How to Choose a Fire Extinguisher

how to choose a fire extinguisherA fire extinguisher is an important part of your fire safety plan. All houses, apartments and businesses need at least one fire extinguisher. Some cars and boats may also need a fire extinguisher. It can save lives by catching fires in their inception stage, before they really take hold.

In this article, we outline what you need to know about getting a fire extinguisher for your situation. We outline:

  • What class of fire extinguisher you will need;
  • Where you need fire extinguishers;
  • How to ensure it’s a quality extinguisher;
  • How to ensure your extinguisher is updated and ready at all times.

Important Safety Note: Different jurisdictions have different fire extinguisher requirements. You need to always follow the advice and laws of your local fire authority. This article provides general information only, which may not be relevant to your circumstances. 

How to choose a fire extinguisher

1. Know your Classes of Fire Extinguisher

Bottom Line: ABC fire extinguishers are the most common type of extinguisher, but there are also Class K and Class D extinguishers for special circumstances.

There are many different classes of fire extinguisher – from Class a to K.

Most non-industrial and non-commercial situations require ABC class fire extinguishers. These extinguishers don’t have water in them. They have a dry chemical called monoammonium phosphate. This chemical is a foamy substance that is far more effective at suppressing fires than water. It creates a thick layer over the fire’s fuel, separating the fuel from the oxygen. 

An ABC class fire extinguisher can put out:

  • Class A Fires: This class of fire is a fire that burns on general fuels, like wood, paper, your couch, your coffee table, etc.
  • Class B Fires: This class of fire is a fire that burns on liquids and gasses, such as gasoline and cooking oil. You can’t use water for these fires as water can make the liquids splash and spread. Furthermore, many liquids float on water, so the water’s not great at suppressing the fire.
  • Class C Fires: This class of fire is a fire where the fire’s fuel is electrified. For example, if an electrical appliance has started a fire, there’s a chance that you might get electrocuted. So, you can’t use water on these fires – you need an ABC extinguisher.

The other main types of extinguisher are Class K and Class D extinguishers (in the US rating system).

Class D extinguishers use a ‘dry powder’ substance designed for metal fires. Metals burn at incredibly high temperatures causing even ABC dry chemical to simply evaporate on impact. So, Class D extinguishers have a special dry powder substance designed to crust over the burning metals even at extreme temperatures. This crust forms a layer between the metal and oxygen. This causes the fire to suffocate, and the fire will hopefully cease as it is out of oxygen – one of its important fuels for combustion to occur.

Class K extinguishers use a ‘wet chemical’ substance designed for industrial kitchens. The active chemical in these extinguishers is potassium acetate, which acts on liquids that burn at very high temperatures. While many people mistakenly believe they need a Class K extinguisher for their home kitchen, this is not necessary (check your local authority’s requirements). Instead, most home kitchens are fine with an ABC extinguisher.

Class K fires are not to be used on electrical fires.

2. Ensure it has an Independent UL Rating 

Bottom Line: A UL rating label ensures the extinguisher is high quality. Many jurisdictions use UL as their benchmark for compliance.

Many websites recommend aerosol extinguishers that are not UL rated at ABC class – please don’t follow their advice!

Ensure your extinguisher has a UL rating label attached to it. Preferably, for the home, it should be minimum B:C-5 rated, and you can step up from there all the way up to B:C-80.

A minimum UL rating is often a requirement for commercial extinguishers. Even the US Coastguard uses UL as their certification benchmark for extinguishers on boats.

3. Get the Right Size Extinguisher for your Situation.

Bottom Line: Most jurisdictions require that you have an ABC rated fire extinguisher unless you are an industrial operation or commercial kitchen.

You should have a fire extinguisher in your kitchen and your garage. These are two hot spots for fires. Your jurisdiction may have specific rules about what you need, but here’s what we like (this is not professional advice!)

In the Kitchen: A 5 Pound Kitchen-Rated Fire Extingiusher

Kitchen fires account for a very high proportion of the fires that occur in homes. This is, of course, more commonly the case during 4-8pm when people are cooking.

Most kitchen fires start with cooking accidents. These can include spilling and splashing oils, allowing grease build-up behind stoves, which acts as a fuel for loose sparks, and allowing products to burn unattended in an oven or on a stove.

We like to keep a 5 pound extinguisher in our kitchen. We find that’s the perfect balance between size and portability. A 10 pound extinguisher is just too large and bulky. It will take up space, and might not even fit in your cupboard.

But by contrast, a 2.5 pound extinguisher is quite small.

So the 5 pounders are just about perfect for kitchen use in our opinion. Of course, you should always follow the advice of your local fire authority.

But the big thing to keep in mind is that ABC fire extinguishers aren’t necessarily best for the kitchen. We consulted James*, a firefighter, who explained why:

James (Firefighter Peer Reviewer) Says: “ABC extinguishers are notoriously ineffective on cooking oil fires. YouTube is full of examples showing fire reflash time after time after using an ABC extinguisher on a stovetop fire.”

We pushed James on what he thought would be the best extinguisher for the kitchen, and he gave a response that surprised us. Kidde is not usually the top recommended brand by firefighters, but in this case he made a suggestion:

James Says: “I’m going to go against my grain and recommend the Kidde model RESSP.  This is currently the only kitchen extinguisher on the market certified to the UL 711A standard which covers “use on residential cooking equipment.”  It supposedly has a more diffuse discharge with less potential for splatter of burning oil on a stovetop.”

In your Workshop: A 10 Pound ABC Fire Extinguisher

We keep a 10 pound ABC extinguisher in our downstairs workshop. Here’s where Chris works on the cars and does some welding. So, we like to keep a larger extinguisher down there for tackling rapidly accelerating fires that might be fueled by gasoline.

The main downside of a 10 pound extinguisher is its weight and bulk. But, the workshop is large enough to accommodate a 10 pound extinguisher on a bracket in the corner or in a fire extinguisher cabinet.

In the Car: A 2.5 Pound ABC Fire Extinguisher

We usually recommend a 2.5 pound extinguisher for your car. There is a great range of extinguishers with vehicle mounts designed specifically for cars.

As ABC fires are rated for putting out liquid fires and electrical fires, they’re useful for the sorts of fires that often occur in cars. They can help suppress gasoline fires, for example.

The one time you might want to step up to a 5 pound extinguisher is if you’ve got a large RV. In these instances, you’ll still want a small extinguisher, but if you’ve got enough space (perhaps under a bench), you could step up to the 5 pound range. The important thing for RVs and campers is that you have a good quality mount so it doesn’t go haywire when you’re driving up that windy mountain. 

On a Boat: For Boats under 26 feet, most 5 Pound ABC Fire Extinguishers meet Code

This one’s a little trickier.

If you have a commercial boat, the US Coastguard requires that you keep at least one fire extinguisher on board (more for boats over 26 feet).

The USCG requirements are quite strict. The extinguisher must have an independent UL rating, approved mounting bracket, and clearly visible gauge. You can also be fined if the extinguisher is not easily accessible.

The USCG wants your extinguisher to have at least a 5-B UL rating. If you’re in a larger vessel, you need a 20-B UL rating. And this goes up and up as the vessel gets larger.

Here’s a brief overview of the requirements (valid at time of writing):

Because these requirements are so complicated, we’ve put together a full review of USCG approved fire extinguishers for boats. Check it out for more information.

4. Get a Respected Brand

Bottom Line: Amerex and Ansul are the top fire extinguisher brands. Buckeye also do some great quality products.

The main brands in the fire extinguisher category are:

  • Amerex
  • Ansul
  • Buckeye
  • Badger (James suggested we add this one – see below)
  • First Alert
  • Kidde

We’ve listed them above in order of what we see as the best to worst brand reputation. Amerex are known for producing very high quality extinguishers with quality metal valve components. Ansul and Buckeye also have a strong reputation. While First Alert and Kidde are known brands in the fire safety space, they’re not our go-to brands.

James Says:I think most people in the industry would place Amerex in the top spot, Ansul next (tops in cartridge operated extinguishers, though), Buckeye and Badger about the same, Kidde and First Alert at the bottom.

Some brands have had some problems with recalls in recent years, which makes us steer clear. For the most part Amerex is our choice.

5. Ensure it’s Checked and Updated Regularly

Bottom Line: Check the pressure gauge about once a month and refill your extinguisher if required.

Make sure you get a fire extinguisher with a pressure gauge that is clearly visible from its mount. The pressure gauge will usually have a green section (indicating the extinguisher is full) and a red section (indicating that you need to refill the extinguisher).

Over time, the extinguisher can lose pressure, meaning it will require a service and recharge.

You can usually find someone who will recharge your extinguisher in your city. The local fire department will often have a list of places you can go, or they may even offer the service themselves.

A refill usually costs about half as much as buying a new extinguisher. But keep in mind that you need a rechargeable extinguisher. Some cheap ones with plastic valves are disposable extinguishers, meaning once they’ve been discharged, you need to buy a new one.

If you’re a commercial operation, it may be a legal requirement that you keep a record of regular checks of the extinguisher. Many extinguishers even come with the card that you fill-out every time you do the check.

Most times, the check involves:

  • Seeing if the pressure is still full
  • Ensuring access to the extinguisher is not impeded
  • Ensuring the mounting bracket is stable
  • Ensuring no leaks are visible around the rim

Depending on your jurisdiction, these checks may differ – as will the time intervals between checks. The most common rule is to do a check once per month.  

Final Thoughts

Choosing a fire extinguisher is usually pretty straightforward for a residential property: ensure it’s ABC rated with a UL rating. We go with Amerex for our extinguishers as they have the best brand reputation on the market. If you’re interested in buying an extinguisher, check our full review of the 7 best fire extinguishers for home use.

About The Authors: Hi, we’re Chris and Rosie and we run things around here. We put this website together after doing research on how to get our home safe for fires before the birth of our first baby.