According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International or ESFI, every year, electrical fires lead to $1.3 billion worth of property damage, 1,400+ injuries, 500 deaths, and 51,000 home and building fires. If you find yourself dealing with an electrical fire, should you use water to try and put it out?
You should never use water to extinguish an electrical fire. Water is an electrical conductor, and thus the water could cause electrocution to you and anyone in the vicinity. A fire extinguisher rated for electrical fires is recommended instead.
If you’re not sure what an electrical fire is or its risks, we’ll explain that ahead. We’ll also talk more about why you shouldn’t use water on an electrical fire and what your protocol should be. Keep reading!
What Are Electrical Fires and What Causes Them?
Electrical Fires 101
Before we delve into how to put out an electrical fire, let’s take this section to explain what an electrical fire is. As the stats from the intro prove, these types of fires are quite common, so it’s good to be prepared!
Fires are usually categorized into one of five different classes: Class A, Class B, Class C, Class D, and Class K. Electrical fires fall into Class C.
A fire is considered a Class C according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA if it’s “a fire involving energized electrical equipment where safety to the employee requires the use of electrically nonconductive extinguishing media.”
Of course, electrical fires don’t only happen at work, but in the home as well. Think of how many electronics are in your house right now. Depending on the room, it could be a handful to dozens.
Take the kitchen, for example. Most kitchens have a microwave oven. Your kitchen might use a toaster, a coffeemaker, a stand mixer, a slow cooker or a pressure cooker, an electric press…the list goes on.
Those are just countertop appliances. Some stovetops are electric rather than gas-powered. Your fridge and freezer use electricity as well.
At any time, if these appliances malfunction, an electrical fire could occur.
Electrical Fire Causes
What exactly does cause electrical fires? Here are some of the more common sources.
- Overheating ceiling fans: Do you leave your ceiling fans running in the bedroom or kitchen overnight to beat the heat and give your air conditioning a break? Long hours can put a strain on the fan, causing the motor to overheat. A fire could then ignite.
- Portable heaters: Although they’re mostly safe for everyday use, portable heaters do give off heat. If the portable heater is too close to a flammable object, an electric fire will follow.
- Power surges: The worst thing that can happen during a power surge is not a ruined television or computer. It’s an electrical house fire!
- Improper light bulbs for lamps or light fixtures: Your light fixtures require bulbs at a certain wattage for a reason. Overloading the lamp with a bulb that’s too high of a wattage could cause the bulb to explode.
- Overloading the circuits: Daisy-chaining extension cords or overloading an outlet by plugging in too many electronics is a very common source of household electrical fires.
- Old appliances: When your appliances are on the fritz, their wiring can go bad. Continuing to use the appliance puts you and your family at risk.
Can You Use Water on an Electrical Fire?
Now let’s address your main question. If an electrical fire occurs in your home or office, should you rush to get water to extinguish it?
No. You should never use water on an electrical fire. We can’t stress that enough.
Why not? You always thought that water worked on fires. It can, but not for all types of fires.
Class K kitchen fires from grease and cooking oils are one type of fire that you should never use water on, and Class C electrical fires are another.
The reason you shouldn’t put out an electrical fire with water is due to how water conducts electricity. What this means is that the water now has electricity flowing through it.
You assume the water is safe because hey, it’s water. It turns out, the water is anything but safe. If you step in it or get it splashed on you in the frenzy of putting out a fire, you could potentially get electrocuted.
If you experience an electric shock from the water used to put out an electrical fire, you could be burned in the area where the electrocution happens. Electric burns can cause injuries in two areas, the entrance and exit of where the electric current traveled.
You may fall unconscious after being shocked. In very serious cases, your pulse could slow or stop, your breathing could stop, and/or you could enter cardiac arrest.
Electrocution absolutely could be fatal.
How Should You Put Out an Electrical Fire?
Now that you know to refrain from using water, what should be your plan of attack for extinguishing an electrical fire?
Ideally, you should call 911 or your emergency number equivalent and evacuate the premises immediately. The fire department will arrive as soon as they can and safely tamp down the fire.
If you must attempt to put out the fire yourself, here are your options.
A common sight in many households, This Old House predicts that at least 75 percent of homes in the United States have a fire extinguisher. If you do in your home as well, then you can use it to put out a fire.
We should note that household fire extinguishers are only intended for one of the five fire classes we outlined before. If yours is a Class B fire extinguisher, for instance, then it’s designed for extinguishing flammable liquid fires such as from lacquers, solvents, oil-based paints, tars, oils, petroleum greases, and gasses.
Inside a Class B fire extinguisher is a dry chemical in the form of powder or foam. Some examples include halogenated agents and ammonium phosphate.
These ingredients are proven to work on Class B fires. If you used a Class B fire extinguisher on a Class C fire though, it wouldn’t be as effective.
A Class C fire extinguisher contains potassium chloride, potassium bicarbonate, and/or ammonium phosphate. Although Class B and C fire extinguishers share one ingredient, it’s the potassium chloride and potassium bicarbonate in conjunction with the ammonium phosphate that works on electrical fires, not just one ingredient.
Therefore, if you reach for a fire extinguisher in your home and it’s labeled a class anything outside of Class C, do not use it on the electrical fire. At best, it won’t extinguish the fire. At worst, it could cause the fire to grow!
If an electrical fire breaks out in the kitchen and you can quickly grab some, then reach for baking soda. Don’t just sprinkle the stuff; dump it on the flames.
Why does this work? Baking soda produces carbon dioxide, and that ingredient chokes out the oxygen in the fire. A fire needs oxygen to spread, so once it loses oxygen, it peters out.
We must stress that baking soda is only a viable option for electrical fires if the fire is small and you don’t have to get too close to the fire to apply the baking soda.
Are Electrical Fires More Dangerous Than the Other Types of Fires?
Each of the five types of fire is incredibly dangerous, and we want to drive that point home. Fires can lead to burns, inhalation damage, suffocation, and death, and that’s regardless of whether it’s Class A, Class D, or Class K.
That said, Class C electrical fires could be among the deadliest types of fires, as not only are there the above fire risks but the additional risk of electrocution as well.
That’s why the best thing you can do if an electrical fire occurs on the premises is to dial your emergency services number (which is 911 in a lot of the world) and send a fire department to your location immediately.
Tips for Preventing Electrical Fires
Whether your home has suffered an electrical fire in the past or reading this post made you scared of ever experiencing one, there is plenty you can do in your day-to-day life to prevent electrical fires. Here are our best practices.
Watch Your Wattage
When your lights inevitably burn out, don’t just grab whatever lightbulb you find first in your hall closet. Instead, match the lightbulb wattage to the light fixture. Going under wattage will leave the room dim. Overdoing it on the wattage could cause the bulb to explode, as we talked about.
Check Your Cords and Outlets
While you can’t see past the rubber or plastic cords into the wires underneath, if the cords themselves are old or damaged, then there’s a pretty good chance the wires are in even worse shape. You should discontinue the use of the item immediately.
The same goes for old and damaged outlets. If you feel a slight shock whenever you plug in your favorite coffeemaker or old laptop, that’s not good. You also shouldn’t smell anything burning when an item is plugged into an outlet.
If the power cord gets hot after using an electronic for a while, or if the outlet does, and especially if you see discoloration on the outlet, you need to stop using that electronic. Your home might need new wiring or, at the very least, a new outlet.
Switch to GFCIs
Ground fault circuit interrupters or GFCIs are a type of circuit breaker that can prevent electrical current leakage. Having a GFCI or several around your home might be able to reduce the risk of electrical fires and electrocution.
We recommend GFCI outlets in the garage, basement, laundry room, living room, bathroom, and kitchen.
Don’t Overload Extension Cords
Extension cords sure are handy, but even they have their electrical limits. Despite the number of outlets available, you should only ever use two extension cord outlets simultaneously.
Never daisy-chain either, which entails plugging in an extension cord into another extension cord to increase your power options. That’s a great way to blow a fuse in your home!
Don’t Modify Plugs
If your plug has three prongs, then it’s only designed for a three-pronged outlet. Removing the bottom prong might allow the plug to fit into a standard two-prong outlet, but at what cost? The electronic won’t work at all since you destroyed the plug.
Upgrade Your Electricity
Although it can be very expensive to get your home’s electrical system rewired, it’s something to consider. Older systems are not built to handle the electrical demand of today’s appliances and electronics. The risk of an electrical fire is much higher the older your system is.
Electrical fires are categorized as Class C fires. Attempting to extinguish a Class C fire with water is dangerous. The fire won’t slow and you could be electrocuted as well.
If you have a Class C fire extinguisher, you can use that on the blaze. Baking soda also works for smaller fires. We’d recommend most of all evacuating and dialing emergency services to get firefighters to the scene right away!