Last week, my cousin Roger’s house caught fire. No one was home at the time, so fortunately no one was injured — but most of the top floor was destroyed and many of the family’s belongings burned or damaged by smoke and water.

This fire serves as a timely warning about some all-too-common fire hazards in the home.

It was an old house, and the electrical wiring had not been upgraded to modern building standards. The fire started spontaneoulsy in the bedroom of the teenaged son.

As near as the fire investigators have been able to determine, some of the wires overheated and caused a hot spot inside the wall. With the passage of a couple of hours, the insulation and studs near the faulty wires became hot enough to ignite. That’s all it took.

Two possible causes are being considered.

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One, it is possible that mice, seeking a warm home for the winter, chewed through the insulation protecting some of the wires and caused an electrical short inside the wall, producing sparks which could have been enough to start the fire.

The other possibility — and the one that the insurance people are considering most seriously — is that a circuit was overloaded and that an excessive draw on that one circuit caused the wires to overheat. Since the point of ignition was in a teenager’s bedroom, they immediately asked young Jason about how many appliances and electronic gadgets were plugged into outlets in that room, and about any use of extension cords and multi-outlet power bars.

According to “Electrical Fires: Prevention and Extinguishing,” a Maine Farm Safety Fact Sheet published in the National Ag Safety Database:

Overloading circuits by hooking on more electrical devices than they are designed to handle is a typical problem. Do not overload circuits. Dimmed lights, reduced output from heaters and poor television pictures are all symptoms of an overloaded circuit. Add up the wattage of electrical devices and lights on each circuit. Keep the total load at any one time safely below maximum capacity. When using a high wattage device such as a heater, iron or power tool, switch off all unnecessary lights an devices. Try to connect into a circuit with little electrical power demand.

It is hazardous to overload electrical circuits by using extension cords and multi-plug outlets. Use extension cords only when necessary and make sure they are heavy enough for the job. Avoid creating an octopus by inserting several plugs into a multi-plug outlet connected to a single wall outlet.

If a fuse blows or circuit breaker trips repeatedly while in normal use (not overloaded), check for shorts and other faults in the line or devices. Do not resume use until the trouble is fixed.

While electrical fires are most common in older homes with outdated wiring, it is a tragedy that can happen anywhere. And the more reliant we all become on electricity use, the greater the risk of a fire due to circuit overloading.

More information on preventing fires and accidents due to electrical hazards in your home is available from US Fire Administration, a one-stop information resource on the Internet for residential fire safety and prevention information distributed by the U.S. federal government.

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