Fire Prevention:
Avoid Electrical Problems

Electrical issues are among the leading causes of fire in churches. Yet, they are largely preventable. 

According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), most electrical fires result from problems with "fixed wiring," such as faulty electrical outlets or old wiring. Problems with cords and plugs, such as extension and appliance cords, cause many home electrical fires. The same is true of church fires.

Old Wiring. Yesterday’s building codes are not today’s codes. Many churches, camps, and Christian schools have wiring that does not meet current standards. In some areas, they fall under a grandfather clause and may not be required to be changed. But that old wiring can be a hazard. If you have old wiring, consider a capital project to have it updated. If you are planning to remodel or add on to your building, you may be required to upgrade your entire building to meet code.

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, assistant vice president 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 areas where multiple devices are in high demand, such as an office, a kitchen, or a church sanctuary. Electrical devices that generate heat, like space heaters or hot plates, are particularly problematic.

In today’s high-tech world, it’s easy to overload a system. If you have added to your electrical needs—with new sound or digital equipment, for instance—you need to check your electrical capacity and possibly install an upgrade.

Extension Cords and Temporary Wiring. Extension cords can be a big problem because they’re often overloaded and misused. The USFA says that many avoidable electrical fires can be traced to misuse of electrical cords. Common culprits include overloading circuits, doing poor maintenance and running the cords under rugs or in high-traffic areas.

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.

Temporary wiring or misuse of extension cords is among the top five hazards reported on risk control surveys, according to Brock Bell, senior manager of risk control and estimating for Brotherhood Mutual. 

“Sometimes people use extension cords in place of legitimate wiring,” Bell says. He cites an example of using extension cords to put up a light in the attic. "That's never a good idea."

Extension cords, splitters, or power strips are not a permanent solution. They should be used for hours or days. If you are using them on an ongoing basis, it’s probably time to call in a qualified electrician to evaluate and upgrade your electrical system.

Practice Electrical Safety

  • Regularly check all electrical devices and appliances to be sure they are functioning properly. If a device (including light switches, outlets, and appliances) overheats, shorts out, 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 or hot plates. This includes extension cords, splitters, and power strips when not in use.
  • Chargers create a lot of heat and can malfunction. Don't leave chargers plugged in—that includes chargers for cell phones. Alert your maintenance staff, too, since their tools may require rechargeable batteries. Use a charger properly, then unplug it.
  • Use three-prong plugs only in three-slot outlets. Do not alter three-prong plugs or use adapters to make them fit a two-slot outlet or extension cord.
  • Don’t overload. Avoid having too many devices plugged into a single circuit.
  • Only use commercially rated cords. If you use extension cords, splitters, or power strips, use only commercially rated ones. Make sure the power cord is rated for the equipment you're using or the setting it will be used in (like around oil or extreme temperatures). 
  • Check the circuit breaker panel to be sure all breakers are the proper size for each circuit. If you have an older system with 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 make repairs, don’t do the work yourself. Always call in a professional.

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Updated September 24, 2019