Overloading outlets can leave homes a burnt ruin

An electrical outlet where a microwave oven and other appliances were plugged in overloaded and caused a fire at this residence.

Florence Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Perkins said a fire inspector can walk into a recently burned house and usually immediately know if the blaze was started by an electrical problem.

"You can see electrical outlets running over with plugs from all kinds of appliances or other items that must have electricity to be charged," said Perkins, a former inspector and fire marshal for the department. "I've seen people running a washing machine and other appliances out of one outlet; when you do that, it is easy to overload an outlet and that can lead to a fire."

According to the National Fire Protection Association and the Electrical Safety Foundation International, electrical fires are one of the leading causes of structure fires each year.

Fire safety experts said cooking remains the leading cause of a home fire, followed by smoking, heating and electrical.

"But electrical fires seem to be more and more prevalent," Muscle Shoals Fire Marshal Donald Ray Coons said.

Statistics from the Electrical Safety Foundation indicate electrical problems in homes cause nearly 55,000 fires annually in the U.S.

Officials with the National Fire Protection Association said in 2010, electrical fires accounted for nearly 13 percent of reported home fires. Those resulted in 420 deaths, 1,520 injuries and $1.5 billion in property damage.

The last three major fires in the Shoals area this year, in which two people were killed, were linked to electrical problems, according to Alabama State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk.

"We have a bad habit in our society with not properly maintaining the electrical systems in our homes," Paulk said. "And even worse is the fact that we overload and abuse the electrical system we have in the house."

Brett Brenner, president of the Electrical Safety Foundation International, of Rosslyn, Va., said overuse of the home electrical system is one of the major factors in an electrical fire.

"Most of the homes today were built in the 1970s or 1980s and they were wired for electrical use in that time frame," Brenner said. "The demand is way above that today. Everything has to be plugged in and energized.

"If everything is used the way it is designed to be used, it would be fine, but it doesn't happen that way. We overuse our electricity."

For example, Brenner said, consider how many electrical outlets there are in a bedroom. Houses in the 1970s and 1980s were not built with a large number of outlets because there wasn't a need for them.

He said that has now changed with the advancement of technology.

"Everything feeds off energy. You need the energy to run the big screen TV, the iPhone, the computers," Brenner said.

"We have things in our homes today that constantly run on electricity," Paulk said. "Through our own devices and inability to foresee what we're doing, we are faced with wiring in our homes that is inadequate and then we don't maintain it.

"Overloading an electrical system is easy to do and it's a problem that we do too often."

Perkins said when you plug in all these gadgets and appliances into the electrical circuits in a home, it doesn't take long for an overload.

"That's when you have a problem," he said. "I've been in homes where there was a fire and in the same outlet there was a stove, coffee pot, electrical skillet and deep fryer all plugged into extension cords running to the same outlet. It was nothing but a fire waiting to happen, and it did."

He said electrical fires that begin from an overload inside the wall can spread rapidly before being detected.

Paulk said he has seen homes where a number of power strips, containing five or six outlets each, were plugged together and then plugged into one wall outlet.

"Sadly enough we have a tendency to push things to the limit and that's when something like an electrical fire can happen," he said.

Brenner said electricity is not forgiving.

"It can kill you — not just by being electrocuted but through fires," Brenner said. "It takes only one mistake and often times there is no second chance."

Fire officials suggest homeowners do routine safety checks of residential electrical systems to make sure the systems are not overworked or have become damaged.

"But it comes down to common sense," Coons said. "Don't overload your circuit, don't use extension cords too long, don't put them under doors or under rugs and don't plug everything into one outlet."

Tom Smith can be reached at 256-740-5757 or tom.smith@TimesDaily.com.

Electrical safety tips

  • All receptacle outlets and switches must have wall plates.

  • Replace outlets if plugs do not fit tightly in the receptacle.

  • Make sure smoke alarms are installed on every floor outside sleeping areas and in every bedroom, and are in good working order. Change the batteries twice a year and replace the smoke alarms every five years.

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors in your home.

  • Place safety covers on outlets to prevent injuries to children.

  • Keep children and flammable materials away from space heaters and other heat sources.

  • Limit the use of extension cords. Extension cords are intended for temporary use only. Make sure that you do not overload an extension cord.

  • Replace blown fuses with the correct size. Larger sized fuses pose a fire hazard.

  • Do not overload outlets. This can occur if too many appliances are plugged into the same circuit. Blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers may indicate overloading.

  • Do not use extension cords with space heaters or air conditioners and make sure your space heater will automatically shut off if tipped over.

  • Inspect appliances and extension cords for worn or exposed wiring and stop use immediately if that is found to avoid shock and fire hazards.

Source: Electrical Safety Foundation International.

Signs of electrical hazards

  • Power outages — circuit breakers that frequently trip or fuses that often need replacement

  • Dim and/or flickering lights

  • Arcs and sparks — flashes of light or shower of sparks anywhere in your electrical system

  • Sizzles and buzzes — unusual sounds from your electrical system

  • Overheating — overheated wires can give off an odor of hot insulation; switch plates or receptacle covers are hot to the touch or discolored from heat buildup

  • Electrical shocks — any shock, even a mild tingle, may be warning of an electrical danger

  • Overrated panel — electrical panels with fuses or circuit breakers rated at higher currents than the capacity of their branch circuits.

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