This year, NBC’s hit show This is Us put a spotlight on house fires and electrical safety. According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than 45,000 residential fires a year are the result of electrical failure or malfunction.
Beyond faulty appliances, like the one featured in This is Us, these failures or malfunctions also can be due to overloaded electrical circuits.
“Overloaded electrical circuits are a major cause of residential fires,” said Brett Brenner, president of the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), a nonprofit organization that promotes electrical safety in residential and workplace environments.
While overloading can occur in any situation, consumers in older homes are particularly susceptible to this practice as they tend to overcompensate for not having enough outlets.
“Homes built today are dramatically different than they were 40 years ago,” Brenner said. “Overloading an older home is more likely as today we have more amenities that can stress an old electrical system.”
Battalion Chief Raymond Williams of the Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service Department in Birmingham, AL, explains that when older homes were built, there weren’t as many appliances and electrical devices. Homeowners had a couple of TV sets, some lamps and a handful of appliances, such as a refrigerator, oven, washing machine and dryer.
“Now, the average consumer also has at least one computer and printer, in addition to several cell phones and chargers, a microwave, a dishwasher, a hair dryer, a vacuum cleaner and a coffeemaker,” according to Williams, who says it’s also common to see other items, such as a space heater, crock pot, curling iron, electric tooth brush, blender, juicer and exhaust fan.
“People who live in older homes often try to compensate for a lack of outlets by using power strips,” Williams said. “However, this is dangerous because an outlet can only safely receive a certain amount of power, and when it’s overloaded, this can cause a fire.”
Williams warns against using power strips or extension cords with space heaters and other appliances, such as microwave ovens and refrigerators. Also, whenever power strips are used, he advises consumers to add up the number of amps or wattage used versus the total wattage rating on the power strip or surge protector.
Extension cord and power strip misuse
Tufts University has created a public safety handout on extension cords and power strip safety that provides tips on how to determine how many amps or watts are typically used with common items.
According to the handout, you should avoid coiling cords when they’re in use because coiled cords don’t allow heat to escape. For the same reason, you should avoid running extension cords under carpets or rugs. Any extension cord that has been damaged (cracks, cuts) should not be used, and you shouldn’t staple, nail or tape an extension cord or power strip to get the cord to stay in place.
Also, extension cords should only be used on a temporary basis – never as a permanent solution.
Some people “daisy chain” power strips or extension cords, which means that they plug one power strip or extension cord into another one. This is often done to plug even more devices into one outlet or to compensate for an appliance or device that is too far away. However, this can increase the risk of an electrical fire. Either move the appliance or object closer, or have an electrician create more outlets.
According to Brenner, there are several warning signs when a circuit is overloaded, including the ones listed below:
- Flickering, blinking or dimming lights when other appliances are turned on
- Frequently tripped circuit breakers or blown fuses when turning a switch on
- Discolored wall plates
- Warm or hot wall plates
- Cracking, sizzling or buzzing sounds from receptacles
- Burning odor coming from receptacles or wall switches
- Mild shock or tingle from appliances, receptacles or switches
- Having a house over 40 years old with aluminum wiring that has not been inspected by an electrician
Terri Williams is a freelance journalist with bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Yahoo, the Houston Chronicle, and U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.