Fire-Prevention Series Part Two: Spotlighting Electrical Problems
Electrical issues are among the leading causes of fire in churches. Yet, they are largely preventable.
According to A Factsheet on Home Electrical Fire Prevention from the U.S. Fire Administration, “Most electrical fires result from problems with ‘fixed wiring’ such as faulty electrical outlets and old wiring. Problems with cords and plugs, such as extension and appliance cords, also cause many home electrical fires.” (usfa.dhs.gov) The same is true of church fires.
Old Wiring—Yesterday’s codes are not today’s codes. Many churches have old wiring that is not up to today’s code. In some areas, they fall under a grandfather clause and may not be required to be changed. However, if you are planning to remodel or add-on to your building, you may be required to upgrade your entire building to meet code. In any case, old wiring can be a hazard. If you have old wiring and can afford to do so, have it updated.
The amount of damage from a fire caused by electrical problems can vary greatly. Sometimes, it’s a total loss. “Often the wiring is in the attic,” says Tom Lichtenberger, senior manager of property claims at Brotherhood Mutual. “If a fire starts up there, many times you’re not going to know it until the whole attic is engulfed in flames.”
Overloading—Circuits are designed for certain amperage. Overloading them can cause problems. That’s especially common in the sanctuary, office, and kitchen where multiple devices are in high demand. Electrical devices that generate heat, like heaters, hot plates, etc., are particularly problematic.
In today’s electronic world with so many things that need to be plugged in, it’s easy to overload a system. If you have added to your electrical needs—with new sound equipment or more electrical devices, for instance—you need to check, and possibly upgrade, your electrical capacity.
Extension Cords and Temporary Wiring—Extension cords can be a big problem because they’re often overloaded and misused. According to the U.S. Fire Administration’s factsheet, “Many avoidable electrical fires can be traced to misuse of electrical cords, such as overloading circuits, poor maintenance and running the cords under rugs or in high traffic areas.” (usfa.dhs.gov)
If you use extension cords, use them correctly and only on a temporary basis. Extension cords are rated based on how much current the wire can handle. A good rule of thumb is to ensure that the extension cord is at least as thick as the cord on the appliance. Ideally, extension cords should be unplugged when not in use and before you leave the building.
Even if you have good extension cords, splitters, or power strips, they should be used for hours or days, not permanently. If you are using them on an ongoing basis, it’s probably time to evaluate and upgrade your electrical system. You may need to add more outlets if your circuit can handle it. If your need is permanent, call in a qualified electrician.
According to Brock Bell, senior manager of loss control for Brotherhood Mutual, temporary wiring or misuse of extension cords is among the top five most common hazards reported on loss control surveys.
“Sometimes people use extension cords in place of wiring,” says Peter Kujak, senior property claims adjuster at Brotherhood Mutual. “People run extension cords to put up a light in their attic instead of having someone come and wire it properly.” Never use extension cords in place of a permanent solution. And always call in a professional. Well-meaning volunteers that know a little about electricity can do more harm than good.
Practice Electrical Safety
- Regularly check all electrical devices and appliances to be sure they are functioning properly. If a device (including light switches, outlets, appliances like coffee makers, etc.) overheats, shorts, smokes, sparks, or gives off a shock, replace it immediately.
- Inspect all cords and replace any that are frayed, worn, dried out, or damaged.
- Turn off, and unplug, electrical items (especially any equipment that generates heat like space heaters, hot plates, etc.) including extension cords, splitters, and power strips when not in use.
- Don't leave chargers plugged in (cell phones, cordless drill batteries, camera batteries, etc.) This is common in maintenance areas. Chargers create a lot of heat and can malfunction. Use them properly, then unplug them.
- Use three-prong plugs only in three-slot outlets. Do not alter three-prong plugs or use adaptors to make them fit a two-slot outlet or extension cord.
- Don’t overload. Avoid having too many devices plugged into a single circuit.
- If you use extension cords, splitters, or power strips, use only commercially rated ones. Use them correctly, and only on a temporary basis.
- Check the circuit breaker panel to be sure all breakers are the proper size for each circuit. If you have an older system, a fuse panel, you should start the process of upgrading the electrical system as soon as financially possible. Until then, you should have your system inspected by a qualified electrician to determine any deficiencies.
- With the help of a qualified electrician, regularly evaluate your electrical needs to be sure your system is adequate and safe.
- If you need to add more electrical capacity or need to make repairs, don’t do the work yourself. Always call in a professional.