Whether you live in a big city or a house in the country, you should be equipped to handle a fire in your house. Part of that preparedness includes having a fire extinguisher in your home. But how do you choose one? And what do you need to do to make sure it functions correctly?
Choosing a fire extinguisher for the first time can seem intimidating if you are not familiar with the equipment, but it’s literally as simple as ABC.
Todd Smith, Operations Manager at Maine Fire Equipment Co., said that almost all the fire extinguishers available for homeowners to purchase are “ABC dry chemical.” The letters stand for the classes of fire that the extinguisher can address: A is for fires started by combustibles like wood, paper or trash; B for fires consisting of flammable liquid or gas; and C for fires consisting of electrical items. Other classes include D, fires caused by flammable metal, and K, fires caused by cooking oils and fats.
“Unless a homeowner is running a specialized business from their home, an ABC fire extinguisher will be fine,” Smith said.
Two other letters to look out for are UL, or Underwriter Laboratories. This indicates that the product has been tested and approved for safety and effectiveness by the century-old product safety organization.
Smith said that the most commonly available sizes for portable fire extinguishers are 2.5 and 5 pounds, though there are 10 and 20 pound sizes also available in the ABC type.
“I recommend at least a 5 pound size because that size has a hose on it [instead of] a short nozzle and allows you to better direct the chemical where you want it to go,” he said.
The price will depend on the size and the quality of the fire extinguisher, but Smith said that an extinguisher from a reliable brand like Amerex shouldn’t cost more than $75.
You can also opt for a rechargeable fire extinguisher that can be serviced by a trained technician at your local fire department or fire equipment supply store, which Smith said will save you money in the long run.
Learning how to use your fire extinguisher
Using a fire extinguisher involves four basic steps: pull the pin, aim at the base of the fire, squeeze the handle and sweep side to side until the fire is out. Though it seems simple, knowing even the basics is essential to ensure you don’t do more harm than good with this tool.
“You can do more harm than good with them,” said Joe Thomas, Maine State Fire Marshal. “There is technique to it. If people are going to use them, we simply encourage that they have knowledge of that extinguisher.”
Thomas said to make sure you read the instructions on your fire extinguisher, and suggested contacting your local fire department for assistance and guidance. Some fire departments will even hold events where you can practice using a real fire extinguisher. However, it’s important that you don’t practice with your fire extinguisher before you need it. It’s not meant for testing.
“Once you do you will either have to replace it or have it recharged,” Smith added.
Also, be aware that a fire extinguisher may not always be the easiest option to put out a fire. Thomas used a cooking fire as an example. Though ABC fire extinguishers are appropriate for small kitchen fires — Class K fires are a subset of Class B fires — improper technique can render even a well-suited fire extinguisher ineffective or dangerous.
“Let’s say for example the pan on the stove if you had cooking oil or something that ignited in a skillet or a frying pan,” Thomas said. “If you have a pan that has flaming oil in it that’s ignited on the stove and you aim that extinguisher improperly, you can blast that into the liquid so it flies all over the place. Just as easily as using a fire extinguisher, you can simply put the cover on that pot and smother it.”
Thomas also emphasized that fire extinguishers are only meant to address fires in their beginning stages. In many cases, the best thing to do is to just leave the house for your own safety — for example, in a fire caused by some sort of heating equipment, which is another common type of household fire.
“Usually, those are directly related to some type of combustible that had insufficient clearance from that heating device and consequently became ignited,” Thomas said. “In those types of circumstances the spread of fire is going to happen so quickly, they can be overwhelmed by that fire in no time.”
Instead of trying to extinguish the fire yourself, Thomas said to call the fire department and get out.
When to replace your fire extinguisher
All fire extinguishers have a gauge that will show if the fire extinguisher has sufficient pressure to propel the fire extinguishing material.
“It usually has a set of numbers on it, and in many cases a green area,” Thomas said. “As long as that arrow is within the green area, then the extinguisher can be effective when used.”
Even if you don’t use your fire extinguisher, it might need to be replaced after a certain amount of time in order to be effective.
“I recommend having a home fire extinguisher checked at least every six years,” Smith said. “Similar to your car, even a fire extinguisher needs a tune up every now and again to make sure it will work when you need it to.”
Where to keep your fire extinguisher
Thomas said to keep your fire extinguisher close to the spot where you are most likely to need it.
“Most fires in homes are cooking or heating related,” Thomas said. “I would have it in the kitchen because that’s the most likely hazard.”
However, don’t keep it too close to these hazards.
“When a fire happens, it is our nature to run the other way to an exit,” Smith said. “Remember that when placing a fire extinguisher in your home. If you keep a fire extinguisher next to the stove and the fire is on the stove, will you be able to reach it as easily as you could if it were somewhere else?”
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Other essential fire safety tools for homeowners
A fire extinguisher isn’t the only fire safety tool you should have in the house. Smith said that homeowners with multi-story houses should consider purchasing a fire escape ladder, which are generally available for less than $50.
Smith and Thomas also agreed that the must-have tool that everyone should have in their house for fire safety is a UL-certified smoke detector. Ideally, Smith said that smoke detectors should be in every room of the house, as well common areas like hallways.
“If somebody doesn’t have access to enough, we recommend that they be in areas where they’re going to notify you most likely while you are asleep,” Smith said.
Smith also said that battery-operated smoke detectors with lithium batteries can last for up to ten years.
“The detector is going to be giving you an audible type signal that is different [from] the detector going off for smoke-related reasons [to] indicate to you that you will need to replace the battery,” Thomas said.
And, as with fire extinguishers, knowing how to best utilize the device is essential.
“We encourage people to practice with their devices, especially with smoke detectors,” Thomas said. “Plan your escape from the home [and] practice it.”