Electrical fires are common in residential spaces, which account for an estimated 50,000 cases each year. Additionally, electrical fires resulted in more than 1,400 injuries, nearly 500 deaths, and more than $1 billion in property damage.


Likewise, electrical fires are common on the commercial side. Approximately 8,000 commercial fires are caused by electrical failure or malfunction, which amounted to $431 million in losses in 2017.

how do electrical fires start

In this post, we’ll discuss the potential causes of electrical fires and how you can prevent electrical fires in homes and workplaces.

What is an Electrical Fire?

Generally, an electrical fire is a result of an electrical problem within electrical components, equipment, and materials. Just like how grease fires involve fires that start with grease, electrical fires start with:

  • Electrical wiring
  • An appliance
  • Circuit breakers
  • Cables or
  • Circuitry


How Do Electrical Fires Start Exactly?

Typically, an electrical fire starts with either a spark or overheating.

A spark

An electrical spark occurs when there’s a gap in the flow of electricity. A transfer of thermal energy from the electrical spark and the presence of oxygen can cause an electrical fire.


Overheating is often the result of an overload in electrical machines, circuit breakers, electrical panels, wires, etc.


Extreme heat can melt insulators that cover the electrical wires. Exposed wires can cause a spark. Also, extremely hot electrical materials may come in contact with a highly-flammable material and start a fire.

Common Causes of Electrical Fires

We rely heavily on electric power in our homes, businesses, and workplaces. We must not assume that there are no issues within our electrical systems because we think they are working properly every day.


Keep in mind that electrical systems always pose a fire risk. Understanding what causes an electrical fire and knowing how to prevent it will reduce your chance of starting a fire.

1. Poor Maintenance

Poor maintenance in an electrical system often leads to an electrical fire. Kinks in the wiring can create electrical resistance within the wire that can lead to overheating. Arcing in electrical panels and other enclosures, frayed electrical cords, and even faulty phone chargers can cause a fire.

2. Old Appliances and Equipment

old appliances causing electrical fires

Aging appliances and equipment cause an astonishing number of fires. Statistics show that 13% of residential fires and 19% of non-residential building fires are the result of electrical malfunctions and faulty equipment or appliances.


Loose or faulty wiring or worn-out cords in old appliances can catch fire. There’s a higher chance that old equipment and appliances may not be up to par with regards to wattage usage, safety regulations, and material quality.


There is another issue about appliances and their link to an electrical fire. Power strips or extension cords do not have the capacity to handle the large amount of energy that multiple appliances require.

3. Worn-Out or Outdated Electrical Wiring

outdated electricalpanel

The old wiring in your home may not have the wiring capacity to support your current power consumption. This is especially true with the addition of electrical appliances in today’s homes such as:

  • Wide-screen televisions
  • Computers
  • Air conditioners
  • Microwaves and
  • Video players


Insulating materials on the wires deteriorate with time. Besides, wires that do not match the required circuit amperage can overheat and become exposed. This eventually leads to a fire.


And since electrical work is often hidden behind the walls, you don’t really know if you have unsafe or old wiring in your home. Remember, faulty wiring is a major fire threat.


And so, you should pay attention to these warning signs such as:

  • Intermittent power outages or flickering lights
  • Frequent overloading in the circuit breaker
  • Electrical equipment and appliances that feel excessively hot
  • Sparks or shocks from faulty outlets or appliances
  • Unexplained burning smell

4. Faulty Electrical Outlets

faulty electrical outlets

Credits: Flickr

Most electrical fires are the result of faulty outlets or worn-out electrical sockets (receptacles) with no proper grounding. Over time, switches and outlets deteriorate as well as the wiring behind them. As the wires are continuously strung, they become loose and could potentially break and start a fire.


Further, most electrical fires are caused by worn-out appliances that draw a lot of power. Units with damaged or frayed cords pose an additional risk if igniting a fire.

5. Defective Light Fixtures

Faulty light fixtures, light bulbs, and lamps also cause an electrical fire. In fact, the leading cause of electrical fires is installing a bulb with a wattage that is too high for light fixtures and lamps to handle.


Also, placing a paper or cloth over a lampshade can cause a fire. When in contact with the hot surface of a lamp, these flammable materials heat up and ignite to cause a fire. Always keep in mind that faulty lamps and light fixtures often lead to residential fires.


6. Improper Placement of Portable Heaters

Practice proper placement of space heaters particularly in the wintertime. Don’t leave them on for an extended period of time especially when you’re leaving the house or sleeping.

portable heater cause electric fires

A fire can start if you place your portable heater near curtains, rugs, couches, beds, etc. Make sure to choose radiator-type space heaters. Radiators diffuse heat over the appliance’s entire surface.

How to Prevent Electrical Fires in Residential and Commercial Spaces

Calling a trained electrician is the best way to prevent electrical fires. A professional residential/commercial electrical contractor can perform electrical inspections, correct your light fixtures, and replace faulty wiring in your home to keep you safe.

How do circuit breakers help prevent electrical fires?

You can think of a circuit breaker as the middleman between the electrical outlet in your wall and the power source. The main function of a circuit breaker is to “trip” or cut off the connection to the source of electricity when there’s a power surge. Circuit breakers will trip immediately every time your outlets get too much electricity.

Electrical Panels and Circuit Breakers


Circuit breakers prevent damage to an electrical circuit by automatically cutting off power from the circuit whenever there’s a:

  • power surge or spike
  • short circuit
  • overloaded circuit and
  • ground fault


Any malfunction in the circuit breaker during a power surge can damage your appliances or can lead to a fire. Thus, make sure to keep your circuit breakers and electrical panels up-to-date to reduce the failure rate.


Here are warning signs that you should replace your electrical circuits:

  • A burning smell in the electrical panel
  • The breaker frequently trips
  • The breaker will not reset
  • Physical damage or old age of the electrical panel or breaker

How to Put Out Fire in an Electrical Panel

Electrical fires are classified as type C or energized electrical fires. By energized, means it involves a power source and may be a result of:

  • A short circuit
  • Overcharged devices or
  • Overloaded electrical outlets


Don’t try to put out class C fires with water, which conducts electricity. Doing so will put you and others in danger. Instead, use a fire extinguisher intended for class C fires. In comparison to automatic fire suppression systems, putting out fires with fire extinguishers means you have to be there when the fire starts.


To put out a fire from an electrical panel, open the panel and point the fire extinguisher’s nozzle into the base of the fire, and release the fire suppression agent.

Tips to Prevent an Electrical Fire at Home

  • Always use heavy-duty extension cords to avoid using undersized ones, which can easily overheat.
  • Extension cords are not intended for long-term use. They are only good for temporary use.
  • Never use any lamp or lighting fixture that goes over the maximum recommended bulb wattage.
  • Call a qualified electrician to install appliance-grade outlets intended for the kinds of appliances you have at home. You might also want to install surge protectors or ground fault circuit interrupters.

Let Us Help You Prevent Electrical Fire in Your Home or Business

Electrical fires pose risks to both homeowners and business owners. The best way in preventing electrical fires is to bring in a professional. Our team at Scott Electric is here to help. Reach out to us today!

Photocredit: Wikimedia