Home Fire Extinguishers

This week we’re going to take a detailed look at the place of fire extinguishers in the home, both figuratively (why you should have one) and literally (where you should put it).

Do you really need one?

I’m not aware of any legal requirement to have a fire extinguisher in a private residence, but look at it this way: If a small fire breaks out in your home, do you want to have at least a chance of stopping it immediately, or would you rather stand by and watch it quickly grow into a large fire that might consume the whole building? Of course the fire department will come, but under normal circumstances it’s going to take even the best fire crew a few minutes to arrive and a fire can do a lot of damage in that time. In those precious first couple of minutes, messing around with boxes of baking soda or blankets from the bedroom is an awfully poor substitute for having a proper fire extinguisher.

Please note that we’re talking about saving property here, not lives. The way to save lives is to get everybody out of the building as quickly as possible, regardless of whether or not you plan to fight the fire. (We’ll talk more about how to respond to a fire in a future post.)

What does this have to do with earthquakes? Plenty. One of the worst things that can happen after an earthquake is fire (remember part of the Marina district of San Francisco burning after the Loma Prieta quake). Consider that the fire department, and indeed all emergency services, will be overwhelmed immediately after a large earthquake, and you can see how important it is to put out any fires yourself if it’s possible. While there’s no way a non-professional is going to put out a big fire, it is possible for average folks to extinguish a small fire before it becomes a big fire.

What type should you get?

Fire extinguishers are given letter designations to indicate the type of fire they can fight. A professional firefighter will have the training to evaluate a fire and decide on the best way to fight it, but if you or I ever have to deal with a fire we’re probably not going to be cool, calm, and collected, so it’s important that we be able to just grab the nearest extinguisher and use it immediately. This means keeping it simple by considering only ABC-rated dry-chemical units, which are suitable for almost any fire you’ll find in your home (ordinary combustibles, liquids, and live electrical).

In addition to the letters showing what types of fires the unit is good for, there are also some numbers showing how big a fire it can put out. The bigger the number, the more fire it can handle, but the bigger the extinguisher will be. Sizes are discussed in more detail below.

The brand isn’t too important, so long as it is UL-listed, but I usually stick with the major manufacturers like Kidde or First Alert. My favorite is Amerex but they’re more expensive and usually only available at specialty stores.

More important than brand is whether a unit is rechargeable. Typically those with metal heads (the part on top with a handle) can be recharged after use, whereas those with plastic heads are generally designed for single-use. You would think that rechargeables would be cheaper in the long run, but the cost difference isn’t as great as you would think:

  • The rechargeables typically have a higher initial cost.
  • Getting an extinguisher recharged isn’t cheap, and can approach the cost of a single-use extinguisher.
  • The tanks needs to be hydro-tested every couple of refills, and that drives up the cost of recharging even more.

Commercial units (e.g. those in retail markets and office buildings) are almost always rechargeable, but that’s because the building managers are legally required to service and recharge them at regular intervals. There is no such requirement for homes, so most consumer-grade units that you see will be single-use. As much as I like the nice rugged Amerex units, most of my home units are single-use, and it has never made economic sense for me to get any extinguisher recharged.

What size is best?

Bigger extinguishers contain more dry chemical and can put out bigger fires, so all other factors being equal bigger is better. Of course all other factors are not equal, so you need to consider the following:

  • The extinguisher must be light enough so the adult members of your household can remove it from the mount, carry it, and aim it fairly comfortably. Unless everyone in your family is a lumberjack, a really big one will probably be too heavy.
  • You don’t want to mount an extinguisher in a place where it will get bumped or constantly be in the way. It can be hard to find a suitable spot for something large.
  • Certain members of the family may have strong opinions about creating what they consider to be a big, bright red eyesore in your home, so some negotiating may be in order to preserve domestic tranquility.
  • Large extinguishers typically cost more, and nobody I know has unlimited funds.

All of these points are important, so my recommendation is to get the biggest one you can without running afoul of the criteria listed above. If the biggest one that works for you turns out to be a relatively small one, that’s fine because any extinguisher is better than none. A good-enough extinguisher that you have right now will help you far more than the perfect model that you’re going to buy “someday”.

What is the best way to store a fire extinguisher?

You don’t store a fire extinguisher; you hang it on the wall just like the ones you see in public places.

Any fire extinguisher must be mounted in plain sight, where someone unfamiliar with your home could spot it in one or two seconds just by glancing around the room.

This is quite a strong statement, so let me relate a story from our own home to illustrate this point. We once had a small fire in the kitchen when a potholder fell onto a gas burner, and at the time there were one adult and two 9-year-old children at home. For years we’d had a small fire extinguisher right on the kitchen counter, and a larger one in the master bedroom, so one might think there would be no problem. However, under the stress of seeing OMG a real fire burning inside the house, not one of the three people present remembered that we even owned a fire extinguisher. The adult ran past the kitchen extinguisher without seeing it, down the hall, past the extinguisher in the bedroom without seeing it, and grabbed a blanket to put out the fire. How did this happen?

Don’t blame my family, because they only reacted the way anybody would react — under stress like that most of us get tunnel vision, and it’s vital to arrange things so that the right thing to do is also the obvious thing. This includes me; the one time I saw a real fire in a building, I also completely forgot to look for an extinguisher and also found another means of putting it out.

In our kitchen incident the mistake was mine, for originally allowing both extinguishers to be located “out of the way” where they wouldn’t be a bother or an eyesore. One was tucked in the back corner of the counter behind a pile of kitchen clutter, and the other was behind the bedroom door, so neither one was readily visible. As a result, both extinguishers were utterly useless when we actually needed them. As you can tell from the photos, we have now moved them to more conventional and visible locations mounted on the wall.

That “mounted on the wall” part is important. Don’t just set the extinguisher down somewhere on the floor or counter; use a real bracket to ensure that it is always in a known, accessible, visible location. Be sure to get a bracket with a strap (usually called a vehicle, mobile, or marine mount) so the unit won’t fall down during an earthquake — I don’t know why they even sell brackets without straps in the Bay Area, but they do so you’ll have to pay attention. Some extinguishers come with an acceptable bracket, but others do not so you might have to buy one separately.

If you can’t find a good place for your extinguisher immediately, be patient and don’t rush things. If you give yourself some time to ponder it and get creative, you’ll be happier with the end result. It took my family at least a couple of weeks to decide where to put our kitchen extinguisher, and we had to use a smaller unit so it would squeeze into that narrow space at the edge of the doorway, but it was worth the wait. It’s convenient, near an exit, never gets bumped, and doesn’t block either the door or the counter. The one in the hall took a while to figure out as well, but by identifying a corner where nobody ever stands or walks we eventually found a perfect spot for it.

How many are needed? Where should they be mounted?

Start with one, and put it in the room most likely to have a fire: the kitchen. You want to mount the bracket at least 6 feet away from the stove so that you can grab the extinguisher without getting dangerously close to the fire, and you also want to choose a location near an exit so that you can make a quick getaway if you’re unable to put the fire out quickly.

Beyond that, I like to have one on each level of my home, plus one in any outbuildings like the garage. How many is really up to you, but at least get the one in the kitchen and you’ll be way ahead of most families.

What maintenance is required?

Fire extinguishers are designed to sit for years and then work instantly when needed so they are very low-maintenance, but they do need to be inspected regularly. The routine is very simple: just check the pressure gauge and make sure the needle is in the green zone. I like to check mine every month or so, but at the very least you should check them every time you change your clocks in the spring and autumn.

Here’s a tip I learned the hard way: Rotate the inspection duty. The problem is that if the same person always does it, he or she will be the only one who really knows where your extinguisher is. All the adults should take turns doing this, so that everybody physically handles each extinguisher in your home at least a couple times a year. This will increase the odds of whoever needs it remembering where it is — and even that you have one — if and when a fire ever starts. By the way, it’s a good idea to include kids in this duty because they’ll be old enough to use an extinguisher before you know it, and even before then they could help a grown-up remember where it is.

If you have any extinguishers outdoors or in an unheated/uncooled building, inspect those more often, preferably monthly. The one in my garage fails every 2-3 years (gauge shows loss of pressure), probably because the summer heat is so hard on the seals.

Here’s a trick a safety-company guy taught me years ago to make your extinguishers last longer: Each time you check the pressure, pick up the extinguisher and hold it upside down for a few seconds. This lets the powder inside break up and move around, which prevents it from clumping or caking into a solid mass. If you hold your ear firmly against the tank while you do this, you can hear the reassuring sound of powder sliding around so you know things are still happy inside the tank. Technically this isn’t necessary, but it can’t hurt (and it makes the routine more interesting for the kids).

Another advantage to using this trick is that by physically removing and replacing the extinguisher on a regular basis, each member of the family becomes familiar with the way the bracket and strap work. Each manufacturer does it a little differently, and you don’t want to be fumbling with the latch when seconds count.

Anything Else?

Choosing, purchasing, and mounting your extinguisher(s) will keep you busy for a while, but you may notice that we’ve left out one important topic: How to use a fire extinguisher to put out a fire! That wasn’t an oversight, but it’s such an important topic that it merits a separate post of its own. In the meantime, you could be a real rebel and do something that many people never do: Actually read the written instructions that the manufacturers supply with every extinguisher. :-)