Sawdust, loose outlets, and other hidden fire risks
It's likely that you grew up learning about ways to minimize the possibility of a fire at your home, and have gotten periodic reminders about fire safety ever since. Homeowners are urged to avoid behaviors such as overloading electrical outlets or leaving candles unattended to keep their property from going up in smoke.
Many of these recommendations offer common sense advice on avoiding risk with your electrical system, hazardous materials, or open flames. But you should also be aware of less obvious dangers that can spark a blaze in your home.
Knowing the condition of your electrical system can alert you to any heightened risk of fire. Pat Curry, writing for the National Association of Realtors' home improvement site HouseLogic, says homes built in the 1960s or early 1970s will often have aluminum wiring, which is more likely than copper wire to overheat. Older homes may even have knob and tube wiring, which can start a fire as its insulation degrades.
Even if your electrical system is newer, it might need an upgrade if you are experiencing frequent problems. These include frequently blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers, which could indicate that your wiring is not up to code. Bill Keith, writing for the advice publication Bottom Line, says older homes may have fewer fuses for the home, meaning there is more power on each fuse and a higher risk of a dangerous electrical discharge.
Arc faults are a common cause of house fires. This condition can occur when an electrical cord is frayed, when a nail or screw damages wiring in the wall, or when there is a loose connection in an outlet. The resulting discharge of electricity can generate intense heat and start a fire.
One way to minimize this danger is to have arc fault circuit interrupters installed on each of your circuit breakers. Curry says these devices will sense any abnormalities in the electrical load and shut down the circuit before the wiring overheats.
Most people know the danger of frayed cords, but won't often check their electrical devices for this flaw. Keith says it is a good idea to inspect your cords at least once a year, especially if they are hidden under rugs or behind furniture or if you have pets that might chew on them.
Mice and squirrels may also be snacking on your wires. Natalie Way, writing for the National Association of Realtors, says these rodents may chew on insulation when staying in your attic or walls during cold weather. Sealing off attic vents, plugging any gaps, and taking other steps to exclude these creatures can help keep your home safer.
Loose outlets are another electrical safety problem. Mary Kate Frank, writing for This Old House, says it can be annoying to plug a device in only to have the plug slip back out, but it can also be a sign of a potential fire hazard. The loose connection can generate a lot of heat, which could ignite any nearby flammable materials.
Be wary of any outdated or untested electrical products. Antique or counterfeit devices have not been subjected to modern safety tests and are more likely to cause fires. Look for a sign that the device has been approved by the Underwriters Laboratory before purchasing a product, or use the antique products only as unplugged show pieces.
You should also be careful about leaving certain electrical devices running when you leave the home or go to sleep. Way says dishwashers can cause fires if they allow water to come into contact with exposed wiring. Some items, such as laptops, can become very hot if they are left plugged in and will pose a fire risk if they have contact with flammable materials such as bedding or upholstery. Keith recommends checking the cord of a crockpot after it has been plugged in for 15 minutes to make sure it is not too warm; if it is, you shouldn't leave it unattended.
Use some extra caution when disposing of old batteries. The Peters Company, an Atlanta real estate consulting business, says the battery posts can discharge if they come in contact with some kinds of discarded metal. Cover the posts with electrical tape to prevent this problem.
While many hidden fire risks stem from electrical issues, others involve clutter. Frank says towels, pot holders, and other flammable materials can easily ignite if you leave them too close to burners while working on a meal.
Clogged dryer hoses can cause lint to combust. In addition to cleaning out the lint trap before every cycle, you should clear out the hose every year or two to ensure that it is venting properly.
High concentrations of dust can catch fire in some circumstances. The Peters Company says the risk is greatest when dust accumulates in hard-to-reach areas near electrical wiring, such as behind a computer desk or entertainment center. Frank says you should also regularly vacuum any workshop space to remove sawdust, which will burn quickly when ignited.
While it is not a common cause of fire, glass containers placed in the sunlight can sometimes focus this energy like a lens and start a fire. Way says you should also avoid keeping flammable materials in any clear containers which will be exposed to sunlight.