Firefighters push electrical cords to the limit

Tyler Clarke
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Misusing electrical cords in a series of tests earlier this month, Prince Albert Fire Department inspectors exemplified some of the most common ways that electrical fires begin.


Within a week of the tests, inspectors attended a city home where a pinched electrical cord started a small fire the homeowners managed to put out themselves.

“We do see this out there in the public,” inspector Dave Davies said, noting that a handful of basic things can be done to prevent electrical fires.

During their experiment earlier this month at the municipal airport, members of the Prince Albert Fire Department overtaxed an extension cord that was wrapped around itself.

“It’s a very common practice -- coiling up cords so that they look neat, and it looks better and you prevent the trip hazard, but it does generate heat,” Davies said.

Within about 10 minutes the cord was smoking and the plywood underneath was scorched.

Electrical cords, whether overtaxed or used as recommended, heat up to some degree, Davies said, noting that when they’re wrapped around themselves the inner cords have nowhere for the heat to dissipate.

On the topic of heat dissipation, cords should not run under carpets, because if there is a pinch or knot in the wire the combustible carpet pressed up against it might go up in flames.

“If it’s generating heat and that heat isn’t dissipating, something’s absorbing that heat,” Davies explained. “So, when something combustible is absorbing that heat, that heat reaches a combustible level and it will ignite.”

Although other fire department tests with pinched or damaged electrical cords didn’t result in fires, Davies notes that the heat within the wires did increase, creating the potential for fires.

“If you’ve got a damaged cord, throw it out,” he said. “Don’t keep them, don’t tape them -- it’s not going to make it safer.”

It’s a very common practice -- coiling up cords so that they look neat, and it looks better and you prevent the trip hazard, but it does generate heat. Dave Davies

Davies has a handful of other electrical safety tips to divvy out, including keeping an eye out for ULC or CSA logos on electrical appliances.

These logos mean that the devise “has been tested, and our country has higher standards than some others,” Davies said.

Extension cords are temporary use, he said, noting that they’re out in the open and can be easily pinched, causing a weak spot from which a fire hazard can occur.

If you need more plug-ins, or need a plug-in moved, hire an electrician, Davies encourages.

“At least in the wall you can’t step on (a wire) or put a piece of furniture on it,” he said.

Older homes with older electrical systems can also be problematic, he said, noting that older homes weren’t designed for the electrical use of today.

Homes with electrical systems older than about 40 years are of particular concern, he said, noting that they are beyond the recommended lifespan of electrical systems.

Although there’s much more to say about electrical systems and their potential to start fires, if people follow these basic pieces of advice most electrical fires will be prevented, he said.

Check electrical wires and plug-ins on a regular basis to ensure they’re not tangled, pinched or compromised in any way, he said, and don’t scrimp on buying new cords.

“If you’re paying $2 for a power bar, you’re not getting much of a power bar,” he concluded. “If you’re paying $2 for something that should be $20, check it.

“Replace any damaged extension cords. Don’t MacGyver them -- don’t tape them.”

Organizations: Prince Albert Fire Department

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