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Could your electrical outlet set your home on fire?

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

Are you playing with fire?

It's probably no secret that your outlet is capable of causing a fire, but the dangers may be higher than you think, especially if you live in an older home.

You may think outlet-related fires only happen around the holidays. But the reality is, according to the crazy-smart boys over at HowStuffWorks, of the 5,300 estimated annual house fires caused by overloaded outlets, fewer than half are during the holidays.

So, if you want to avoid electrical outlet fires, we recommend you know how to prevent them.

Outlet overload

This is one that happens a lot over the holidays, but it's getting more and more common the rest of the year thanks to the proliferation of various mobile devices we all feel we can't live without.

Without getting into the hardcore science of it, you should know that there's no magic number for how many devices you can plug in. Your outlet can run a max amount of amps (usually 120), and you shouldn't use more than 80 percent of that. The aforementioned fellas at HowStuffWorks have the formula and instructions if you want to figure it, but most of us can get away with following these safety instructions.

  • Check all your outlets and make sure none of them have loose-fitting plugs — they can overheat and lead to a fire.
  • Under no circumstances should you ever remove the ground pin (that sometimes annoying little third prong) so it fits into a two-conductor outlet — it could cause you to get electrocuted.
  • Never force a plug into an outlet it doesn't fit into.
  • Don't overload any outlets with too many appliances (things that produce heat, like hair dryers and space heaters).
  • Replace missing and broken wall plates immediately.
  • If you have kids, make sure any outlets that aren't being used have safety covers.
Outlet fire
Photo credit: Juan-Carlos Herrera-Arango/iStock/360/Getty Images

Power strip problems

Just like a regular outlet, a power strip can cause a fire, and most of us have at least one power strip in our home. But all those outlets and the rugged appearance of some of them make many people think they're an excuse to go nuts. Not true, according to Bill Mace of the Seattle Fire Department's public education group. These are just a few of his tips.

  • Choose a power strip that has an internal circuit breaker, which will trip when it's overloaded.
  • Know the capacity of your power strip and only plug in lower-juice items like computers, clocks, printers and scanners — avoid anything that produces heat and large appliances like refrigerators or even coffee makers.
  • Unplug power strips when they're not in use.
  • If your power strip feels hot to the touch, it's time to replace it.
  • Don't daisy-chain power strips (that is, don't plug one into another one).
  • Choose one that's marked UL or ETL — that means they've been tested by an independent agency like the Underwriters Laboratory or the Electrical Testing Laboratories.

Overloaded powerswitch

Photo credit: Sadeugra/E+/Getty Images

Appliance awareness

Some large appliances require special types of outlets. They may have more than three conductors, and those conductors may have strange shapes, like L-shapes. Also, unlike many other things you use, they're plugged in 24-7. For large appliances, follow these safety tips.

  • Use the right kind of cord for your machine, and don't use adapters unless a qualified electrician tells you it's OK.
  • If you have to replace the cord for any reason, skip the clearance bin and go straight to the best stuff they've got.
  • Have appliances professionally installed so they can also be balanced properly and other safety concerns can be checked.

Just because an appliance is small doesn't mean it can't cause a fire. In fact, some are notorious for it. Small appliances include things like space heaters, curling and straightening irons, blow dryers, coffee makers and toasters.

When it comes to these convenient little devices, always read the instruction and warning manuals carefully and follow all precautions. There are some things you should know about how to treat the outlets you plug them into, too.

  • Always unplug them when they aren't in use, and never leave them unattended.
  • For appliances you tend to use in the bathroom or kitchen or in other places where there's the potential for standing water, all outlets should be ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). They'll trip if water comes into contact with electricity in order to prevent dangerous situations.

The inside wire

The best way to keep yourself safe from a fire caused by your outlets or overall electrical system is to have your home inspected by a qualified electrician. But once isn't enough. Have them keep coming back every year or two to recheck your home, and make sure you let the pros do any electrical installations — when it comes to wiring, you could literally be playing with fire.

More safety tips

What you don't know about fire extinguishers could kill you
Scary auto recalls every mom should know about
Tips for outdoor electrical safely

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