As home inspectors, an important part of our job is to inspect for and notify clients of potential safety deficiencies in homes, including fire safety. While we can usually count on at least finding smoke alarms in homes these days (though many homes still have deficiencies with smoke alarms), it’s surprising just how few homes have any fire extinguishers at all.  In those houses which do have a fire extinguisher, most have just one and it’s usually buried away in a closet or pantry somewhere. We consider fire extinguishers to be an essential component of your family’s safety. Though it’s not part of the Texas Home Inspection Standard of Practice, almost every home inspection report that we publish includes advice to our clients to add fire extinguishers to the home.

Fire Statistics

Houston Home Inspection - fire cause chartThere are more than 300,000 residential fires every year. In the decade from 2005-2014, the average annual number of residential fire deaths was approximately 3,600.  Fortunately, the numbers are trending steadily downward.  A study of the causes of residential fires that cause injury shows the single greatest cause of these fires is from cooking with unclassified, unintentional/carelessness and open flame rounding out the top four causes. What this tells us is that most fires where injuries occur happen in the presence of people, who are aware of the fire.

Fires caught in the earliest stages can often be extinguished with proper use of the right type of fire extinguisher, so it’s beneficial to have fire extinguishers of the appropriate type strategically located in the house with all occupants knowledgeable in their location and proper use.

In those cases where a fire cannot be put out in its earliest stages, having an escape plan and means of egress for all occupants is essential to reducing the potential for tragedy. Every family should have and practice a fire escape plan that is known to all inhabitants of the home.

Fire Extinguishers

Not all fires are the same. Fires are classified by fuel type into five broad categories. Fire extinguishers should be of the appropriate classification for the type of fire to be extinguished. Using the wrong type of extinguisher can be disastrous. For instance, you should never use a water based extinguisher on a grease or electrical fire. Fire extinguishers are classified by the type of fire they are intended to be used against using a letter designation.

Fire extinguisher class A symbol - Houston home inspection Fire extinguisher class B symbol - Houston home inspection Fire extinguisher class C symbol - Houston home inspection Fire extinguisher class D symbol - Houston home inspection Fire extinguisher class K symbol - Houston home inspection
For use with ordinary materials like cloth, wood and paper. For use with combustible and flammable liquids like grease, gasoline, oil and oil-based paints. For use with electrical equipment like appliances, tools, or other equipment that is plugged in. For use with flammable metals For use with vegetable oils, animal oils and fats in cooking appliances.

Fire Extinguisher Selection

Fire Extinguisher - Houston Home InspectorFire extinguishers are labeled, using the above lettering system for the types of fires that they are intended to put out. A and B class fire extinguishers will also have numerical ratings which relate to their relative capacity (e.g., 2-A or 10-B) the larger the number, the greater the capacity for fighting that type of fire. There are also multipurpose fire extinguishers that might be labeled “B-C” or “A-B-C.”, which are well suited to home use. There are some handy spray can type fire extinguishers that deploy foam which are rated for  A-B-C-K class fires which, though limited in size, are suitable for all typical home fire types. There are even automatic canister type extinguishers that you can place under your range hood that will automatically extinguish typical cooking fires.

Fire Extinguisher Placement and Size

We recommend installing at least one fire extinguisher on each floor of your home. Additionally, we recommend installing dedicated extinguishers in or near the kitchen and each garage. Larger homes may need more. Be sure to place them where they are readily accessible, in a dedicated location, preferably in plain sight. Get an extinguisher large enough to tackle a potential fire. For instance, we recommend a larger fire extinguisher in the garage.

Having a fire extinguisher does little good if you can’t get to it quickly in an emergency.

Key things to consider when placing your fire extinguishers:

  • Secure fire extinguishers with brackets so that you know exactly where they will be (don’t bury them in closets and cabinets);

  • Install fire extinguishers in visible, accessible locations (don’t hide them);

  • Place fire extinguishers near points of egress, so that you have a ready escape route;

  • Don’t put the fire extinguisher near the cooktop. You need to be able to get to quickly and safely if there is a cooking fire;

  • Place fire extinguishers out of reach of small children, but low enough (less than 5 feet high) to be readily accessed by anyone who needs to use them;

  • Make sure that all occupants know where the fire extinguishers are located.

Fire Extinguisher Maintenence

We recommend monthly inspection and maintenance of home fire extinguishers. Your monthly check should include:

  • Fire Extinguisher Pressure Gauge - Houston Home InspectionVerify accessibility – Make sure that the fire extinguisher is in its designated location and readily accessible in an emergency. Be sure nothing is blocking or limiting your ability to reach it.

  • Check Pressure – Make sure that the pressure gauge is in the green. Many extinguishers have gauges that show when pressure is too high or too low;

  • Check the Condition – Check for any damage. Look over all of the working parts Make sure the can, pin, lever, seals, hoses and nozzles aren’t damaged, dented, or rusted.

  • Keep it Clean – Remove any dust, oil, or grease that might be on the outside of the extinguisher. Make sure that the label and instructions can be quickly read in an emergency. Make sure that the nozzle is clear (watch for insect nests in them);

  • Read the Instructions – Reread the instructions to make sure that you keep yourself familiar with how to operate your fire extinguisher. Perform any maintenance activities listed on the label. Some extinguishers need to be shaken monthly, others need to be pressure tested every few years.

Using a Fire Extinguisher

Before a Fire Occurs

Before the need arises, make sure that all occupants of your home know what to do in the event of a fire. Make sure that you have an escape plan and meet up location. Make sure that everyone is familiar with the location, appropriate use (types of fire) and operation of each fire extinguisher in the home.

When a Fire Occurs

Fight or Flight

The safety of your home’s occupants, including yourself, is the top priority. Get everyone out and make sure that you have an escape route first. Then consider:

  • Am I physically able to use a fire extinguisher?
  • Is the fire small and contained to a single object/area (like a pan or a wastebasket)?
  • Am I safe from the fire’s toxic smoke?
  • Do I have a clear escape route?
  • Do I have the right fire extinguisher for the type of fire?

Use a fire extinguisher when all of these questions are answered “yes.” If you’re unsure about whether or not it’s safe to use a fire extinguisher, and for all other situations, alert others, leave the building, and call 911 from a mobile or neighbor’s phone.

Deploy your Fire Extinguisher

Be sure to use the right method and tools for the fire. Doing the wrong thing can be much worse than doing nothing. Never try to move a flaming pot and never use water on a grease fire (see the links at the bottom of the article for more do’s and don’ts).

Remember P.A.S.S. – Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep

Pull the pin from the handle to enable the lever/trigger to be actuated

Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire (keep it aimed low where the fuel is)

Squeeze the lever slowly and evenly standing well back from the flames

Sweep from side to side to extinguish the flames

Watch to make sure that the fire stays out.

Don’t stop yet

Don’t forget that your family home safety plan should also include smoke alarms , carbon monoxide alarms and an escape plan. These topics are covered in other articles.

Opening photo credit: State Farm