Electrical Safety

Be Safe at Home with Electricity!

Figures from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) indicate that there were 411 total accidental electrocutions in 2001, 180 of which related to consumer products. Thirty-four of those related to large appliances, such as air conditioners, pumps, water heaters, furnaces and clothes dryers. Another 17 involved ladders contacting overhead power lines.

Seventeen involved small appliances such as microwave ovens, electric fans, extension cords and televisions, 16 involved power tools, 11 involved lighting equipment, 19 involved contact with installed household wiring. Another 34 involved a variety of other products such as sports and recreational equipment, lawn and garden equipment, antennas, pipes, poles and fences.

But that is only part of the story. The CPSC estimates there are more than 140,000 electrical-related home structure fires, which take an average of more than 500 lives, injure more than 5,000 and cause nearly $1.6 billion in property damage annually.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), estimates that every year as many as 15,000 fires in homes in the U.S. begin with fixed wiring. These fires result in more than 100 deaths and 350 injuries annually.

How can consumers help protect themselves?

Consumers should check for problems with their home electrical systems and be ever vigilant for electrical hazards around the home and the workplace, like cracked or fraying cords, overheating cords and wall plates, and the presence of overhead and buried power lines when working outdoors. Check outlets and circuits to be sure they arent overloaded. Make sure to use only the proper wattage light bulbs in light fixtures and lamps. Use extension cords only on a temporary basis, and be sure they are properly rated for their intended use. And always follow appropriate safety precautions and manufacturers instructions on all electrical items.

Consumers also should remember to test their smoke alarms and ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) monthly. Replace smoke detector batteries twice a year. Make sure GFCI protection covers all circuits that come near water sources, such as bathrooms, kitchens and outdoors, and consider it for whole-house coverage. Consider also having arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) installed in your home, particularly older homes.

If you have an old house with old wiring, how do you know if repairs are necessary?

Electrical systems age and deteriorate just like any other man-made product, and as they get older need to be monitored more frequently. As homes grow in their dependence on electricity with the addition of rooms, appliances large and small, and entertainment and computer equipment, electrical systems designed to handle lower electrical demands expected at an earlier point in time can become overburdened and problems can develop.

The CPSC and ESFI recommend electrical inspections for houses that are:

  • More than 40 years old,
  • More than 10 years old that have been renovated or added a major appliance, and
  • Sold to a new owner, providing him or her with a clear understanding of the homes electrical systems capacity, limitations, potential hazards and opportunities.

Eliminate Electrical Safety Threats

Data from CPSC and the NFPA indicate that many electrical fires could be prevented by addressing the top electrical safety hazards. These include fires caused by aging wiring and misuse of surge suppressors and electrocutions from wiring systems and large appliances. Review this information and use it to take steps to eliminate electrical safety hazards in your home, school or workplace.


Arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) detect dangerous arc faults where electricity has to jump a gap and act immediately to shut off the circuit they protect. In that way, AFCIs deprive the hazard the opportunity to start a fire. Circuit breakers and fuses, which respond to short circuits and overloads, do not detect low-energy arcs. These arcs can trigger fire hazards and threaten life when flammable materials such as cloth, paper and wood in walls are present. They often occur behind walls at the connections in residential electrical systems at outlets and switches, or where a nail has nicked an electrical wire. Such hidden electrical fires can spread rapidly, undetected by smoke alarms, and reduce the chances of survival. Arcing is a leading cause of electrical fires in homes, especially those with wiring over 30 years old.

Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) respond to shorts or ground faults. GFCIs — which protect against accidental electric shock or electrocution by acting immediately to shut off the circuit if they sense a ground fault, or leak of current off the circuit — have been in homes since the early 70s on circuits that come within six feet of water. Homeowners, however, should consider having GFCI protection throughout the home, with the exception of circuits that serve major appliances such as air conditioning units, furnaces and heaters, refrigerators, dishwashers and laundry machines. Remember also to test your GFCIs monthly and after every major electrical storm.

Power Cords

We sometimes can get so caught up in the safety awareness of our appliances and lampsthat we forget about the safety principles that relate to its power cord. An appliance can look like its in good operating order and yet still represent a hazard if its cord is damaged.

Extension Cords

Extension cords are temporary solutions only, and yet the majority of homes have at least one extension cord plugged in and left in place. Extension cords should be used only on a temporary basis; they are not intended as permanent household wiring. A heavy reliance on extension cords is an indication that you have too few outlets to address your needs. Have additional outlets installed where you need them. Make sure extension cords are properly rated for their intended use, indoor or outdoor, and meet or exceed the power needs of the appliance or tool being plugged into it.

Power Strips and Surge Protectors

Power strips give us the ability to plug more products into the same outlet, which can be a help but also a hindrance to safety if used inappropriately. Power strips and surge suppressors don’t provide more power to a location, just more access to the same limited capacity of the circuit into which it is connected. The circuit likely also still serves a variety of other outlets and fixtures in addition to the multiple electrical items you might be serving with the power strip.

Be sure you are not overloading the circuit. Know capacity of the circuit and the power requirements of all the electrical items plugged into the power strip and into all the other outlets on the circuit, as well as the light fixtures on the circuit.


The outlet, or receptacle, perhaps is the most commonly used and least-thought-of device in the home. Every electrical appliance, tool, computer and entertainment center component we use is powered through one. We just plug in and forget about it, assuming all our power needs will be met. And that’s true if we follow some simple but important safety principles:

  • Check outlets regularly for problems, including overheating, loose connections, reversed polarity, and corrosion. Consider having an electrical inspection performed by a qualified, licensed electrician to help determine the integrity of your outlets and your entire electrical system.
  • Check for outlets that have loose-fitting plugs, which can lead to arcing and fire.
  • Avoid overloading outlets with too many appliances. Never plug more than one high-wattage appliance in at a time in each.
  • Make sure there are safety covers on all unused outlets that are accessible to children.
  • Check for any hot or discolored outlet wall plates. Look from across the room; sometimes you will see a darkened area in a teardrop shape around and above the outlet that may indicate dangerous heat buildup at the connections.
  • Warm to the touch is okay, hot is not. If an outlet or switch wall plate is hot to the touch, immediately shut off the circuit and have it professionally checked.
  • Replace any missing or broken wall plates.