What Kind of Fire Extinguisher Do You Need, and Where?
Using the wrong type against a blaze can actually make a fire worse
Every home should have a fire extinguisher. Wait — strike that. Every home should have the right kind of fire extinguisher. Using the wrong type against a blaze can actually make a fire worse.
Do you have the right kind of fire extinguisher in the right areas of your house?
Here’s what you need to know about the different types, courtesy of the National Fire Protection Association, the University of South Carolina and John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for UL.
Is an ABC extinguisher all you need?
There are three main classes of fire extinguishers, rated A, B, or C, as well as multipurpose extinguishers rated ABC. ABCs are meant to cover just about all types of household fires, according to UL.
The National Fire Protection Association recommends you buy ABC extinguishers for your house. You should have one on each level, near the exit, and in your garage if you have one. You should also have smaller, supplemental fire extinguishers for your kitchen and car, says Drengenberg.
An ABC extinguisher may cost more, but it’s a safer and more practical option. You won’t accidentally spray an electrical fire with a water-based extinguisher, which could electrocute you if the power isn’t turned off. And you won’t have to rack your brain during a fire trying to figure out which extinguisher to use.
An ABC extinguisher is designed to put out three types of fires: A (solid combustibles like wood and paper), B (grease, kerosene, gasoline and oil) and C (electrical). It’s a dry chemical extinguisher (as are extinguishers labeled “BC”), which means it uses a fine dry powder to coat the fire's fuel and cut off its fire’s oxygen supply.
When you might want a different extinguisher
If you have at least one ABC fire extinguisher for each level of your house, that's probably all you need.
That said, if you’re burning wood, leaves or trash and you don't want to leave a powdery mess in your yard, you might want a class A extinguisher. These contain water and are intended for wood, paper, cloth, plastics and other combustibles that leave an ash. They work like giant, air-pressurized squirt guns. Spraying one would only soak the yard, not coat it with a chemical residue. (Note that burning yard waste is banned in some areas. Check with your town hall first.)
Class B extinguishers are intended for oil and grease fires, such as a gasoline fire. You probably don't need one for your home, unless you happen to live in an oil refinery. The extinguishers often use dry chemicals; some use pressurized carbon dioxide (CO2) gas. Never use a class A extinguisher on an oil or grease fire. That can cause the flames to spread. Again, an ABC extinguisher can handle a contained grease fire in the kitchen.
Class C extinguishers are for electrical fires, but again, you probably don't need one for your home.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) extinguishers won’t leave a harmful residue on any nearby electronics like ABC extinguishers and B and BC dry chemical extinguishers will. But getting the fire out is the most important thing, so don't worry too much about residues, says Drengenberg. "It is best to get the fire out and then have some cleanup rather than lose a house to fire."
Does size matter?
Tests show larger, heavier extinguishers deliver more water or fire retardant faster and longer, so Drengenberg suggests buying the largest fire extinguisher you can comfortably hold for each floor of your home. A and B extinguishers show the amount of fire they can put out in square feet. In general, the higher the rating, the larger the extinguisher. (C extinguishers do not have a numerical rating.)
When not to use a fire extinguisher
No matter what kind of fire extinguisher you get, Drengenberg cautions that household fire extinguishers are intended for use only when the fire is contained, such as when something is burning in a pot or wastebasket. “If your car is on fire in the garage, that’s not going to be controlled by a household extinguisher,” he says. Fires travel fast, so if a fire in your house is spreading, get out immediately and call 911.
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