By Mike Sokol
Welcome to my J.A.M. (Just Ask Mike) Session, a weekly column where I answer your basic electrical questions. If you’re a newbie who’s never plugged in a shore power cord (or ask – what’s a shore power cord?), or wonder why your daughter’s hair dryer keeps tripping the circuit breaker, this column is for you. Send your questions to Mike Sokol at mike (at) noshockzone.org with the subject line – JAM. This week I continue to emphasize the safety precautions to follow when you use an electric space heater.
This mobile home fire caused by an electric space heater happened just last week less than a thousand feet from where I live. We saw and heard the fire trucks racing in front of our house, and noticed that they blocked car traffic on my street.
This seemed strange because Funkstown Engine 10 Fire Company is 500 feet down the hill from me, and all kinds of other fire departments seemed to be converging there.
There’s a small mobile home court in Funkstown, and one of the trailers was completely burned out in the middle of the night. The brief version of the report from the Fire Marshal indicates the cause was an electric heater. A further read of the expanded report revealed there was no operational smoke detector in the house trailer. That’s a recipe for disaster.
The single resident in the trailer survived the fire but ended up in the hospital with injuries from smoke inhalation. His dog and two cats were found wandering around the yard. They were rescued by neighbors and are being taken care of until the man can recover and find a new place to live. As you can imagine from the picture, the house trailer and all its contents were a complete loss. So, he lost everything except for his life and the lives of his pets.
Why did the electric space heater cause a fire?
I have a call in to the fire marshal for more information on this particular fire. However, older mobile homes like this one often used aluminum wiring, which can be dangerous if not properly maintained.
And it’s possible he was using a corroded plug on the electric heater. Or it might have been plugged into a worn outlet in the trailer that began to overheat and caused the fire. But in any event, the homeowner didn’t have a working smoke detector in the trailer. He barely made it out with his life.
What can you do to stay safe with an electric space heater?
Never hook up any kind of electric space heater with a power strip. They just don’t have the contact area to be able to withstand the continuous amperage of an electric space heater. If you must extend it, be sure to use a heavy duty extension cord with 12 gauge rated for 15/20 amps. Those skinny orange cords will quickly overheat.
Watch for flammable things
Always keep any electric space heater and its power cord away from anything flammable. Here’s a picture from the Today show a few years ago. They conducted a demonstration that illustrated how a space heater overheated a power strip and caught on fire. That’s scary….
There was another fire in my area two years ago. In that incident newspapers were laying on a string of power strips feeding an electric space heater in the living room. Tragically, both the homeowner and his mother (living in the same house) perished in the fire. And they didn’t have an operational smoke detector either.
Check your outlets, cords and plugs for signs of overheating
If you see any signs of melting or discoloration of your electrical plugs or outlets, then the damage has already been done. By the time there’s any melting you really need to replace the outlet it was plugged into, and probably the plug itself.
if you don’t replace a melted electrical connector immediately you risk starting a fire which may even begin inside the wall of your RV or house. So replace any electrical outlet or plug with signs of overheating ASAP. Don’t put it off until later – that may be too late.
Check those smoke detectors
Check to be sure that the smoke detectors in your house and RV are all operating properly, and replace any batteries when recommended.
If you have additional questions about fire safety, please contact your local fire department, who will be happy to help confirm that your smoke detectors are properly installed and operating, even in your RV. And please check the smoke detector “replace by” date.
For more information about this topic, please read one of my previous articles HERE.
Please stay safe, including when using electric space heaters
OK, everyone. Remember that electricity is a useful and powerful force, so we all need to pay attention to safety precautions while using it.
Let’s play safe out there….
Mike Sokol is an electrical and professional sound expert with 50+ years in the industry. His excellent book RV Electrical Safety is available at Amazon.com. For more info on Mike’s qualifications as an electrical expert, click here.
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