Understanding your outlets to avoid a house fire
Written by Terri Williams
Last updated November 24, 2020
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According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), electrical malfunctions are the second leading cause of residential fires in the U.S. Your electrical outlets can be a source of these fires, if they’re not being used properly.
Now that we’re spending more time at home, most of us are also spending more time in the kitchen. You may be making coffee, while someone else is microwaving a meal, and yet another person is using the toaster oven.
And then, we’re all charging our laptops, tablets and phones, watching TV, and playing video games.
“As many of us continue to work from home, having a reliable productive set up is important,” says Eamon Lynch, director of warranty service at Power Home Remodeling, a full-service exterior home remodeler. “I recommend testing your home’s outlets and electrical current to make sure everything is in working condition.”
Lynch recommends using a hair dryer to help you check your outlets. “Grab your hair dryer, plug it into an outlet you know is functioning properly, and turn it on,” he explains. “Once you’ve determined that your hair dryer works properly, you can then plug it into different outlets in your home to test which ones are working.”
He admits that you could use other small appliances to test your outlets. “However, I like to use a hair dryer because you can quickly hear it and identify any outlets that need to be replaced.”
You can also use a multimeter, but if you have any reservations about how to use it, contact a qualified electrician, since they have the experience and tools to make the right diagnosis.
“Having too many things plugged into your outlets can cause the possibility of overheating or over exposure,” Lynch says. He recommends using a power strip with a built-in interrupter to prevent fires. “Essentially, the strip would automatically shut down if there was an issue with your home’s electric breaker and reduce the likelihood of a spark.”
However, the NFPA warns against using power strips and extension cords with major appliances, such as washers, dryers, refrigerators, stoves, air conditioners, and microwaves. You should plug these items directly into the outlet.
When you’re using appliances that produce heat, such as a space heater, coffee maker, toaster, toaster oven, or air fryer, you should only plug one item into the wall outlet (even though there’s space for two).
Also, never alter or try to force cords into an outlet. If you have a three-prong cord, don’t try to make it fit into a two-slot outlet.
“It’s important to protect your cords and wires from bending too much,” Lynch advises. “This is especially true if you have furniture that pushes up against the plug and the wall, creating a hard bend in the cord.” When wires are pulled tight, he warns that this could lead to exposure and become a fire hazard.
Also, make sure that you’re not running cords under carpets or across doorways. Cords under carpets can get too hot. On the other hand, when you run cords across doorways, they can be stepped on and damaged.
According to the NFPA, there are several warning signs that you may have an electrical problem. For example, if you keep blowing fuses or tripping circuit breakers, you should contact an electrician to investigate.
Just looking at your wall outlets can also alert you to problems. If the outlet or the area of the wall surrounding it is discolored, it could mean there’s an overheating problem. If you touch the wall outlet and it feels warm, that’s another sign to get the outlet checked out. Needless to say, sparks would indicate a problem that requires immediate attention.
However, there are other problems that you may be able to detect aside from observing the outlet. For example, if you touch an appliance and you get a tingling sensation, that’s cause for concern. Another warning sign is either a burning smell or a rubbery smell emitting from the appliance.
Also, if the lights flicker or dim, you should contact an electrician. Another tip with light bulbs: always ensure that you’re using the correct wattage. Some table lamps require a 40-watt bulb. That’s not a suggestion. You shouldn’t use anything with more wattage (like a 60- or 70-watt bulb) because the fixture could overheat.
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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