Holiday safety tips to avoid electrical dangers

December 23, 2020   By Terri Williams

Holiday safety tips to avoid electrical dangers

The holidays are a festive time and can lead to an increase in energy usage. But if you’re not paying attention to potential issues around your home, it can also be a dangerous time. Electrical dangers are a concern this time of year.

Holiday decorations both indoors and outside increase the electrical load on your home, and some people take shortcuts with outlets and extension cords. For example, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 45 percent of Christmas tree fires involve electrical distribution or lighting equipment.

And since this is also the coldest season of the year, heating appliances are usually blasting all day and night. Heating equipment is one of the leading causes of fires in the U.S.

Here are some of the holiday safety tips that can help you avoid electrical and other dangers.

Heating equipment

Overwhelmingly, space heaters (which would also include wood stoves) account for most fires, property damage, injuries and death, according to the NFPA. Fireplaces or chimneys are the second largest cause of heating equipment fires. More heating-related fires occur in December and January than in any other month.

There are several factors to keep in mind this winter. Having the heat source too close to combustible materials should stay top of mind. Always keep items that can burn at least three feet away from space heaters, furnaces, fireplaces, and wood stoves. That includes holiday stockings and other decorations.

Failing to clean equipment is the most common cause of chimney fires. Unattended equipment is another contributing factor. You should always check to make sure that you never leave anything on or burning when you leave the room.

Mechanical and electrical failures or malfunctions are two other factors that can lead to heating equipment fires. Properly maintaining your devices and outlets is especially important this time of year.

Electrical outlets

During this season, you’re probably trying to plug in all of your lights and wrap holiday lights around your tree. However, according to Josh McCormick, vice president or operations for Mr. Electric, a Neighborly company, you need to know when there’s a problem with your electrical outlets.  

Some of the signs that indicate a possible problem include a faint burning odor, outlets that are warm to the touch, or ones that have blackened or charred marks on them,” McCormick said.

Wiring issues: McCormick continued, “Loose wires, damaged connections or faulty grounds anywhere within your household’s electrical system can cause arcing, leading to smoke and fire.”

And McCormick says that smoke from fires within the wall may escape through outlets. “If you see smoke coming out of an outlet that is not in use, it’s a sign that the problem may be deeper than the wall outlet,” he explained.

If this is the case, McCormick advises turning off the circuit at the breaker box and checking the wall for heat. “Evacuate and call 911, if necessary; do not restore power to the circuit until a licensed electrician has inspected the circuit,” he explained.

Debris inside the outlet:  If there’s dust or dirt inside of the electrical outlet, McCormick says it can cause a short circuit. “A build-up of debris can transfer electricity, causing arcing between negative and positive wirings,” he said. “This creates heat and is a potential fire hazard.”

However, he says you can clean the electrical outlet. Just remember to first turn off the outlet’s circuit in the electrical breaker box. “Once you’re sure that the power supply to the outlet is off, use a screwdriver to remove the outlet cover,” said McCormick.

Then, he explains you can use a vacuum attachment to get the debris out of the outlet box and plugs. After that, you can follow these steps:

  • Wipe the cover with a damp rag.
  • Wipe plug outlets while the power is still off.
  • Do not spray anything near the plugs or get water or cleaning solutions inside the prong holes.
  • Allow everything to dry thoroughly before replacing the outlet covers and restoring power to the circuit.

Overloaded outlets: Some homes may be in danger of being overloaded on a regular basis. Add in a bunch of holiday decorations and this only increases the changes that something could happen.

“Many household circuits are only designed to handle a load of 15 or 20 amps, and if you have several items plugged into the same circuit, the power demand from the combination of devices may exceed the load capacity of the circuit,” McCormick explained.

Typically, he said this will activate the circuit breaker, which shuts down power to the circuit. According to McCormick, “If the circuit breaker doesn’t trip, or if you persist in trying to run too many devices on the circuit, the overload will generate excess heat, leading to smoldering wires, smoke and possibly fire.”

McCormick’s advice: don’t ignore tripped circuits. “If a circuit routinely trips, disconnect a few items and operate them on another circuit or consult with a licensed electrician to upgrade electrical circuits,” he advised.

Loose connections/corrosion: you need a secure connection between the device’s plug and the receptacle for electricity to flow properly. “Sometimes heavy use can cause outlets to become worn, cracked or corroded, affecting the way in which the prongs connect to the receptacle,” he said.

This is problematic because McCormick explains loose connections can cause sparks or arcing.  “The arcing produces heat, which may cause smoke, so if you notice a wiggly plug, the outlet may be damaged and should be replaced,” he explained.

Cooking

Holidays lead to an increase in cooking, and sometimes, hurried or distracted cooking. “The leading cause of home fires and fire injuries is cooking, and ranges or cooktops cause 62% of home fires,” said Brett Brenner, president of the Electrical Safety Foundation International. “Never leave the kitchen while cooking and never cook while sleepy, drinking alcohol, or taking medication that makes you drowsy.”

Brenner also gives these additional tips:

  • Never disable a smoke alarm while cooking.
  • Children should be closely supervised and kept at least three feet away from all cooking appliances.
  • Prevent fires by keeping your oven and stove top clean of grease and dust. Also, clean the exhaust hood and duct over the stove and vacuum refrigerator coils regularly.
  • Keep anything that can catch fire away from your stovetop.
  • Ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) should be installed where electricity and water may come in contact, such as in the kitchen and outdoors, to prevent shock and electrocution.
  • Unplug countertop appliances when not in use and double check that all appliances are off when you finish cooking.
  • Keep appliance cords away from hot surfaces.
  • It’s easy to forget about something that’s cooking, especially when you’re entertaining guests. Use a kitchen timer to make sure your dish doesn’t become a fire hazard.

Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors can be life savers – literally. Remember to always test them regularly.

“Mount smoke alarms high on walls or ceilings, recommended Mark Dawson, COO at Mister Sparky. “It is recommended that one smoke detector be placed on every floor of the home, including basements and attics, as well as in every bedroom of the house.”

And when the batteries start chirping, Dawson warns against taking them out of the detector to avoid the irritating sound. “Instead, immediately replace them; keeping batteries on hand ensures that you don’t forget to replace a detector’s battery after it begins chirping.,” Dawson said.

 

Terri Williams is a freelance journalist with bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Yahoo, the Houston Chronicle, and U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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