Fending off fires
Tips to avoid the dangers of electrical blazes at home
MAKE IT RIGHT
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.
Faulty wiring is the leading cause of electrical fires, most of which can be prevented.