We are local experts in Fire Damage and fire restoration in the York & Yorkshire Coast area, and consequently deal with a many different types of fire including electrical fires. In this guide, we will run through 10 of the most commonly occurring types of electrical fire (some of which are related) and what causes them.
Electrical fires are one of the fire classifications, and are often referred to as ‘Class E Fires’, with the symbol below helping to signify it. As we recently explained in our article about the fire triangle, fires (including electrical fires) need 3 essential elements to exist and thrive. Specifically, heat, fuel and oxygen.
In this guide, you will see how these can potentially be factors in a variety of electrical fires. Let’s go through each of these now, starting with electric appliance fires.
1 – Household Appliance Electrical Fires
First on our list of electrical fires is appliance fires. Although these can be related to some of the other things on this list, they merit their own group, especially as they are a common cause of electrical fires in homes.
Clearly, in this day and age, the number of electrical appliances in homes is very high. In fairly recent history, one of the most well know fires was the very sadly the Grenfell Tower fire which occurred in June 2017.
Although many people associate that fire with the cladding on the building causing the fire to spread, as you can see from this BBC Report on Grenfell or the Wikipedia Grenfell Tower Fire page, a fridge-freezer was suggested as the original cause of the fire.
Other causes of electrical fires from appliances could include:
- Electric cooker fires
- Washing machine fires
- Electric tumble dryer fires
- Dishwasher fires
- Microwave fires
We discuss washing machine fire risks in our recent article about situations where a you might potentially have a Washing Machine Leaking Underneath. Water and electrics are clearly a risk many people are aware of, and we’ll discuss this more later on this list.
2 – Electrical Fires – Old Appliances (and Wear & Tear)
Next on our list of electrical fire causes, and it can be related to the previous point, is fires from old electrical appliances. Old electrical appliances can be a cause of fires, especially as they will likely to have been exposed to more usage in their history of use, possibly leading to increased wear and tear or damage vs newer items.
Plus, it is possible that at the time of manufacture (which could be decades ago) they were not produced under the same set of electrical safety standards that modern devices may have to adhere to. On top of that, in more modern devices, safety mechanisms (such as thermal cut outs for example). Plus they may have been on for 24/7 over many years, especially for refrigerators and freezers which are mostly on constantly.
That is not to say that all older appliances are inherently dangerous, but it is something to be aware of as they can be the cause of electrical fires in homes and businesses, one of the reasons for electrical PAT testing (Portable Appliance Testing) to periodically check on them.
3 – Electrical Overloading and Fires
Third on our list of possible causes of electrical fires are those caused by overloading. When devices, especially those such as multi-socket extension leads, become overloaded and have more power running through them than their safety limits, then there is an increased risk of electrical fire.
This could especially come into play when especially high powered devices are a factor (e.g. electric heaters), those which could be several Kilowatts (KW). Many devices nowadays will display their safety limits to prevent overloading and may have other safety measures, including fuses or surge protection etc to help prevent this.
This can be seen on the two images below:
As you can see the item on the left has a limit of 2400w / 2.4kw fully unwound. The item on the right shows more detail, even showing capacity, spike current and voltage too. All very useful information to be followed.
4 – Electrical Wiring Faults
The 4th item on our list is electrical fires caused by wiring faults. Such faults can be caused by a mistake during installation of the device / wiring or possibly during manufacturing. They can also develop through wear and tear or damage occurring to the items.
This can encompass many possible scenarios, many of which have the potential to cause a fire. This is in part why safety features, testing, RCDs (Residual Current Devices) on electricity fuse boards. A comparable situation to think about is electrical sockets / plugs which (certainly in the UK) have live, earth and neutral wires needing to be in the correct positioning on a plug socket.
Electrical wiring faults can cause sparks (more on that later) or overheating etc.
5 – Electrical Heater Fires
Next on our list of electrical fire causes is electrical heater fires. We’re guessing that you might have expected this to make the list but they are also on for 3 particular reasons:
- Firstly, related to one of our previous sections about overloading, electrical fires can be high powered devices, possibly even several kilowatts of power, which can be higher risk.
- Secondly, the changes in temperature can put additional stresses and strains on the heaters. This may depend on the type too. There are many varieties such as fan heaters, convection heaters, infrared heaters, ceramic heaters, baseboard heaters, space heaters or immersion heaters.
- Thirdly, and finally, there is obviously the risk from the heat they produce itself. As we mentioned earlier, heat is a key part of the fire triangle and can cause nearby items to combust.
Going back to points we made earlier, electrical heaters often have additional safety mechanisms in place in more modern devices that may not have been on older versions. For example, something that is more common on modern devices is tip-over or anti overturn switches which cuts the power if the device topples over.
6 – Extension Lead Fires
Moving on, the next electrical fire is those associated with extension leads, cords and reels. We’ve obviously covered the risks from overloading in section 3 previously but there are additional things to consider when it comes to the fire risks from extension leads, cords and reels.
Firstly, specifically regarding extension reels, and you can see this in the picture we showed earlier their capacity can vary for when it is fully unwound vs fully wound. In the example before the unwound limit is 2400w vs just 720w wound. That is a considerable difference. This is because wound up reels can generate more heat.
The other thing to consider, and again we mentioned this previously, is wear and tear. Extension leads may be moved about, knocked or simply used many times. As we saw earlier, this brings about risks of damage to the device, the cables / extension lead wires (like fraying etc).
Finally, extension lead wires can be linked to tripping / catching etc, this in turn could lead to stresses and strains on the devices attached to them (tugging on the wires) or toppling them over which could be especially problematic with electric heaters. Another example of how these electrical fire risks on this list can be possibly connected to each other, or include more than type.
7 – Electrical Sparks Fires (or Arcing)
Seventh on our list of electrical fires is those caused by electrical sparks or arcing. This could be related to the 4th item on our list (electrical faults) or others we have included. We have included them separately as we are referring to the ignition that can occur from these sparks, especially if they are near flammable materials, gases or liquids in the vicinity.
Remember that, with petrol internal combustion engines, sparks are used to ignite the fuel which causes the combustion and expansion that powers the components of the car. Clearly this is a controlled situation but, in an environment where it is not, there is a risk of an electrical fire caused by sparks.
You can see this demonstrated in this video (do not try this yourself!):
Now on to our next cause of electrical fires, and perhaps something you may not think about!
8 – Electrical Fires Caused by Rodents and Pests
Next on our list of electrical fire causes is rodents (or other pests). This is something we come across when doing water leak detection too, where rats, mice or squirrels can chew through pipes and cause a water leak. This can be common in loft spaces and cause a ceiling leak. The same can happen for electrical wiring too.
As we have covered earlier, damage to electrical wiring can potentially cause fires too. Rodents often chew or gnaw things (including electrical wires). Like we just covered with water leaks, this can be especially a problem in loft spaces where they may try to nest, particular in winter to keep warm.
Loft spaces, or even basements or wall voids may contain wiring, wood, insulation etc which if sparks are in proximity could cause a devastating house fire. If you suspect you have rodents then don’t ignore it, consider get help from a professional pest controller.
9 – Incorrect Installation (or Misuse) Causing Electrical Fires
We have covered this in other parts of this guide, especially section 4, but incorrect installations or misuse of items can cause fires, especially health and safety mistakes. In section 4 we mentioned about electrical wiring fires (at professional installation or manufacturer) but this covers more, including DIY.
Professional electricians who are qualified will understand health and safety measures for electrical installations very well and similarly, professional tradespeople are likely to understand how electrical tools and devices should be used. Clearly, someone attempting DIY installs will most likely not have that knowledge and training and so that can increase risks of electrical fires.
Regarding tools, electrical devices or appliances (as we mentioned earlier) it is always advisable to read and follow the manufacturers safety instructions carefully. This can include things to reduce the fire risk of electrical items.
10 – Faulty Plug Socket Electrical Fires
The final thing on our list of common electrical fires in the UK are those arising from problems with plug sockets. Again this has some things in common with other items on this list but also merits its own section on this list.
For similar reasons to other sections, plug sockets and switches get a lot of use from putting plugs in and out, switching them on and off etc. This can lead to wear and tear. Plus, they can be exposed to dirt, debris and water (especially in kitchens) and that can contribute to increased electrical fire risks.
If your plug sockets are showing signs of wear and tear, are loose, not fitting correctly when putting a plug in or even if they show scorch marks then the safest thing is make so you do not use them and get them checked by a professional electrician at the earliest opportunity.
Electrical Fires – Conclusion
We hope you found our guide to some of the top electrical fire causes useful and informative. As you can see, there are a number of things that can cause them so being aware of these will help with electrical fire prevention in your home or business. Spotting things early could prevent a (what could be devastating) fire in your property.
There are other types of electrical fire that didn’t make the list this time but we will look at more in the future, especially as they grow. For example – lithium electrical battery fires (including electrical car fires).
We come across electrical fires on a regular basis and know how much damage they can cause. It is not just the direct damage that is the issue (the fire damage in the area) but also the secondary damage, especially from soot and smoke which can have a major effect. That can spread to multiple rooms in a property or even neighbouring properties too. See more in our article about air quality sensors and smoke.
If you are unfortunate enough to have an electrical fire, or any other type of fire, then contact us for help. We are fire damage experts operating locally in the York area and will be glad to advise and assist.
Some Other Services Also Offered Locally:
- Asbestos Testing
- Crime Scene Cleaning
- Damp and Mould Surveys
- Flood Damage Services
- Specialist Cleaning Services
We’re experts in dealing with many types of fires, so if you need help with these, contact our friendly team to arrange for help and guidance. We also deal with water leaks in Yorkshire homes and businesses, including water leak detection in York.
At Rainbow Restoration – York & Yorkshire Coast we’re experts in Water Damage Restoration, so if you need help getting your property back to normal after a leak or flood, get in touch with our team.
What happens if you have an electrical fire?
Electrical fires are one of the most common types of fires and can be caused by a number of factors, including electrical faults, overloading, sparks, arcs or even from electrical faults caused by rodents or other pests. Depending on the type of fire, and like other fires, they can spread quickly and cause direct fire damage to a property and additionally, secondary smoke and soot damage too.
What could start an electrical fire?
There are many things that can cause an electrical fire, especially in modern times with the sheer number of electrical appliances, wiring, plugs and adaptors we have in our homes and businesses. Consequently the causes can be many, but some of the more common ones include – faulty wiring, appliance fires, overloaded devices (especially plugs, extension reels and adaptors), electric heater fires and more.