are using the sink or tub.
  • Turn on a ventilation fan to remove steam and moisture from hot showers.

Family Room and Bedrooms

Family rooms contain many types of electronics, lamps, and equipment that could be a source for electrical accidents. Rugs, fabric curtains, and pillows create a source of combustible material for arcing electric currents to ignite.

In family rooms and bedroom:

  • Make sure outlet and switch cover plates are not cracked, broken, or hot to the touch.
  • Avoid using an extension cord as a permanent power solution. Plug valuable electronics into a surge protector to hedge against power surges.
  • Avoid running power cords under rugs.
  • Check for a working smoke alarm on every level of the home and if possible, in each bedroom.
  • Test smoke alarms each month.
  • Keep combustibles – blankets, sheets, pillows, curtains, and rugs away from lamps or light bulbs.
  • Pay attention to recommended bulb wattages for light fixtures.
  • If a portable air conditioner is used, make sure it is plugged into its own dedicated circuit.

Basement

The basement of a home is often where the breaker panel is located. It is important to have easy access to this piece of equipment and to label breakers with corresponding outlets.

For many homes, the laundry room is located in the basement. An electric clothes dryer – along with the water heater, furnace, and oven – is among the biggest consumers of electricity in the house. Keep a watchful eye on these two areas for any potential electric hazards.

In the basement:

  • Do not store items on the floor in front of the breaker panel so that you can access it easily at all times.
  • The panel should have a closed cover that is never locked.
  • The panel should have a directory index identifying each individual circuit breaker, as well as the various receptacles, area, or equipment serviced by each circuit breaker.
  • Have the furnace cleaned and inspected by a licensed professional each year.
  • Clean the dryer’s lint filter after each load.

The Choose Energy expert opinion

“Electricity is so much a part of our daily lives that it is easy to take it for granted. Knowing where potential dangers lie within your home can help you protect yourself, your family and your property.”

 

[Thomas Skjaveland]/[thitipong chotwicha]/Shutterstock