According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in 1999 there were an estimated 38,400 total electrically-related home structure fires, with electrical wiring including switches, receptacles and outlets accounting for 16,300, and cords, plugs and extension cords accounting for another 6,400. As a result, the ESFI is working to raise safety awareness related to outlets and cords by encouraging consumers to “Plug Into Electrical Safety.”
The receptacle, often called an outlet, is perhaps the most commonly used and least thought of device in the home. Every electrical appliance, tool, computer and entertainment center component we use is powered through one. We just plug in and forget about it, assuming all our power needs will be met. And that’s true if we follow some simple but important safety principles.
- Check receptacles regularly for problems, including overheating, loose connections, reversed polarity, and corrosion. Consider having an electrical inspection performed by a qualified, licensed electrician to help determine the integrity of your outlets and your entire electrical system.
- Check for receptacles that have loose-fitting plugs, which lead to arcing and fire.
- Avoid overloading outlets with too many appliances. Never plug more than one high-wattage appliance in at a time in each.
- Make sure there are safety covers on all unused outlets that are accessible to children.
- Check for any hot or discolored outlet wall plates. Look from across the room; sometimes you’ll see a darkened area in a teardrop-shape around or above the outlet that may indicate dangerous heat buildup at the connections.
- Warm to the touch is okay, hot is not. If an outlet or switch wall plate is hot to the touch, immediately shut off the circuit and have it professionally checked.
- Replace any missing or broken wall plates.
We can sometimes get so caught up in the safety awareness of our appliances and lamps that we forget about the safety principles that relate to its power cord. An appliance can look like it’s in good operating order and yet still represent a hazard if its cord is damaged.
- Make sure all power cords and extension cords are in good condition, not frayed, cracked or cut. If the power cord to a lamp or appliance is damaged, take the item to an authorized service center, or cut the power cord and dispose of the item safely. Cutting the cord helps ensure that no one else will pick up the item and take the hazard home with them.
- Never attempt to repair or splice a cut cord yourself. “”Electrical”” tape, as commonly referred to—usually black vinyl tape—is not rated for the heat generated by electricity running through wires. The tape will melt and burn.
- Make sure all electrical items, including appliances, extension cords and surge suppressors, are certified by a nationally recognized independent testing lab, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL), CSA, ETL or MET.
- Do not coil power cords when in use.
- Do not place power cords in high traffic areas or under carpets, rugs or furniture.
- Power cords should never be nailed or stapled to the wall, baseboard, or to another object.
- Make sure appliances are off before connecting cords to outlets.
- Never remove the ground pin (the third prong) to make a three-prong plug fit a two-prong outlet; this could lead to an electrical shock.
- Never force a plug into an outlet if it doesn’t fit. Plugs should fit securely into suitable receptacles, but should not require much force to fit.
- Make sure to fully insert the plug into the outlet.
- Unplug appliances that have timers when not in use to conserve energy but also to minimize the opportunities for electric shock or fire.
Extension cords are temporary solutions only, and yet the majority of homes have at least one extension cord plugged in and left in place. Continual use can cause the insulation to rapidly deteriorate, creating a dangerous shock and fire hazard. In addition to the same safety tips that apply to power cords, keep the following principles in mind when using extension cords.
- Extension cords should only be used on a temporary basis; they are not intended as permanent household wiring.
- A heavy reliance on extension cords is an indication that you have too few receptacles to address your needs. Have additional outlets installed where you need them.
- Make sure extension cords are properly rated for their intended use, indoor or outdoor, and meet or exceed the power needs of the appliance or tool being plugged into it.
- Assume 125 W per amp when converting to determine if the extension cord you intend to use is properly rated for the appliance being connected to it.
Power strips and surge suppressors
Power strips give us the ability to plug more products into the same outlet, which can be a help but also a hindrance to safety if used inappropriately. Power strips and surge suppressors don’t provide more power to a location, just more access to the same limited capacity of the circuit into which it is connected. The circuit likely also still serves a variety of other receptacles and fixtures in addition to the multiple electrical items you might be serving with the power strip. In addition to the tips above, keep these safety principles in mind when using power strips and surge suppressors.
- Be sure you are not overloading the circuit. Know the capacity of the circuit and the power requirements of all the electrical items plugged into the power strip and into all the other outlets on the circuit as well as the light fixtures on the circuit.
- A heavy reliance on power strips is an indication that you have too few outlets to address your needs. Have additional outlets installed where you need them.
- Understand that a surge suppressor only protects the items plugged into it, not back along the circuit into which it is connected.
- Surge suppressors can manage the small surges and spikes sometimes generated by the turning on and off of appliances. They may even protect against a large surge generated from outside sources like lightning or problems along the transmission lines to the neighborhood and house. In the event of a large surge or spike, the surge suppressor is a one-time-use protector and will likely have to be replaced.
- Consider purchasing surge suppressors with cable and phone jacks to provide the same protection to your phone, fax, computer modem and television.
- Not all power strips are surge suppressors, not all surge suppressors can handle the same load and events. Be sure the equipment you buy matches your needs.
GFCIs and AFCIs
Ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs)—which protect against accidental electric shock or electrocution by acting immediately to shut off the circuit if they sense a ground fault, or “leak” of current off the circuit—have been in homes since the early 1970s on circuits that come within six feet of water. Homeowners, however, should consider having GFCI protection throughout the home with the exception of circuits that serve major appliances, such as air-conditioning units, furnaces and heaters, refrigerators, dishwashers, and laundry machines. Appliances like those may send a surge through the circuit that can trip the GFCI unintentionally. Remember also to test GFCIs monthly and after every major electrical storm.
Newer arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) can help prevent fires that often result from problems at outlets, switches and frayed and cracked cords connected to the circuits. The AFCI senses the particular signature of an arc—where electricity has to jump a gap—and, like the GFCI, acts immediately to shut off the circuit, thus depriving the hazard the opportunity to start a fire. AFCIs are currently required by the National Electrical Code in new construction in the bedroom circuit, but should be considered in all homes, particularly older homes, and in all circuits that don’t serve a major appliance.