Do you have these 3 common causes of electrical fire in your home?


As the months get colder, British Columbians are plugging in more heating appliances to keep warm. Be mindful of these three common electrical hazards that could be lurking around your home:

1) Overloaded power bars

Power bars can be a great tool to maximize outlets and minimize the potential impact of power surges. However, many homeowners make the mistake of overloading these devices. Most 120-volt power strips are rated at a maximum load of 12 amps, so just a few appliances plugged into a power strip will easily exceed its maximum load. For example, a 1,300-watt toaster and a 1,100-watt coffee maker plugged into the same strip has a combined load of 20 amps. This easily exceeds the power strip’s capacity, creating risks of overheating, and eventually fire.

What to do:

Never use your power strip for energy-intensive items such as portable heaters, air conditioners, fridges, hot plates, etc. They can overheat the circuit and cause an electrical fire. Many products have installation instructions that prohibit use with extension cords. Check your power strips frequently and if they’re showing signs of overheating such as sparking or scorch marks, take them out of use immediately.  Over-current devices (breakers and fuses) are there to protect the circuit in the event they become overloaded. If a breaker is tripping or a fuse is blowing, don’t continue to reset or replace it—call a licensed electrical contractor to determine why.

2)  Heaters near combustible material 

Combustible materials such as blankets, curtains and clothing must be kept away from sources of heat, such as baseboard heaters, in-floor heating vents, and portable heaters. Otherwise, they may burst into flame. One Vancouver Island house fire two years ago was the result of a blanket falling down on top of a baseboard heater behind a couch.

What to do:

Always follow the manufacturer’s clearance instructions. Depending on the type of heater, clearances can vary from a couple of inches (50 mm) up to a foot (300 mm). Portable heaters must also never be used with extension cords or power strips due to the potential for these energy-intensive items to overheat the cord and cause a fire.

3)  Copper-only devices on aluminum wiring

Updating electrical plugs and switches to the latest style seems like an easy fix, but what many aren’t aware of is that these standard off-the-shelf devices are designed for use with copper wires only. Many homes built in the 1960s and 1970s have aluminium branch circuits that are not compatible with standard copper-rated devices.  In one electrical fire we investigated, we found an aluminum branch circuit feeding a gas furnace. The furnace was rated by the manufacturer for copper only, and the wire nut used to terminate the branch circuit to the furnace was a copper-only wire nut. The termination oxidized, which created a hot spot and a subsequent fire.

What to do:

Replacing plugs, switches and light fixtures is considered regulated work and can only be performed by qualified individuals, or under a home owner permit in certain circumstances.

Terminating aluminum branch circuit wiring can be tricky and we recommend that it only be done by qualified individuals. If you suspect you have aluminum branch circuit wiring in your home and would like the plugs, switches, or light fixtures updated, we recommend you call a licensed contractor (find one here).

These tips are just some of the ways you can avoid electrical fires in your home. It is also worth checking to see if your home contains Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupters, a technology that prevents arc-faults in your home. The Canadian Electrical Code now requires the installation of AFCI equipment in homes to mitigate safety risks such as the three causes of electrical fires we listed above, but yours might not yet have anything installed. You can learn more about arc-fault and AFCIs here.

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