Fire Extinguishers 101
While there are many things you can do to prevent fires from occurring in your home, it's a good idea to have a fire extinguisher on hand should one occur.
Types of Fire Extinguishers
Fire extinguishers are labeled with standard symbols, pictures, and letters for the classes of fires they can put out. Home fire extinguishers are divided into 3 categories, based on different types of fires:
- Class A extinguishers are used for ordinary combustibles such as wood, rubber, cloth, plastic, and paper. The Class A label is in a triangle symbol on the extinguisher.
- Class B extinguishers are used for flammable liquid fires such as oil, gasoline, paints, lacquers, grease, and solvents. The Class B label is in a square symbol on the extinguisher.
- Class C extinguishers are used for electrical fires such as in wiring, fuse boxes, energized electrical equipment, and other electrical sources. A Class C label is in a circle symbol on the extinguisher.
Multipurpose fire extinguishers, labeled ABC, may be used on all three classes of fire, and are the most commonly recommended type to have around the house. Be sure your extinguisher label indicates it has been approved by an independent testing laboratory such as the Underwriters Laboratory (UL).
A red slash through any of the symbols means the extinguisher cannot be used on that class of fire. A missing symbol tells you only that the extinguisher has not been tested for that class of fire. If you are using the wrong type of extinguisher, you can endanger yourself and even make the fire worse.
In addition to the symbols, some newer extinguishers use small pictures that show the type of fire on which the extinguisher is effective.
You may need more than one fire extinguisher in your home. For example, you may want an extinguisher in the kitchen as well as one in the garage or workshop.
Fire extinguishers also have a numerical rating that serves as a guide for the amount of fire the extinguisher can handle. The higher the rating number, the more fire it can put out, but also the heavier the extinguisher is.
For Class A fires, a "1" would stand for 1-1/4 gal. of water, a "2" would represent 2-1/2 gal., a "3" would be 3-3/4 gal. of water, and so on.
For Class B and Class C fires, the number represents square feet. For example, "2" would be 2 ft2, "5" is 5 ft2, and so on.
As a rule, most fire experts recommend you have at least 1 extinguisher in your home with a 2-A:10-B:C rating. That means it will put out a Class A fire that would otherwise require 2-1/2 gal. of water; that it should put out a 10 ft2 Class B fire when used by a novice firefighter; and that it works on electrical fires.
Disposable or Rechargeable
Disposable extinguishers, which run $10–$20, are typically made of plastic and lose pressure after about 10–12 years and must be discarded. Disposable extinguishers can only be used once, and must be replaced after use.
Rechargeable models, which run about $50, can be refilled and pressurized after use and if they lose pressure. They're usually made of heavier, more durable materials, with metal head and discharge parts instead of the plastic found in most disposables. They should be serviced annually by a certified technician for pressure and defects.
When to Fight a Fire
Fight a fire with a fire extinguisher only when all of the following are true:
- Everyone has left or is leaving the house.
- The fire department has been called.
- The fire is small and confined to a small area and is not spreading.
- You can fight the fire with your back to a safe escape route.
- Your extinguisher is rated for the type of fire you are fighting and is in good working order.
- You are informed about use of the extinguisher and are confident that you can operate it effectively.
How to Use a Fire Extinguisher
Fight a fire only if you feel confident to continue. Keep your back to an unobstructed exit and begin by standing 6–8 ft. away from the fire.
There is a simple acronym to remember to operate most fire extinguishers—PASS. This stands for Pull, Aim, Squeeze, and Sweep.
- Pull the pin at the top of the cylinder. Some units require the releasing of a lock latch or pressing a puncture lever.
- Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire.
- Squeeze or press the handle while holding the extinguisher upright.
- Sweep the contents from side to side at the base of the fire until it goes out.
When the fire is out, keep an eye on the area in case it reignites.
Installation and Maintenance
Local fire departments or fire equipment distributors often offer hands-on fire extinguisher trainings. Make sure you and other family members understand how to operate your home's fire extinguishers. Here are some tips for installing and maintaining your extinguisher:
- Install extinguishers in plain view, above the reach of children, near an escape route, and away from stoves and heating appliances.
- Read your operator's manual, learn how to inspect your extinguisher, and follow the manufacturer's instructions for maintenance.
- Make sure the extinguisher has enough pressure to operate. The pressure gauge is found near the handle. Usually an arrow points to a green area if there is enough pressure; it points to a red area if there is not.
- Check for dents, punctures, and corrosion along the cylinder body, as well as for chipping, cracking, or crimping on the head and nozzle. If you find damage or signs of a leak, replace the unit.
- Service rechargeable extinguishers after every use.
Used properly, a portable fire extinguisher can save lives and property by putting out a small fire, or containing it until the fire department arrives. While fire extinguishers are one element of a fire response plan, the primary element is safe escape. Make sure you have a home fire escape plan and working smoke alarms.
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Author: Courtney Kreuzwiesner