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5 common causes of electrical fires

There are approximately 24,000 electrical fires per year, per the U.S. Fire Administration

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, between 2014 and 2016, electrical fires accounted for 6.3% of all residential fires, with approximately 24,000 fires being reported each year.

Key facts from the USFA electrical fires report

  • Residential building electrical fires occurred most often in one- and two-family dwellings (83%).
  • Residential building electrical fires occurred most often in the winter month of January (12%) due to increased use of heating appliances and lights.
  • In only 17% of residential building electrical fires, the fire spread was limited to the object where the fire started.
  • Residential building electrical fires most often started in bedrooms (15%) and attics or vacant crawl spaces (13%).
  • Although most electrical fires start in the bedroom, the highest number of fatalities occur with fires located in the living room, family room and den.
  • The leading specific items most often first ignited in residential building electrical fires were electrical wire, cable insulation (31%) and structural member or framing (18%).
  • The leading specific factors contributing to the ignition of residential building electrical fires were other electrical failure, malfunction (43%), unspecified short-circuit arc (23%), and short-circuit arc from defective, worn insulation (11%).

Common causes of electrical fires

When working with members of your community on fire and life safety, it is important to teach the common causes of electrical fires. Here are the 5 most common causes of electrical fires.

Electrical fire cause 1: Faulty outlets, appliances.

Most electrical fires are caused by faulty electrical outlets and old, outdated appliances. Other fires are started by faults in appliance cords, receptacles and switches. Never use an appliance with a worn or frayed cord, which can send heat onto combustible surfaces like floors, curtains, and rugs that can start a fire. Running cords under rugs is another cause of electrical fires. Removing the grounding plug from a cord so it can be used in a two-prong electrical outlet can also cause a fire. The reason appliances have the extra prong is so they can be only used in outlets that can handle the extra amount of electricity that these appliances draw.

Electrical fire cause 2: Light fixtures.

Light fixtures, lamps and light bulbs are another common reason for electrical fires. Installing a bulb with a wattage that is too high for the lamps and light fixtures is a leading cause of electrical fires. Always check the maximum recommended bulb wattage on any lighting fixture or lamp and never go over the recommended amount. Another cause of fire is placing materials like cloth or paper over a lampshade. The material heats up and ignites, causing a fire. Faulty lamps and light fixtures also frequently result in fires.

Electrical fire cause 3: Extension cords.

Misuse of extension cords is another electrical fire cause. Appliances should be plugged directly into outlet and not plugged into an extension cord for any length of time. Only use extension cords as a temporary measure. If you do not have the appropriate type of outlets for your appliances, hire an electrician to install new ones.

Electrical fire cause 4: Space heaters.

Because these types of heaters are portable, many times people put them too close to combustible surfaces such as curtains, beds, clothing, chairs, couches and rugs. Coil space heaters are especially dangerous in this regard because the coils become so hot they will almost instantaneously ignite any nearby flammable surface.

If you do use space heaters, use the radiator-type that diffuse heat over the entire surface of the appliance. These are less likely to ignite flammable items, but should still be kept away from them.

Electrical fire cause 5: Wiring.

Outdated wiring often causes electrical fires. If a home is over 20 years old, it may not have the wiring capacity to handle the increased amounts of electrical appliances in today’s average home, such as computers, wide-screen televisions, video and gaming players, microwaves and air conditioners. Breakers should be triggered when circuits get overloaded by too much electricity, but outdated breaker boxes often have worn connectors that do not work, causing the system to overload and start an electrical fire.

Home Fire Extinguishers & Fire Suppression Blankets
Be prepared for a home fire with an extinguisher or fire blanket to put out small wood, paper, flammable liquids, grease and electrical fires.
Use to fight basic fires common to the home involving trash, wood, paper (Class A), flammable liquids and gases (Class B), and electrical equipment (Class C)
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This article, originally published in October 2011, has been updated with current information.

Rachel Engel is an award-winning journalist and the senior editor of and In addition to her regular editing duties, Engel seeks to tell the heroic, human stories of first responders and the importance of their work. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, and began her career as a freelance writer, focusing on government and military issues. Engel joined Lexipol in 2015 and has since reported on issues related to public safety. Engel lives in Wichita, Kansas. She can be reached via email.