If you've never inspected your home's electrical wiring, now is the time.
Over 25,000 electrical fires are reported annually in the United States, resulting in death or injury to more than 1,300 people, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Home electrical fires result in greater dollar loss per fire than nonelectrical fires. Even more startling: almost all those fires could have been prevented by taking a few simple steps, including:
If you have an older home, hire a highly rated electrician to inspect the wiring. Electrical wiring is not meant to last forever, so if your home is a century old, it's overdue to be rewired. This is especially true if your home has aluminum wiring, which is more fire-prone than copper wiring. According to the Copper Development Association, all modern homes should have 12 American Wire Gauge (AWG) solid copper wiring installed to meet the demands of today's appliances. If your home has the thinner 14-AWG, hire a reputable, appropriately trained and licensed electrician to inspect and make recommendations.
Electrical plug and electrical cord damage
Faulty wiring is one of the main causes of electrical fires. If you find anything that's frayed, tattered, or worn out, replace it with new wiring. Cords in poor condition can overheat or cause sparks and start a fire. For appliances, you can usually buy replacement cords.
Overburdened electrical outlet
Overloading is a common cause of electrical fires. This happens when you plug too many appliances into the same outlet, extension cord or power strip.
The U.S. Fire Administration recommends buying power strips equipped with internal overload protection. This feature ensues that a strip shuts off as soon as it becomes overloaded.
Keep flammable materials away
Portable electric space heaters are especially dangerous, but don't overlook irons, hair dryers or irons, and even lamps. Any electrical appliance can start a fire if it makes contact with flammable materials, including blankets, towels and rugs. Don't hide cables, especially extension cords, under rugs or carpets. If overheated, they can easily start a fire.
Electrical short and electrical wiring problems
Unless it's something as simple as replacing a cord, fixing shorts and faulty wiring requires the expertise of an electrician. Faulty wiring symptoms include flickering lamps, plugs that spark when you plug something in, breakers that constantly trip, and "buzzing" outlets. All these can cause sparks, which can quickly cause a fire.
While you're at it, make sure to replace or eliminate any wire, connection, extension cord or fuse box that feels warm; warmth in these cases usually indicates a faulty or unsafe wiring connection. It can also mean that too much current is running through the circuits, which could cause an overload and result in a fire.
Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 8, 2013.
Burning odor or sparks
If you notice a burning odor coming from any outlets or switches, turn the power off at the electrical panel. Contact a qualified electrician for appropriate repairs. The problem may be a faulty device, but it could also be a wiring or overload problem.
A burning smell is a serious issue because it could indicate the start of an electrical fire. Receptacles or connected electrical cords that are warm to the touch are also a sign of an electrical problem. Do not use the receptacle until the situation has been repaired.
Occasional sparks when you first plug in an appliance are not unusual. Sparks that are large or happen frequently will indicate a problem with your outlet or the circuit. If you hear a popping sound, it may signal that a wire may be loose.
Locating the loose wire in a circuit isn't always easy. Diagnosing and repairing electrical problems can be tricky, so you'll need to follow safety procedures.