Fire Safety

Is My Old Wiring Safe? Will My House Burn Down?

Jesse Kuhlman Uncategorized

Before we get into these questions, let’s take a look at some facts about electrical fires. I’m going to be using some facts published from a FEMA U.S. Fire Administration article, using data from years 2014-2016.

  • An estimated 24,000 residential building fires were reported each year.  Totaling 310 deaths, 850 injuries and $871 million in property loss
  • Residential electrical fires occurred most often in one and two family dwellings (83%).
  • The fires most often started in bedrooms (15%), followed by attics or vacant crawl spaces (13%).
  • The leading specific item first ignited in residential building electrical fires were electrical wire, cable insulation (31%). Followed by structural framing members (18%).
  • The specific factor contributing to ignition were electrical failure, malfunction (43%), unspecified short circuit arc (23%).

This can all sound pretty scary, I agree. But let’s put some context to the numbers, particularly the total amount of fires.

In 2016 there were roughly 135 million residential units in the United States. If we compare the total amount of electrical fires in 2016 (24,000) to the total residential units (135,000,000), it comes out to roughly .0002.  This means .02% of homes had an electrical fire in 2016. Let’s look at it another way, 99.98% of homes did not catch fire from an electrical fire in 2016.

Yes that is a very small amount, and chances are your home will not catch fire from an electrical issue.  Are there things within your home that could put you more at risk and increase the likelihood? Yes! Let’s take a look at some of those things.

Limiting Risk

Here are some tips to help prevent an electrical fire.

  • Unplug appliances when not in use. I’ve personally seen melted cords on toaster ovens a few times in my career from the toaster being pushed against the backsplash, trapping the cord and causing it to melt.
  • Extension cords should only be used for a short amount of time!  If you must use an extension cord, purchase one that is proper thickness (gauge) for the electrical load being used. Do you know how many times I’ve been in homes with a tiny gauge extension cord (meant for a lamp!) connecting to a garage door opener? When the opener was installed there was no outlet, so someone rigged an outlet to a nearby light using a screw in outlet and wah lah!  Also, don’t run extension cords under carpets.
  • Update your electrical system.  Let’s use some common sense here; do we think the electrical system installed in 1895 is as safe as the system installed in 2020?
  • Watch for worn power strips. If the outlets are worn out and feel loose when plugging an item in and out, it is time to replace them.
  •  Similar to power strips, watch for worn wall outlets (receptacles) If they feel loose, have them replaced.  Receptacles rely on pressure to make a good connection to a plug end.  If they are worn / loose, that connection is no longer adequate and can lead to overheating at the connection point. 
  • If you have arc-fault circuit breakers, test them monthly. These breakers can detect electrical arcs and trip before a fire starts.  These breakers will have a test button. Simply press the test button which will trip the circuit breaker into its middle position.  Reset the breaker by turning it to the OFF position, then to the ON position.  If you have these breakers, there should be a label on your panel explaining how to do this.

Will my house burn down?

We have many skills here at KES, being able to see into the future is not one of them.  Customers ask whether their home will burn down quite a bit, and I get their anxious about having older wiring.  We cannot give an answer; all we can do is report back on the condition of the wiring.  With that information, the homeowner is left deciding whether it’s time to replace it or not.

OKAY I get it, you can’t predict the future, but is my wiring safe?

The two most common styles of old wiring we deal with are knob and tube wiring and BX wiring.  Our website has quite a bit of information on each wiring style which I recommend you read if you have either. 

Some homes will have BX/Knob and tube wiring and it will be perfectly well preserved.  In these cases, yes I would classify the wiring as being “safe”. 

In other homes it will be a mess.  I’ve seen long runs of knob and tube wiring in attics with all the insulation eaten off the wire, leaving completely bare wire.  I’ve also seen many homes with BX wiring in light boxes that was overheating for years due to over wattage light bulbs.  The wire insulation when touched would disintegrate.  In both of these cases I would say the wiring is “not safe”.

Again, we can report these facts back to you, from there you are left with the choice; is it time to replace this old wiring, or leave it for now?

How about smoke detectors?

As you may already know, we specialize in rewiring older homes. We perform multiple rewire jobs a week all across Massachusetts.  Many homes we rewire do not have hard wired smoke detector systems.  And guess what? Most owners DO NOT want to have a hard wired smoke detector system installed.

I don’t have hard data on this as it’s not something we have been tracking. But I’m going to say only 1 out of every 25 rewire jobs we handle, customers opt to have a hard-wired smoke detector system installed.

I’ve always found this interesting. Many customers will be concerned about the safety of an old wiring style and will spend thousands, sometimes tens of thousands on rewiring their home, but won’t spend a little bit more for a smoke detector system.  If you are spending 10K or more to rewire a home, the hardwired smoke detector system is a fraction of the rewire cost.  The hard truth is most customers will put saving money over added safety.

Hard wired smoke detector systems are EARLY warning systems.  In most cases, you will be alerted to a potential fire before it is too late allowing the critical time needed to escape.

Here are some interesting facts related to home fires and smoke detectors taken from a NFPA article:

  • Smoke alarms sounded in 53% of home fires
  • 27% of homes had no smoke alarms
  • 8% of homes had smoke detectors, but they did not operate
  • Three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms (38%) or non-working smoke alarms (21%)

Hard wired smoke detectors vs battery powered. 

I found these statistics fascinating while researching this blog article.

In reported home fires WITH smoke alarms:

  • 46% of alarms were battery only
  • 67% of home fire deaths were in homes with smoke alarms powered by batteries only
  • Hard wired smoke alarms operated 94% of the time (in fires large enough to activate them)
  • Battery smoke alarms operated in 80% of fires (in fires large enough to activate them)

Reasons smoke alarms did not operate:

  • 46% of smoke alarms had missing or disconnected batteries
  • Dead batteries caused 24% of smoke alarm failures
  • Only 7% of failures were due to hardwired power source problem, including disconnected smoke alarms, shut offs and power outage.

Okay, okay, enough statistics, what does it all mean?

The above statistics say that hard wired smoke detectors are by far the most reliable system available. It also says that working smoke detectors save lives!

A hard wired smoke detector system will be (if installed properly) interconnected.  This means that if the detector in your basement goes off, the one in your bedroom will as well.  The vast majority of battery powered smoke detectors do not have an interconnect system.  If that same detector in your basement goes off, no other detector in the home will sound. You will have to be close enough to hear the basement detector to be alerted to a potential issue.

What is the current status of your smoke alarm system? It might be the time to take a closer look!