The US Fire Administration notes that of the 24,000 electrical fires that were reported from 2014-2016, 12 percent of them were caused by electrical outlets, leading to approximately 850 injuries, 310 deaths and $871 million in property damage. It’s time to get better about electrical outlet safety for our loved ones and for the homes we build and share.
Know the Risks of Electrical Outlet Fires and Electrocution
The most significant risks connected with electrical outlet failures include:
- Electric Shock
- Electrical Outlet Fires
Safety Upgrade: Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) for Outlets
To really target the dangers of electric shock and electrocution, consider updating outlets to a Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI). Why? GFCI outlets have been designed and implemented specifically to protect people from electric shock. They do this by monitoring the level of electricity flow through the circuit. So, when a plugged-in appliance like a hair dryer or electric shaver falls into a sink of water, the GFCI has been designed to cut the power to the outlet, all for the goal of eliminating shock and electrocution.
Responding to Electrical Outlets Sparking
What should you do if an electric outlet sparks? Here are some important steps to take:
- Shut off power to that outlet at the circuit breaker
- Unplug any devices or appliances connected to the sparking outlet
- Contact a licensed electrician to inspect the outlet
The US Fire Administration also notes that about 2 percent of all residential electrical fires are started by sparks, flames or embers that spread.
The most common causes for electrical outlet sparking include:
- An Outlet Has Been Overloaded – You’ll need to pay attention to the max load for residential circuits. In most cases for modern outlets, 15 or 20 amps (1800 or 2400 watts) is your limit, and even less for older outlets. When you plug in more than the circuit can handle, it can fail, spark and pose significant electrical fire danger.
- Old and Outdated Outlets – If you have an older home, at some point you must pay attention to needed electrical outlet updates. Most significant is switching from the 2-prong outlet to GFCIs or other reliable 3-prong outlets. Until you’ve made the switch, wiring can split, outlet fixtures can become loose and other dangers could cause electrical sparking.
- Water, Keep Out! – This may feel quite obvious, but water in an outlet creates a very dangerous sparking risk. Take caution whenever water gets into close proximity with an electrical outlet.
- A Short Circuit – Outlets can spark when a connection fails, pay attention to short circuiting issues.
- Poor or Lazy Repairs – Faulty outlet repair can cause headaches and added risks for electrical sparking. Make sure the repair is performed with safety as your top priority.
Other Common Electrical Outlet Dangers That Deserve Attention
In most of the cases below, you’ll want to consult an electrician for assistance. Beyond a sparking outlet, there are numerous considerations for electrical outlets. Here are the top contributors to electrical fires and failures:
- Burnt Electrical Outlets – When you notice black or brown marks on an electrical outlet or smell a burning odor, that’s a bad sign and usually means a burnt electrical outlet. Shut off your power at the circuit breaker right away, then call a trained electrician.
- Electrical Outlet Popping Sound – A popping or crackling sound coming from an electrical outlet is another significant fire danger. You’re typically hearing an electric spark. Even if it’s not a continual popping sound, it’s still not a good sign. Take this very seriously, shut off the power and call an electrician.
- Electrical Outlet Buzzing – The buzzing sound you hear usually mean a connection has come loose or that you could have an outlet that has gone bad. If you’re a trained electrician, you might remove the wall plate and attempt to tighten the outlet connections. But quite often you’ll need a repair or replacement of the outlet to get it working safely again.
- Hot Electrical Outlets – With a lot of use, outlets can get slightly warm. Monitor this though. Test the outlet by unplugging your devices, and if it’s still warm after an hour, you’ll want to have it looked at. Too many devices in an outlet, a damaged outlet, extension cord or power strip overload and the use of space heaters and other high-powered devices can also cause dangerously hot outlets.
An Important Reminder About Space Heaters and High-Powered Devices
Do not ever plug a space heater or other very high-powered device into a power strip. It can melt the cord, overheat the outlet and start an electrical fire. Instead, plug these appliances directly into the wall outlet and then monitor the temperature of the outlet. This is especially true when mixing modern space heaters with older residential outlets. When needed, The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) advises to “Use special, heavy duty extension cords for high wattage appliances such as air conditioners, portable electric heaters and freezers.”
Electricity deserves our respect for the power it provides. Do not take for granted the dangers it poses. When in doubt, play it safe by calling in a licensed electrician to get the job done correctly.