Fend­ing off fires

Tips to avoid the dan­gers of elec­tri­cal blazes at home

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - Satur­day, Au­gust 11, 2012 MIKE HOLMES


They say where there’s smoke there’s fire. But when it comes to elec­tri­cal fires, you don’t al­ways see the smoke. By the time you do it’s too late, and the flames are al­ready climb­ing up be­hind your walls.

I was up north a cou­ple of weeks ago. I stopped at a pub that I’ve known for years now and it was com­pletely ren­o­vated — not be­cause they wanted to. They had no choice — there had been an elec­tri­cal fire. Luck­ily, no one was hurt. But truth is it should have never hap­pened.

Twenty per cent of all fires in Canada are due to elec­tri­cal fires. That’s a lot — too much. In my world there wouldn’t be any elec­tri­cal fires, be­cause they’re pre­ventable if the right pro­fes­sion­als are brought in at the right time.

Faulty wiring is the No. 1 cause of elec­tri­cal fires. It’s what caused the fire at the pub. Some­times fires are a re­sult of poor work­man­ship. And other times it’s just wear and tear. But in any case, you need to be aware of the warn­ing signs.

What are the warn­ing signs that tell you there may be a prob­lem with your wiring and you should bring in a pro? Flick­er­ing lights. Break­ers that al­ways trip. Fuses that al­ways blow. A burn­ing smell com­ing from ap­pli­ances or in rooms. Dis­coloured wall out­lets. Out­lets that spark. Out­lets and switches that are hot to the touch. They’re all signs that tell you some­thing is wrong with the elec­tri­cal in your home. The longer you wait to get them fixed, the greater the chance of an elec­tri­cal fire.

Even­tu­ally ev­ery home is at risk of an elec­tri­cal fire. Why? Be­cause elec­tri­cal wires gets worn out — just like ev­ery­thing else. Noth­ing lasts for­ever.

Elec­tri­cal cur­rents gen­er­ate waste heat. Over time that heat can cause the con­duc­tor to ex­pand and con­tract. Even­tu­ally it will loosen the con­nec­tion. And once it’s loose, the elec­tric­ity can arc. When this hap­pens the po­ten­tial for an elec­tri­cal fire is huge.

One way we can pre­vent elec­tri­cal fires caused by an elec­tri­cal arc is with Arc Fault Cir­cuit In­ter­rupters (AFCI). An AFCI is a cir­cuit breaker that de­tects po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous elec­tri­cal arcs. It dis­con­nects the power as soon as it de­tects one. Be­fore AFCIs were in­tro­duced, the bed­room was where most elec­tri­cal fires started. But in 2002 it be­came code to pro­tect all cir­cuits that feed out­lets in bed­rooms with AFCIs. Now the kitchen and bath­room are where most elec­tri­cal fires start.

It’s code to have AFCIs in the bed­room. But in some U.S. states, such as Texas, it’s code to have AFCIs pro­tect­ing all of the cir­cuits in the home. This is what we need to see in our elec­tri­cal codes. If we can pro­tect the en­tire house we should pro­tect the en­tire house. It just makes sense.

Coun­ter­feit elec­tri­cal prod­ucts can also cause elec­tri­cal fires. But it’s hard to prove when in­ves­ti­ga­tors come in af­ter a fire to de­ter­mine its cause. Why? Be­cause most fires de­stroy the ev­i­dence — along with ev­ery­thing else. Plus, some coun­ter­feit prod­ucts are so good the av­er­age home­owner would never sus­pect they aren’t le­git­i­mate or CSA ap­proved. The only way to know it’s coun­ter­feit would be by send­ing it to a lab to test it out. And how many home­own­ers do that?

Over­loaded cir­cuits are also a risk. But the risk is less when a 15-amp breaker or fuse pro­tects the cir­cuit.

The prob­lem is when an over­loaded cir­cuit starts to trip. Home­own­ers go in and re­place a 15-amp fuse with some­thing higher, such as a 20-amp or 30-amp fuse. But this doesn’t fix the prob­lem. The cir­cuit still wants to trip. The wire is telling the fuse that it’s too hot. But the fuse says, “I’m still good.” Be­fore you know it, the wire be­comes your fuse and you’ve got a fire. It’s not about mak­ing it work. It’s about mak­ing it work safely.

When­ever any­one pur­chases a home that’s 15-years old or older they need to get a li­censed elec­tri­cal con­trac­tor to check out the house. Es­pe­cially if the home has a fin­ished base­ment. Too many home­own­ers think they can do their own elec­tri­cal work — and many of them do. How do you know if ev­ery­thing is up to code? If there’s knob and tube wiring, or alu­minum wiring mixed with cop­per? Or if the pre­vi­ous own­ers hired some­one who knew what they were do­ing?

Get a li­censed elec­tri­cal con­trac­tor to come in to do an au­dit of the en­tire house. They’ll make sure all the elec­tri­cal work is up to code and that all the con­nec­tions are tight.

How do you find the right elec­tri­cian? The same way you find the right con­trac­tor. You check ref­er­ences. Speak to past clients. Make sure they’re cer­ti­fied. Ask them to show you their li­cence. A proud trades­per­son would love to show you their ac­com­plish­ments. And never look at price. If four out of five elec­tri­cians charge $1,000 to $2,000 for a job and one guy charges $700, there’s a rea­son. You get what you pay for.

How of­ten should we get a li­censed elec­tri­cal con­trac­tor to check our homes? Ev­ery four years. Why? Be­cause given enough time, any home can be at risk of an elec­tri­cal fire. Wire in­su­la­tion dries out. Re­cep­ta­cles and switches come loose or wear out. Oil and dirt can cause elec­tri­cal com­po­nents to over­heat.

Don’t wait for dis­as­ter to strike. It’s bet­ter to be safe than sorry.

Alex Schuldt/the Holmes Group

Faulty wiring is the lead­ing cause of elec­tri­cal fires, most of which can be pre­vented.

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