6 Top Causes of Electrical Fires (With Official Statistics)

Electrical fires are one of the most common household fires in the United States today. Fire fighters in the United States respond to an average of 44,880 home fires caused by electrical failure every year. These fires lead to an average of 440 deaths per year and $1.3 billion in damages.

The NFPA recently released an official report on electrical fires and their causes in the USA. This article summarizes and analyzes some of those key findings, including some of the latest available figures on causes of electrical fires in the United States.

Most Common Causes of Electrical Fires

The 6 most common causes of electrical fires are:

  1. Household Wiring, Lighting and Power Cords (50%)
  2. Cooking Equipment (15%)
  3. Heating Equipment (9%)
  4. Fans (6%)
  5. Air Conditioners (3%)
  6. Clothes Dryers (3%)

(Note that some electrical fires had ‘other’ unattributed causes, which is why these figures do not add up to 100%).

1. Household Wiring, Lighting and Power Cords (50%)

The overwhelming number of electrical fires are caused by wires that carry power around the home. In fact, if we dig deeper into these figures, 67% of the fires in this first category are related directly to issues with electrical wiring (so that’s about 33% of all home electrical fires being caused by wiring issues.

The takeaway? Make sure you use a professional certified electrician to do your home wiring!

Other electrical items that fit into this category include lamps, bulbs, plugs, cords, and transformers.

Overloaded power boards, for example, are a serious problem –  over 5,300 house fires are caused each year due to overloaded power boards! Make sure you only use the allocated number of outlets on a power board and never stack power boards.

According to Countryside Fire Protection, some good electrical safety tips include:

  • Replace old cords on electrical devices, particularly if you can see that they are frayed or loose.
  • Only use one high-wattage device per power board.
  • Avoid “cube taps”. These are devices that allow you to plug multiple devices into the one outlet.
  • Get a qualified electrician to install more power outlet so you can minimize the use of extension cords.
  • Read manufacturer instructions on how to connect devices to power outlets.

2. Cooking Equipment (15%)

Kitchen fires account for over 50% of all household fires, but not all of these fires are electrical fires. In fact, many kitchen fires are attributed to burning food and oil spills.

Electrical fires involving kitchen appliances account for just 15% of all electrical-type fires that occur in homes. These fires can be caused by faulty toasters, faulty electrical stoves, and other faulty appliances.

When electrical wires in kitchen equipment wear thin, they can start causing sparks which – when exposed to cooking supplies like vegetable oil – can lead to deadly outcomes.

3. Heating Equipment (9%)

Heating equipment causes 9% of all electrical house fires in the US. This can include equipment such as space heaters, boilers, and ducted heating.

Space heaters are particularly dangerous. People often leave their clothes on the heaters to dry, and these clothes can catch fire very quickly. Drying your clothes on a space heater is a terrible idea!

Heat is one of the three factors required for a fire to start (the other two being fuel and oxygen – we call this the ‘fire triangle‘).

4. Fans (6%)

Fans are a surprisingly big safety hazard when it comes to electrical fires. A stalled motor, frayed power cord insulation, and poor switch endurance can all lead to fan fires.

One possible reason that fans are such a fire hazard is that they are often left on unattended on hot nights, meaning people do not have time to respond to issues until they have led to a fire.

Another reason fans cause fires may be that many fans and exhaust systems accumulate lint over time. Lint can act as kindling and be the catalyst for turning an electrical spark into a self-sustaining fire.

5. Air Conditioners (3%)

Air conditioners similarly have the issue of build-up of dust and lint inside their ducts. This kindling is a huge fire hazard, and should be cleared out on a very regular basis.

But other things that may lead to an air conditioner fire include the build up of flammable materials near an air conditioner – such as leaves or trash. Furthermore, faulty parts may lead to an electrical fire within the unit. Keeping units well maintained and up to date is imperative.

6. Clothes Dryers (3%)

According to the US Fire Administration, firefighters are called out to an average of 2,900 fires involving clothes dryers each year. Additionally, these fires cause 5 deaths and 100 injuries per year.

The first thing to catch alight during a clothes dryer fire is most commonly dust, fiber and lint (28%) followed closely by loose clothing that is not being worn by anyone (27%).

The US Fire Administration also notes that failure to clean the dryer can be attributed to 34% of clothes dryer fires. Here are their key recommendations:

  • All clothes dryers should have a well fitted, functioning lint filter.
  • Objects and clothes containing foam, rubber and plastic should not be placed in a fire.
  • Do not place clothes that have come in contact with alcohol, cooking oils, gasoline, or other flammable objects in the clothes dryer.
  • Do not leave a clothes dryer running when you’re sleeping or if you have left the home.

The peak month for clothes dryer fires is January – perhaps because this is a cold month where people are less likely to use an outdoor clothes line. It’s a good idea to clean your clothes dryer regularly – and particularly in January!

Additional Interesting Facts

The NFPA report also reveals some other interesting details. These include:

Fires are Most Deadly at Night

11% of all electrical fires in homes occur between the hours of 12am and 4am. However, these fires cause 34% of all civilian deaths attributable to electrical fires. Clearly, this is a deadly time of day because the fires can start to spread unnoticed by sleeping residents. Smoke detectors are one way to help mitigate this risk.

Dinner Time is a Common time for Fires

24% of electrical fires in the home occur between 4pm and 8pm. This is a time when a lot of electrical equipment is in use, including electrical equipment in the kitchen.

Dinner time fires are less deadly than night time fires. While the above figure shows fires between 12am and 4pm cause 34% of deaths, fires between 4pm and 8pm cause 11% of deaths.

January is a Deadly Month

January is the middle of winter. It’s a time when we are using a lot of heating equipment. Correspondingly, it’s a month when a lot of deaths occur. According to NFPA, 16% of all civilian deaths attributable to electrical fires in the home occur in January. The second most deadly month is December, with 12% of all electrical fire deaths.

Video: Avoiding Electrical Fires

Final Thoughts

Electrical fires are incredibly deadly types of fires. To be prepared for an electrical fire, you should follow the instructions of your local fire department. All fire extinguishers in the home should be Class C fire compatible. A Class C fire is an electrical fire.

Something to keep in mind is that water is an electrical conduit, so is not a great tool for putting out fires. Class C fire extinguishers do not contain water, which makes them best for putting out fires. Another way of smothering a fire without the use of fire is through the use of a fire blanket.