Natural Handyman's Links Library section header
Natural Handyman's Home Page Home repair articles and do it yourself tips Home repair contests at Sweepstakes Central Do it yourself books on a variety of home repair topics Tools Natural Handyman's Question and Answer archives Find a handyman or contractor for those small home repair jobs Select links to home repair and do it yourself products and services Advertising options on the Natural Handyman website Comments and questions

Return to our Safety Article List

Quick Tips to Avoid Accidental Home Fires

With summer vacation and hotter weather just around the corner, homes across the country will be more occupied than usual over the next few months. This means more bodies using more electricity - which can increase the risk of electrical home fires.

But even if you don't have kids hanging around the house, it's always a good idea to give your property a quick once-over for fire hazards.

According to the United States Fire Administration, an estimated 25,900 electrical fires were reported each year between 2009-2011, equating to over 70 home fires every day. If that number seems shocking, consider the fact that the majority of them could have been prevented if homeowners had known what to look for and taken the time to do so.

But what kinds of things should you consider 'red flags' to address? Let's take a closer look at some of the most common causes of home electrical fires and some easy to implement preventative measures to help you create a safer environment for your entire household.

Problem Spotting

In addition to forces largely outside of your control (such as electrical system failure, defective appliances, and improperly installed wiring, just to name a few) the usual suspects in electrical home fires are misused and poorly maintained appliances, overloaded outlets, congested circuits and overburdened extension cords.

But don't simply rely on your sense of sight to identify potential fire hazards. When you can't see an obvious problem, being able to smell, hear or touch something that doesn't smell, sound or feel right could save your life.

A personal case in point...

My husband and I recently bought our first home and purchased a new range as a part of our kitchen renovation. Although everything seemed fine on the surface, I kept noticing a burning smell, hearing pops and what sounded like a "singe" (similar to the sound you hear when first lighting a match).

After moving the range away from the wall, I looking down at the receptacle. Although at first glance it appeared to be functioning properly, I knelt down next to the outlet and noticed that the surface of the outlet was warm to the touch.

Outside of melted electric range outlet

Seems normal enough: A little dirty and slightly warped on the left side (above) but that's bound to happen after 10 years, right? Wrong. Following all safety precautions for dealing with electrical wiring (such as turning off the power), I carefully removed the outlet cover. And here's what I saw:

Inside view of melted electric range outlet

With the cover off, the problem became more clear. Inside the cover (above), you can see how severely melted and damaged it really was... much more than the slight melting on the outside would lead you to believe! This is something that needed to be addressed immediately. Upon further examination of the wires themselves, this is what I found:

Shorted wires inside electric range outlet

The bottom wire housing (above) was no longer recognizable as it had been slowly burning for who knows how long! It was a charred, crumbling mess that could have been responsible for unknown damage, injury, or even death had we not investigated further and taken immediate action.

This is a perfect example of how things can seem fine on the surface but be an electrical home fire waiting to happen: If something doesn't smell, sound or feel right, it probably isn't. Contact an electrician and even if you are wrong, it's better to be safe than sorry.

Trouble Shooting

Getting back to the DIY basics of today, here are some simple maintenance measures and preventative checks to perform.

Smoke Alarms

It may seem like it should go without saying but the first thing you should do is make sure that you have smoke alarms and check that they work. In over 25% of the reported fires, smoke alarms were known to be absent and in another 25% of the fires, firefighters were unable to verify whether smoke alarms were present. This means that in 50% of the cases, smoke alarms alone could have contributed to catching these fires or preventing them entirely.

Once you have properly installed smoke alarms, make sure to test them monthly. And always keep an extra battery on hand for immediate replacement.

Superficial System Review

Sometimes all you need to do is perform quick visual checks of your system components to keep everything in order.

  • Perform a walk-through of your home to check outlets and power strips.
  • Purchase new power strips for each individual electrical device or component and never load them all into one.
  • Listen out for pops when you turn lamps on or flip light switches and be aware of flickering lights. In either instance, disconnect the power or unplug the lamp until you can address the deficiencies.

Finally, NEVER use broken outlets, sockets, or power strips.

Burned outlet power strip

Have a buddy help you with this project! It will save you lots of time!

One easy way to make sure your electrical panel circuits are properly labeled and in working order is to grab a partner, get on your cell phones and check each labeled switch in the breaker box individually.

Essentially, one person is stationed at the breaker box and the other will move through the house verifying that the switch does or does not affect each designated area.

If any switches are incorrectly marked, you can create a new label or make a note as to which switches need further examination.

Concerned that your home needs a more "in-depth" analysis?

Instances in which you should employ a professional electrician (licensed and bonded) to survey your surroundings include:

  • Known instances of error (as in mislabeled breaker boxes)
  • New home purchase
  • Recent renovations
  • Homes that are 40 years or older
  • Major appliance upgrades or installations within the last 10 years
  • Serious concerns like the range receptacle above

In what other ways have you enhanced your home's fire safety?

Rheney Williams is a DIYer who writes about home fire safety topics for The Home Depot, including such as fire alarms and smoke detectors. For more ideas to help keep your home safe, visit homedepot.com to view a full line of smoke alarm products.

Return to our Safety Article List