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The ABCs of Fire Extinguishers

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The ABCs of Fire Extinguishers
Nashville Home Inspection’s Monthly Tip; October 2014

FireExtOver half of U.S. homes are equipped with a portable fire extinguisher. It is important to understand fire extinguisher ratings and know how and when to use one.

Fire extinguishers are not the first thing to grab in the event of a fire – but rather a landline or cell phone. The fire department must always be alerted first before an attempt to fight a home fire and all occupants of the home must be evacuated. Finally, an evaluation of the fire should be made quickly, regarding its size and scope. If a fire is already raging or the room is filled with smoke, staying far away from the structure is the best option.

For small or contained fires, however, a homeowner can reach for an appropriately-rated fire extinguisher that may be on hand.

Extinguishers are rated according to the properties of the fire, the most common for residential use are Class A, B or C, or a multi-use extinguisher. Most fire extinguishers display symbols to show suitability for use on a fire, based on material(s) burning.

For example, Class A extinguishers will put out fires in ordinary combustibles, such as wood or paper. Class B extinguishers should be used on fires involving flammable liquids, such as grease, gasoline, oil, etc. Class C extinguishers are suitable for fires in “live” electrical equipment. Extinguishers intended to handle this type of fire cannot use chemicals that are conductive.

Fire extinguishers assigned multiple letters, such as ABC, can be used against fires of types A, B or C. Most residential extinguishers are BC or ABC rated. The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) recommends selecting a multi-purpose extinguisher that can be used on all types of home fires.

The NFPA also recommends that home extinguishers be tested every five or twelve years, depending on the model of extinguisher. The standard method of testing, “hydrostatic,” is conducted underwater where the cylinders are subjected to pressures that exceed their ratings. Vessels that fail the test are destroyed, while the rest are reassembled and placed back into service.

Unfortunately, an expiration date cannot be fully trusted. Without testing, there is no guarantee that an older extinguisher is functional. Given the destructive potential of a fire and the relatively low cost for a new extinguisher, it is advisable to replace older extinguishers, or at least have the tested.

Fire extinguishers can be purchased at most home supply stores starting at around $40, and ranging higher, depending on the size of the extinguisher. Most residential models cannot be recharged.

Provided by: John Watkins, Nashville Home Inspection

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