There are a ton of safety devices that are preventing you from being shocked, from starting fires, and from destroying expensive equipment. The problem is, no matter how many safety devices we put in the building, something is always going to go wrong. When things go wrong, it’s essential to be prepared for the absolute worst.
Causes of Electrical Fires
The absolute root cause of electrical fires always comes down to energy. The copper wiring carries electricity, electricity is energy. The movement of electricity always creates heat. More electricity means more heat. When things go wrong, there’s too much electricity or not enough insulation to contain the electricity, or some other fault that allows heat to build up or electrical arcs to occur and start a fire.
This can happen any number of ways. There can be an electrical short, perhaps water getting into a non-GFCI bathroom or kitchen outlet. There could be something shoved into a socket that really doesn’t belong there, thanks to an overly curious toddler. There can be corrosion, causing an electrical short. It could even be down to a cheaply made product skipping out on essential internal safeties (this happens more often than most people realize). In all of these cases, there’s going to be a battle on two fronts.
Stopping the Power and the Fire
If you’re not quite thinking straight, you might try to extinguish an electrical fire with water. The common instinct is to smother all fires in water, it works when you’re camping so it’d work here, right? WRONG. With electrical fires, the water might put out the fire, but the electricity is still there, the root problem is still there. The water is just going to help the electricity conduct to either shock you and start another fire or just plan start another fire.
Electrical fires need to be fought on two fronts at once: you need to cut off the power and you need to put out whatever it already lit up. The best thing to have is an ABC Extinguisher. This is an extinguisher rated to work in three areas. An A extinguisher can handle trash, wood, paper and most common fires. A B-rated extinguisher works well against liquids like cooking oil, grease, and gasoline. A C-rated extinguisher is an electrical-insulator that will prevent electricity from conducting. An ABC-Extinguisher contains all of these ratings, which is perfect for any fire and especially for an electrical fire. You’ll stop the flow of power to prevent further ignition and put out just about anything that could be burning.
To actually use your extinguisher:
- Hold the extinguisher upright
- Pull the pin at the top of the extinguisher
- Pull the nozzle up and point it towards the fire
- Squeeze the handle/trigger and cover the area as best as possible
- Attempt to put out the root of the fire
- Shut off the electrical breaker to ensure nothing is able to re-ignite under any circumstances
This is good enough for a small fire if you are confident of your ability to put it out. If there is any shred of doubt what-so-ever, get out. Pull the fire alarm, call the emergency services, get your emploees, coworkers, and customers out, and let the guys with the million dollar trucks and hundred hour training courses take care of the problem. It is always preferred that everyone get out over someone needlessly dying to save a building. We can always rebuild.
At larger scales, electrical fires pose a more challenging problem. Most fire safety equipment will not immediately detect a problem, it has to develop at least a little bit before anything is triggered. This is where the safety equipment might actually kill you.
Industrial environments, for example server farms that run the internet, use an extinguisher-gas system. The most famous example would be Halon 1301, which is no longer in production. These systems will smother out fires with non-conductive gasses. In general, there only needs to be a 10-20% concentration of a extinguishing gas to put out most fires. In practice, some automated systems can actually displace every ounce of air in a room to prevent any fire from surviving and neutralize the electrical problem.
If you are in an industrial setting, pay attention to any signs warning about the fire safety system. If you see a fire, just get out, pull the alarm, and wait for a very expensive system to do its job.