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 discuss the dangers of portable electric space heaters and extension cords.
Time for another reminder about the dangers of portable electric space heaters and extension cords. Read this sad story from Sunday’s News for RVers newsletter below, then let’s discuss what likely happened and how to avoid a similar tragedy.
Crews arrived at the Tillamook Coast RV Park four minutes after receiving a call about a fire. On arrival, they found other RVers hustling away fuel cans from the scene, and trying to hold back the flames with a garden hose. Douglas James Schoniger (40) of Tillamook died in the fire.
Investigators found the cause: A 100’ extension cord was coiled up and lying under a stack of clothing and other combustibles inside the rig. The cord was being used to power an electric space heater, and the heater’s demand far exceeded the ability of the cord. Additionally, there was no working smoke detector in the rig. One investigator noted that he had the power to inspect businesses for hazards like these, and help ensure corrections. In the case of private residences, he can only hope people take care of their own safety.
As I’ve noted many times before, a portable electric space heater produces a huge, continuous load on any outlet it’s plugged into. Now, if the outlet is well maintained and all connections properly tightened it should be safe. However, if you allow the contacts to become oxidized (corroded) or any of the terminating screws to loosen, then there’s a high resistance point created that can easily overheat under load. You’ve probably seen the pictures of burnt outlets I’ve posted here many times.
A recipe for disaster!
But this fire was a little different. It appears to have been caused by a 100-foot lightweight extension cord that the space heater was plugged into, coiled up under a pile of flammable clothing and other combustibles. Also note that there was no working smoke detector in his RV.
This, quite simply, is a recipe for disaster. And indeed, it resulted in the death of Douglas James Schoniger.
Here’s a video I did a few years ago demonstrating how hot an extension cord will get when it passes twice its rated current. In it the insulation temperature reached 190 degrees F in 5 minutes, and would have gotten hot enough to catch on fire in just a few more minutes. An extension cord buried under combustible materials will get even hotter from lack of air flow. So, a few hours of overheating is almost a guarantee that a fire will start under these conditions. Watch the video HERE.
What you need to know to help prevent another tragedy like this one
- NEVER plug any electric space heater into a lightweight or long extension cord. If you do need to use an extension cord, only use a short, heavyweight cord rated for air conditioners (like this one).
- DON’T plug an electric space heater into a power strip. That’s a sure fire hazard.
- ALWAYS keep all flammable materials (clothing, newspapers, etc.) away from all electrical cords and outlets.
- MAKE SURE you have operating smoke and CO detectors in your RV, as well as your bricks and sticks residence.
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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