Bitter Cold Spell Puts Spotlight on Electrical Safety

Courtesy of Andy Banker, Fox 2 News

There’s a new warning about fire dangers with prolonged extreme cold in the forecast for St. Louis.

An overturned space heater likely sparked a deadly garage fire in south St. Louis, according to firefighters.

It was not the kind of call you would necessarily think would end in tragedy. Firefighters responded to a garage fire on South Spring near Osceola just after 10 p.m. Saturday.

Investigators weren’t sure if the man who died fell asleep in the garage before the fire broke out but said there were signs he was trying to make things warm for his pets.

“The individual, according to initial reports, was using an electric space heater in the garage trying to keep his dogs warm,” said St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson.

In December, space heaters sparked a fire that chased a family of seven—including five children ages 6 and under—from their south St. Louis home, according to firefighters. All survived but they lost everything.

With extreme cold, even below zero temperatures expected over the next week, Jenkerson advised people to simply avoid using known fire hazards like space heaters or electric blankets.

If you must, make sure they are tagged with a UL listing; do not plug them into power strips or extension cords; keep them at least three feet away from everything on all sides.

“If you have to use one, keep it in the middle of the room. Only use it if you’re in the room with it. When you leave the room, turn it off,” Jenkerson said.

Jeff Holmes, an electrician with the IBEW training center in St. Louis, advised people to check all cords and outlets for discoloration or fraying, use GFCI outlets if possible, and do not use an overloaded circuit.

The longer the cords, the more heat escapes from the wires, he said.

“Any time you have current flow you have heat. So, you want to make sure you eliminate as much heat as you possibly can. Let all the heat come out of the appliance you’re trying to use for heating the area not the cords and other (things) that go with that,” Holmes said. “The closer you can plug into the outlet itself, the less amount of heat you’re going to draw because of that distance you have a voltage drop then you cause more current to flow, so you want to keep that distance as short as possible.”

Here’s a link for more tips, which include:

• Space Heaters/Electric Blankets — Never use an extension cord for an electrical heating appliance, such as a space heater or an electric blanket. The cord provided with the heating device is properly rated and should be connected directly to the electrical outlet. Inspect your space heater and discard it if it shows deterioration, particularly around the plug-in cord, or it lacks a functioning automatic shut off if tipped over. Watch where you place the space heaters to keep it away from combustible materials. Keep children away from space heaters. Closely inspect electric blankets and heating pads and discard them if you note any potential fire hazard, such as discoloration due to overheating or exposed wiring.
• Extension Cords — Never use an extension cord for an extended time as a permanent or temporary wiring solution. Extension cords aren’t made to be used for long periods of time and can result in electrical fires. When you are using an extension cord, always ensure that the plug has all three prongs. This ensures that your cord will stay properly grounded, which could prevent the cord from overloading. Any extension cords without the third prong should be discarded immediately.
• Outlets — Don’t overload sockets with plugs that could start a fire. Any electrical outlets in your home that are near a water source—sinks, bathtubs, washing machines—require a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) according to the National Electrical Code. A GFCI is a fast-acting circuit breaker that shuts down your electricity as quickly as 1/40 of a second after a fault occurs. If you’re missing a GFCI an electrical professional can easily install one for you.
• Wiring — Visually inspect your home’s service panel and note any potential concerns. Contact a licensed professional if the panel is not firmly attached to the wall or wires are not neatly enclosed within their protective box or if the deterioration is noted. Also, contact a licensed professional if you note wiring connection points are not capped with a wire connector and enclosed within an appropriate UL approved junction box.

If you’re worried about a heater being safe, call the fire department, Jenkerson said.

Firefighters will check them out for you and remember they’ll install free smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, too.

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