Electrical fires are common in both commercial and residential settings. According to data from Electrical Safety Foundation International, more than 50,000 home electrical fires occur annually with nearly 500 deaths and over 1,400 injuries. The property damage for residential is over $1 billion. On the commercial side, according to the U.S. Fire Administration 8,200 fires occurred from electrical malfunction, totally $431 million in losses in 2017. With electrical fires becoming increasingly common, residences and commercial businesses need to take action.

What is an electrical fire?

A failure or malfunction within the electrical components of equipment or machinery can cause electrical fires. Electrical fires originate in electric wires, cables, circuit breakers, and within electrical components. Fires start in electrical panels from overloaded circuits or age of the panel. The panel and circuits become overloaded when the distribution of electricity is inadequate. Occasionally, lighting equipment acts as a source of heat that is too close to easily combustible materials.

Common causes of electrical fires

In 2018, our global consumption of energy was 62 billion kWh per day. We rely heavily on electricity to power our businesses, homes, and, for a growing number, our cars. Don't assume your electrical systems are functioning properly because they work on a day-to-day basis with no issues. Electrical systems pose an ongoing fire risk. Understanding common causes of electrical fires and following preventive measures to maintain your electrical systems will mitigate your chance of a fire.

Poor maintenance

Poor maintenance is the leading cause of electrical fires. Performing regular maintenance on electrical panels will reduce the risk of fire. Maintenance includes removing dirt and dust and inspecting and replacing faulty circuit breakers. Kinks in wiring cause electrical resistance within the wire, which creates heat and could cause an electrical fire. Arcing can lead to a fire and occurs in electrical panels and enclosures, frayed wires and extension cords, and even in damaged phone chargers.

Old equipment and appliances

Aging equipment and appliances cause a staggering number of electrical fires. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 19% of non-residential building fires and 13% of residential fires are due to equipment, appliance, or electrical malfunctions. Replacing outdated and faulty circuits within electrical panels, equipment and appliances reduce your fire risk.

Not keeping up with safety codes

With the demand for electricity on the rise, it is important to stay up-to-date with safety codes. Old wiring that does not support the current demand is common in old homes and older commercial spaces. Wiring with deteriorating coating or wires can easily arc and start a fire, especially if the wire does not match the circuit amperage. The higher the amperage rating of the circuit, the larger the wires need to be in order to avoid excess heat that can melt wires and cause fires. If an arc flash does occur, it can reach temperatures up to 1,000 degrees. The wire coating is only able to withstand around 200 degrees. Making sure wiring matches the circuit amperage and is free of imperfections is an easy way to prevent electrical fires.

Electrical panels and circuit breakers

A circuit breaker protects an electrical circuit from damage by automatically shutting off power to the circuit. Breakers trip because of overloaded circuits, power surges or spikes, a short circuit, and ground fault. If the circuit breaker fails, it can damage appliances or equipment on the circuit or lead to a fire. Keeping your electrical panel and circuit breakers up-to-date reduces the failure rate. Some of the warning signs that you need to replace circuits is a burning smell in the electrical panel, the breakers trip frequently or will not stay reset, physical damage, and old age. 

How to put out an electrical panel fire 

There are several classes of fires, and electrical fires fall under the Class C category. In the case of a fire occurring in an electrical panel, do not try putting it out with water. Trying to put out the fire with water will only worsen the situation and puts you and others in more danger. Water conducts electricity, and dumping water on or near a power source can give you a severe electrical shock. It might even make the fire worse.

Two options to put out an electrical panel fire is a handheld fire extinguisher or an automatic fire suppression system. If using a fire extinguisher, make sure it has a rating to extinguish Class C fires. The drawback of using a fire extinguisher is that a person must be present when the fire starts. A person will need to grab the fire extinguisher, open the electrical panel, and release the fire suppression agent from the extinguisher.  

For 24/7 protection for an electrical panel, an automatic fire suppression system is the ideal choice. The pneumatic fire detection tubing is routed through the electrical panel and connects to a cylinder that contains the fire suppression agent. In the event of a fire, the tubing will burst and deploy the agent to suppress the fire. For electrical panels, we recommend using a clean agent. The clean agent leaves no residue and is not harmful to people. It is nonconductive and noncorrosive and will not damage the electrical panel.

As a residential homeowner or commercial business owner, electrical fires pose a real threat. Unfortunately, they are a common occurrence. You should keep this in mind when installing or upgrading your electrical system and when performing general maintenance. Taking preventative measures will reduce the risk of a fire in an electrical panel.

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