What would you do if you were cooking and suddenly your stove was on fire? Or an unattended candle ignited your armchair?
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Fires inside your home can be a serious hazard. According to the U.S Fire Administration
, in 2008 84% of all fire-related deaths and 81% of injuries were the result of residential structure fires. These stats have convinced me that one of the most important home safety accessories I need to buy is a fire extinguisher
. You can look at a fire extinguisher as another form of insurance that you hope you never have to use.
But even if you never use it, it's important to know how a fire extinguisher works, which type of extinguisher to buy and how to properly use it in the event of a fire.
The ABCs of Fire Extinguishers
Fires are made up of three elements that keep them burning: oxygen
. A fire extinguisher works by removing one or more element from the fire so that it can no longer burn. Some fire extinguishers contain water; others contain carbon dioxide (CO2) or another agent. The agent is pressurized inside of the metal canister and released in an explosive burst to help put out the fire. For a detailed look inside a fire extinguisher check out this helpful article on HowStuffWorks
-- Water extinguishers
are the most common type of fire extinguisher. They're filled with tap water that is pressurized when the extinguisher is activated. You never want to use a water extinguisher on a grease or electrical fire because it has the opposite of the desired effect. Essentially you will make the fire worse, and this could be life-threatening.
-- CO2 extinguishers
contain carbon dioxide, a non-flammable gas that is super-pressurized and great for putting out electrical fires. It's common for bits of dry ice to shoot out when you use these types of extinguishers, so don't be alarmed if that happens!
-- Dry chemical extinguishers
are filled with foam or powder and pressurized with nitrogen. Common agents are sodium bicarbonate, potassium bicarbonate, or monoammonium phosphate. Dry chemical extinguishers are fantastic at putting out most fires, but they will often leave a sticky or corrosive residue behind.
But that begs the question -- which one should you get?
Extinguishers are divided into classes based on what extinguishing agents they contain and what type of fires they are used to extinguish.
These are used for paper, wood, cardboard and most plastics that are on fire.
This class is for flammable liquids like gas, grease or oil.
These are electrical fires from poor wiring, outlets or circuit breaker boxes and appliances.
These are for laboratory fires that involve chemical reactions or combustible metals like magnesium or titanium. These extinguishers aren't necessary for residential fires unless you're moonlighting as a chemist in your basement.
This class is for cooking oil fires and deep fryer fires -- the extinguisher is filled with a special purpose wet chemical agent. You probably won't need one of these at home, either.
If you plan on purchasing just one, the catchall fire extinguisher for households is an ABC fire extinguisher
, which contains monoammonium phosphate and is effective in putting out A, B and C class fires (paper, wood, electrical and liquid fires).
How to Use an ABC Fire Extinguisher
Hopefully you will never have to use a fire extinguisher, but here if you did, would you know how to use one? Follow the steps below to learn how to properly operate a fire extinguisher:
1. Call 911 to report the fire or have someone in your home do so immediately.
2. Remove your fire extinguisher from its mount (if mounted) and pull the safety pin out from the handle.
3. With one hand, aim the hose at the base of the fire, at the distance at which you can feel the heat.
4. Squeeze the handle grip with your other hand.
5. Sweep the hose along the base of the fire, and continue sweeping it until the fire is extinguished or until there is no agent left in the fire extinguisher.
6. Recharge your extinguisher
immediately after use even if you barely used it.
Fire Extinguisher Maintenance
Do a monthly quick check
of your fire extinguisher to make sure it's still in an easy-to-reach location, not covered up by boxes or coats. Clean off any dust or dirt that has collected on the surface. Give it a good once over to be sure none of the parts appear rusty, loose or dented. Also make sure that the safety pin is still intact.
Every few years you should get your extinguisher pressure tested; this is called a hydrostatic test
. Some extinguishers will have a pressure gauge that indicates the pressure levels. Check with your extinguisher's label to see if additional maintenance is required.
Besides investing in a fire extinguisher, you should also consider taking the following 10 safety steps to prevent fires and protect your family in the event of a fire evacuation:
1. Come up with a family evacuation plan
that includes identifying all of the possible exits. Practice this plan together.
2. Invest in an emergency rope ladder
if you have a second story. This way, if you cannot descend the stairs, you can safely escape a fire from the top level.
3. Check your fire alarms often to make sure they're working properly; replace batteries if necessary.
4. Check your electrical wires to make sure they're not entangled and that outlets aren't overloaded.
5. Be sure to use bulbs with the correct wattage in all lamps.
6. Don't leave any food unsupervised while its cooking on the stove. Cooking is the primary cause of household fires
7. Don't leave dishtowels or other flammable materials near open burners.
8. Always keep an eye on candles and never leave a candle burning unsupervised.
9. If you are a smoker, be very careful as smoking is still the leading cause of fire-related deaths in the US
10. Educate your children about not playing with matches, candles, the stove or other risky fire hazards.