One of the most common causes of fires in modern life is electricity. This doesn’t just apply to the devices that we use, either, sometimes, the electrical system in a house or office can malfunction and catch fire too.
To safely put out an electrical fire, first shut off the source of the electricity (if this can’t be done, do not try to put the fire out, call for help). Then use an appropriate extinguisher (Usually an ABC extinguisher) for putting out whatever type of material is on fire.
Always, always put your personal safety and the safety of others first, if you have any doubts at all – call the fire department and get out of harm’s way. Now let’s take a look at that in a bit more detail so that you can feel confident to tackle a small electrical fire.
Your # 1 priority is keeping your family safe. As a firefighter, I recommend everyone has updated smoke detectors that don’t require battery changes, like these ones from Kidde, a fire extinguisher, like this one from Amerex, and a fire escape ladder if you have bedrooms above the first floor, I recommend this one from Hausse.
Also read: What Do Firefighters Use to Put Out a Fire?
What Should Be Used For Putting Out Electrical Fires?
Some substances react badly with electricity and if you’re not sure about a substance’s reactivity? Don’t use it – you can make an electrical fire much, much worse using the wrong extinguishing agent.
The best thing to use on an electrical fire is a class C certified fire extinguisher, which will normally contain sodium bicarbonate, this is a powder that will smother the fire without reacting with it.
If you’re thinking that you’ve seen “sodium bicarbonate” before, that’s probably because you have, particularly if you like to cook – it’s baking soda.
And yes, that means, in theory, if you have enough baking soda to hand, it can be used as a substitute for a class C extinguisher.
However, in our experience, unless you’re doing a lot of baking, you may only have a small jar of baking soda around, which is not going to be enough powder to extinguish anything but the smallest of fires.
Some electrical engineers recommend that you always have a big tub of baking soda handy in the kitchen in case of a fire.
We think you might be better off buying a Class C extinguisher, instead. Like this ABC extinguisher from Amerex.
How To Put Out An Electrical Fire?
OK, now we know what we’re going to extinguish an electrical fire with – it’s important to follow a simple set of rules for putting out the fire.
- Switch off the electricity supply, if it is safe to do so. An electrical fire becomes “just a fire” once you’ve disconnected the electricity. If it’s an appliance that’s on fire, pull the plug out of the wall (use the cord if necessary). Or go to your circuit breaker and either switch off the electricity to the room the fire is in or just switch it off to every room – though if it’s dark, you may need a light handy so that you can see afterward. Once you’ve done this, you should be at no risk of being electrocuted when fighting the fire.
- Extinguish the fire. Grab your ABC fire extinguisher and what you’re looking to do is blanket the entire fire in powder, this will cut the oxygen off from the fire and ensure that it goes out. So, start with the part of the fire nearest you and then work away from your body as it starts to die down.
- Don’t use water. Seriously, even when the power’s off, it’s a bad idea to use water as it might push the fire around but with the power on? You are putting yourself at risk of electrocution. This can be fatal and it’s certainly going to prove, at least, as bad as a fire does. Don’t do it.
What Should I Do If There’s An Electrical Fire In My House?
As we’ve already seen, dealing with an electrical fire is pretty straightforward. The most important thing to do is cut the electricity supply to the fire but only do this if it’s safe for you to do so. Sometimes, that might actually put the fire out without any further effort.
If you’ve cut the electricity and you feel safe and confident to tackle any remaining fire then use the baking soda you have or your Class C-fire extinguisher.
If you don’t feel safe or confident to carry out either of these steps? Call the emergency services to ask for the fire department and leave your home (leave first if the fire is spreading rapidly).
The fire department is staffed by trained professionals whose job it is to put out fires, they won’t be mad that you didn’t tackle a fire, they’ll be pleased that you’re alive and safe.
How Do You Detect Electrical Fires In The Walls?
Most of us know that if an extension cord is frayed, we should replace it or that if we leave a lit cigarette in an ashtray on our beds, we may cause a fire, but far fewer of us are aware that an electrical fire can be caused by the wiring in our homes.
If you want to avoid an electrical fire breaking out in the walls of your home, you should keep an eye out for the major warning signs of electrical hazards:
- Your circuit breakers (or fuses if you live in an older house) are constantly breaking without any obvious reason
- You feel like you get a mild electric shock when plugging in an appliance or appliances
- You can smell burning whenever you uses an appliance or are in a particular room in your home
- Your plugs don’t stay in the outlet when you plug them in
- Your lights flicker without explanation
- You find you get sparks when plugging things into outlets
- You can feel heat from the light switch when you use it
- You find evidence that cables in your home have been damaged by vermin
- Your home has recently been damaged by floods or water
If you have any of these issues, it’s time to call a qualified electrician and get their input as to whether you’re at risk.
You may also find that you’re at risk from these less obvious issues:
- Old wiring – household wiring is not immortal; it’s meant to last 30-40 years and some older houses weren’t wired up to meet the demands of today’s “always on” household either. This can lead to fires.
- Aluminum writing – unfortunately some old wiring contains aluminum rather than pure copper, and this is a major fire hazard as aluminum wire burns easily. Check the wiring and see if you can see “aluminum” embossed on any of it. If you do, then use “pigtails” to act as circuit breakers until you can rewire your home.
Also read: Can Static Electricity Start A Fire?
Why Would An Outlet Catch Fire?
It might come as a surprise to you but the vast majority of electric fires in residential homes are caused by faulty outlets.
This is often because they have been damaged by day-to-day wear and tear and are no longer properly grounded.
It’s also possible for the wiring behind an outlet to begin to fray and break and this can cause a short circuit that starts a fire.
Now, we’re not suggesting that you change your outlets once a year or anything silly, but we are saying you should pay attention to the outlets that you use most often and consider replacing them every 20 years or so before problems arise.
Can An Electrical Fire Start If Nothing Is Plugged In?
Yes, an electrical outlet is always “live” unless the circuit breaker has been activated.
While this doesn’t draw meaningful amounts of power, it means that there’s always power available and that means – an outlet may catch fire even when nothing is plugged into it.
If there are rooms in your home that you almost never use, it might be worth isolating them on the circuit breaker to ensure that the sockets have no power over them.
How Do You Stop An Electrical Fire Without A Fire Extinguisher?
The purpose of our sodium bicarbonate when extinguishing an electrical fire is to prevent the fire from burning any more oxygen – so it forms a physical barrier between the burning item and the air around it.
That means if you don’t have any sodium bicarbonate either as baking soda or as a Class-C fire extinguisher then you can look for other things to perform the same trick.
For example, you could take a fire blanket and lay it over the fire to smother it. It’s very important that you do this after switching off the electricity, mind you. You can get fire blankets here.
You could also take a relatively unreactive compound and spread it over the fire, but you must be sure that the compound you use is not reactive or it could have explosive results which would be way worse than a simple fire.
What Does An Electrical Fire Smell Like?
Like fish. Or maybe, like plastic. The most common thing to happen in an electrical fire is for wires to overheat and set fire to the plastic on them and the paint on nearby walls, this combination can smell like fish, but it might also smell like regular fire.
We should note that electrical fires may emit highly toxic fumes in some cases if they are burning PCBs (a chemical found in some plastics). This makes it a bad idea to start sniffing a fire to try and determine its cause.
Can You Use Flour To Put Out An Electrical Fire?
No! Yes, we know that household flour looks a lot like sodium bicarbonate, and we understand why you might be tempted to use flour on an electric fire but it’s a very bad idea.
Flour will explode when used on an electrical fire and it can make the fire much worse and might even injure or kill the person using it.
It’s no joke. If you’re not sure whether a substance is reactive – assume it is.
It’s also worth noting that powdered sugar will also explode if used on an electrical fire. Please, don’t do it.
Also read: Is Flour Flammable? Can it Explode?
Should You Put Water On An Electrical Fire?
No. Well, definitely not unless you are 100% certain that you’ve removed the electricity supply from the fire. If you put water on live electricity, you’re asking to be electrocuted and that can be fatal.
However, if you’ve disconnected the supply and the materials involved in the fire can be safely extinguished using water, then you can use water if you don’t have sodium bicarbonate to hand.
Take a look at what can happen when you put water on an electrical fire:
But again, no joke, the electricity must be off before you use water.
Also read: Is Water Flammable? You May Be Surprised…
Will Salt Put Out An Electrical Fire?
Yes. Salt is relatively unreactive and if it were to get hot enough, it might break down – it won’t get hot enough in a household electrical fire.
Use it in the same way you would the baking soda or Class-C fire extinguisher, coat the fire in salt to create a barrier to keep out oxygen, start with the part of the fire nearest you.
However, salt is very finely granulated and you may find you need a lot of salt to properly smother a fire.
Also read: Is Salt Flammable? Will it Catch on Fire?
How Fast Does An Electrical Fire Spread?
While it depends on the exact nature of the fire, an electrical fire can spread to become a dangerous fire in as little as 30 seconds! That’s because whatever catches fire might then burn something else.
For example, a toaster on a wooden table could set fire to the table.