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Electrical safety prevents structure fires

Discussion due Jan. 24 in Urbanna

by Tom Chillemi

For most people, electricity is a mysterious force that is taken for granted—until there is a problem.

For master electrician Herb Wyatt of Warner, electricity is a power to be controlled.

In light of the many recent house and structure fires in Middlesex County, some of which were caused by electrical problems, Wyatt will answer questions about electricity during a meeting at the Urbanna Library on Saturday, Jan. 24, at 2 p.m. Call 758-5717 for more information.

Wyatt, who owns Tri-Co Electric Inc., has personally experienced the devastation of fire and seen its deadly consequences in his 45 years as an electrician. 

Electricity should be invisible

“Heat, smell, or noise should never be a result of electricity use,” Wyatt said. “Burning-type odors should never be emitted from such things as switches, receptacles, breakers or fixtures.”

An inexpensive hand-held infrared thermometer can detect heat that could indicate an electrical problem in or near an outlet, switch or breaker panel.
Heat can indicate a problem, he said, and recommends checking for heat from receptacles and switches at least annually. This can be done by the homeowner. It is best done after an appliance that draws a large amount of electricity has been used on the circuit that is being tested. Appliances that work well for this test include a vacuum or toaster oven, both of which draw a lot of electricity. 

After using the appliance, unplug every device on the circuit being checked. 

The heat test can then be done with an infrared “IR” thermometer to check for heat at the receptacle that is higher than the surrounding area. (Extech Instruments’ IR thermometer, model #42505 is available at Lowe’s for about $60.)  

Another method for checking heat is by placing the back of your hand on the plate covering the switch or receptacle, said Wyatt. Only the natural wall temperature should be felt.

When unplugging electrical items after use, always be alert that no heat should be felt on the plug itself. This could be a sign that the receptacle or the plug itself is breaking down. This breakdown causes many fires, said Wyatt.

Heat and noise from fixtures

Caution should always be used when installing the correct wattage light bulb in any fixture. The practice of “over-lamping” with bulbs that draw too much electricity not only can cause fires to occur while the fixture is turned on due to overheating, but may cause permanent heat damage to the wiring in the ceiling above, which can also cause fires after the light fixture is turned off.

When purchasing new ceiling fixtures always select fixtures that have UL approval and have good aeration around any glass that might enclose bulbs.

When turning on a fixture, lamp or panel breaker there should never be a noise other than the normal click caused by the switching action. Immediate attention should be given if any such switching action is accompanied by a buzzing noise, said Wyatt.

Power strips, that allow several devices to be plugged in at one time, should not be overloaded, he stressed.

Testing GFI circuits

Many newer homes wired after 1972 are equipped with Ground Fault Interrupter (GFI) breakers and receptacles, especially in baths and kitchens. “These are truly life-saving devices,” said Wyatt. These devices, however, have electronic components that can be affected by extended usage, surges, lightning strikes, and physical abuse. 

Testing GFI circuits to make sure they “trip” and shut off the electricity can be done either with the test button or with this $8 tester. GFI outlets should be tested monthly and after thunderstorms.
All GFI devices should be tested once a month, and after every major electrical storm, he said. The check can easily be done by homeowners by pushing the “test” button on the receptacle front. The power should go off immediately. Then the receptacle can be reset by pushing the reset button.

Arching problems

The building code requires that homes wired after 2006 be equipped with another life-saving device designed to detect circuits in sleeping areas that may have spikes (arcs) in power being consumed. These “ARC fault protection breakers” were created to decrease the chance of electrical fires.

Electricity can “arc” when there is a faulty connection. It can be due to a loose screw or a wire that is not secure. Low amounts of heat will not trip an electrical breaker at the main panel. However, with an ARC fault protector, electricity will be shut off if there is arcing.

ARC fault protection devices can be installed in the main electrical panel in older residences, and will be required for all new circuits in 2010.

Another “red flag” indicator of problems is lights that flicker for no apparent reason, or lights that are affected by usage of electricity in other areas of the home.

Smoke detectors

Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are not fire prevention devices but they are life-saving devices, said Wyatt. At a minimum, every home should have battery-operated smoke detectors. Battery-operated smoke detectors with 110-volt connections are even better. The best are smoke detectors wired in a series, (if one alarm sounds; all sound), and connected to 110 volts with back-up batteries.

“There are many ways to prevent electrical fires if we work together as a community,” said Wyatt, who is available to speak on electricity safety at meetings of local organizations.

posted 01.14.2009

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