Among the types of electrical fires, electrical panel fires can be some of the most concerning and damaging. The National Fire Protection Association reports that fires involving electrical malfunctions or failures contribute to the most deaths and property damage each year, especially from November to February, when the weather becomes colder. Electrical panels and their associated circuit breakers become a fire hazard when they aren’t well-maintained, when they aren’t installed correctly, or when they just plain wear out. As the center of the building’s electrical system, the more an electrical panel is damaged by a fire, the greater the downtime, need for repair and risk to people who are on the premises.
The first step to stop an electrical panel fire is to call 911, even when the fire is small and you think you can put it out. However, there are also other ways to stop an electrical panel fire and minimize the risks it represents before the authorities arrive.
What Should You Never Use to Put Out an Electrical Fire?
You should never use water to put out an electrical fire. Though we do think of water as being able to suppress fire in general, it’s also important to remember that water is a conductor for live electricity. If you use water to put out an electrical fire while the power is live, you run the risk of electrocuting yourself when the water interacts with the electricity.
Another thing to avoid when putting out an electrical fire is any kind of metal nozzle or spout, like a metal sprinkler in the ceiling. Metal also conducts electricity, so using one of these solutions can make the situation worse instead of better.
How to Put Out an Electrical Fire with a Fire Extinguisher
When you are putting out an electrical panel fire with a fire extinguisher, it’s important to use a Class C fire extinguisher. These are extinguishers that have been specifically crafted to put out fires that are drawing on energized electrical equipment. That means the chemicals in the extinguisher won’t harm the electrical components or react with the electricity and harm you.
The safe operation of fire extinguishers is summarized in the PASS acronym:
P—Pull the pin at the top of the fire extinguisher to break the seal.
A—Aim the fire extinguisher from a safe distance.
S—Squeeze the handle(s) to release the extinguishing agent.
S—Sweep the fire extinguisher from side to side to ensure the source of the flames is addressed.
The one drawback to using a fire extinguisher is that it requires a person to both notice the fire when it starts and use the fire extinguisher in a safe and timely fashion. But if the electrical panel fire starts when no one is in the building or when someone can’t get to the fire extinguisher, this solution won’t be viable.
How to Put Out an Electrical Fire Without an Extinguisher
Without a fire extinguisher, you can still target the fire triangle—oxygen, heat, and fuel. A fire can’t continue to burn without all three of these things. In the case of an electrical fire, the heat and fuel are both coming from the power source. That means shutting off the power is one step that might extinguish the flames, but the fire may also keep burning, especially if it takes an individual to locate and turn off the power source.
Another option is to remove the fire’s oxygen by smothering it with a fire blanket. This heavy piece of fabric must cover all the flames to put out the fire. In cases like when the electrical panel is on the wall, this might not be possible. Also, a person will have to deploy the fire blanket which puts them in harm's way.
How Do You Put Out an Electric Panel Fire Before it Can Spread
An ideal solution to an electrical panel fire is to suppress it as close to the time of ignition. When using an automatic fire suppression system, the system is activated by heat or flames and releases a suppression agent to extinguish the fire. When a clean agent fire suppression system is used, the agent will not damage the equipment, is electrically non-conducting, does not leave a residue, and is safe around people.
Electrical fires can start anytime and anywhere there is a connection. Understanding your options when it comes to protecting your electrical panels is key to keeping your employees and business safe.