According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there were in excess of 365,000 house fires in the U.S. in 2015. And perhaps even more alarmingly, many of those blazes can be chalked up to either accidents or to things found in the home. It’s arguably no wonder, then, that an Oregon fire department has seen fit to caution the public about using one common household item: the humble extension cord. And the warning the department gave out was grim indeed.
Yes, house fires are frequently caused by human error: the NFPA records a huge 46 percent of such incidents from 2010 to 2014 as being down to cooking mishaps, for example. Cigarettes, too, can be culprits: if lit and unintentionally dropped, they can come into contact with flammable objects all too easily.
And as it turns out, extension cords can start fires as well. That’s according to Oregon’s Umatilla County Fire District #1, which explained as much in a Facebook post in November 2017. The department was well aware that temperatures in the area were plummeting, and so locals were likely to dust off and fire up their space heaters as a result.
What’s more, indoor heating systems can cause house fires themselves – not least because they may throw off sparks. Electric space heaters in particular may be dangerous if they short circuit or are just used improperly; they could ignite other pieces of furniture or carpeting, for instance.
Indeed, an NFPA report shows that heating solutions were behind 15 percent of U.S. home fires from 2011 to 2015. Of these, moreover, space heaters were found to be accountable for 43 percent of blazes. And as Umatilla County Fire District #1 has revealed, plugging a space heater into an extension cord can prove catastrophic.
To emphasize its point, the fire department posted an image on Facebook showing a melted and partially destroyed extension cord. This was the result, it said in its message accompanying the picture, of “a surge protector [being] misused” by employees.
And the department added, “These [extensions] are not designed to handle the high current flow needed for a space heater and can overheat or even catch fire due to the added energy flow.” Ultimately, then, owners of space heaters need to plug them directly into wall sockets rather than into power strips or extension cords.
The key problem is that some extension cords don’t do anything to control power surges. That’s the function of a surge protector, which may not come as standard with power strips or extension cords. And when such items are overtaxed, they may begin to melt – as shown in the picture shared by the firefighters.
Furthermore, space heaters typically run on a high wattage. This therefore makes them prone to short-circuiting even when plugged into wall sockets. And if another electrical item is also attached to an extension cord, the chances of a fire could potentially increase.
One solution, therefore, is to treat a space heater like an electric oven. This, too, has high energy demands and so is often wired in its own circuit. That way, if the oven overloads its circuit, only the electricity to that particular item is shut off – and not the supply to the whole house.
One of the most useful qualities of a space heater, though, is its portability. Indeed, some people choose to move their heaters from room to room, depending on where they most need the warmth. And so having a dedicated circuit to which the item is permanently attached may seem to defeat its purpose somewhat.
There are still measures that space heater owners can take to help keep themselves safer, however. In particular, they can clean power sockets in their homes to ensure that they’re free from dust. Why? Well, an electrical supply can actually cause dust particles to become charged. Consequently, these particles may end up igniting and so start a fire in the room.
Meanwhile, Rachel Rothman, the Good Housekeeping Institute’s chief technologist, explained to Good Housekeeping in November 2017, “And you really shouldn’t plug any other electrical devices into the same outlet as the heater for safety reasons.” That’s because the fewer items you have plugged into your circuit, the less chance that a heater will short.
Furthermore, ensure that a space heater isn’t placed too close to other objects, as this could pose a fire risk. By the same token, don’t sit too close to the heater, either; instead, it’s best to keep anything else – including yourself – around three feet or so away from it.
And if you do feel the need to plug a high amperage item into a power strip or extension cord, make sure you use one with a surge protector. However, it’s imperative to note that surge protectors do not last forever. With this in mind, then, it’s worth checking them every so often to ensure that they are still effective.
Fundamentally, a surge protector works by redirecting electrical energy to a metal oxide varistor, or MOV, which in turn absorbs any excess voltage. The MOV can’t do this indefinitely, though, and so it deteriorates over time, its lifespan depending on how many short circuits it averts.
And while plugging a space heater into a power strip with a surge protector may not cause a short circuit immediately, it may nevertheless limit the lifespan of the MOV. When the MOV stops working, then, the surge protector will be useless and a potential fire risk.
Furthermore, make sure that all smoke detectors in the home are working properly. Indeed, surviving a house fire can simply be a matter of reacting in time, meaning that any warning that smoke alarms give to occupants could spell the difference between life and death.
In addition, the NFPA has encouraged homeowners to use a connected system of several detectors. That way, if one detector comes into contact with smoke, all of them should sound at once. The organization also states on its website that alarms ought to be replaced every decade.
Ultimately, then, fire safety requires constant vigilance. Nevertheless, it’s worth the extra effort to pay attention to what you plug into your extension cords and where. After all, that awareness could help avoid a devastating blaze.
Another household appliance that you probably shouldn’t plug into an extension lead is an electric fan. And while some people use these devices to help them sleep through the hot, summer nights, there may be a health-related reason why you shouldn’t use them at this time. So, next time you’re too hot in bed, you may want to think twice before switching yours on.
There’s a curious irony about trying to sleep during the summer: you’re exhausted from the heat, but it’s those same scorching, sticky temperatures that prevent you from drifting off. To cool things down, then, you might turn to an electric fan. But unfortunately, it turns out that choosing this solution could have seriously detrimental effects on your body – at least, that is, according to some scientists.
Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for a wide variety of reasons, from obvious benefits including better work performance, to less tangible effects such as improved heart and brain health. Exactly how much sleep you need, however, is less concrete. Indeed, although adults are generally thought to need between seven and nine hours per night, that figure can vary for everyone.
As much as we’d all love to get a consistent eight hours’ sleep every night, there are matters outside our control that can put paid to that notion. Yes, as if switching off your brain weren’t already difficult enough, you also have factors such as the weather to contend with.
For example, you’re more likely to experience difficulty in getting to sleep if it’s particularly humid. There are a few obvious solutions, though; you can try opening the window, for instance. But if it’s really hot and sticky outside, with no breeze to speak of, then that plan isn’t going to be of much help.
Alternatively, there are ways to stop your bedroom from getting too warm in the first place. In the U.K., the NHS advises “using shades or reflective material outside the windows.” But if that’s a no-go, you can keep things cool by simply closing the curtains. Bear in mind, though, that you’ll need light-colored curtains, as darker drapes may unfortunately have the opposite effect.
However, many people simply resort to placing an electric fan in their bedroom. And there are actually a few genuine reasons why it could be beneficial, even beyond just cooling down the room. For instance, a fan sounds like white noise, which can be helpful for drowning out noisy neighbors or any other background sounds.
Meanwhile, a fan can also keep air circulating throughout the room, preventing things from getting musty. But even with these supposed benefits in mind, it’s worth weighing them against the potential downsides of keeping one running throughout the night.
Indeed, in some parts of the world, it’s considered a very bad idea. Take Korea, for example, where “fan death” is a common superstition. The belief goes that a fan left on in an otherwise closed room can be fatal. There’s no scientific evidence to support this irrational fear, of course, but even beyond this theory, there are seemingly legitimate reasons for not running a fan overnight.
We’re not just talking about the size of your electricity bill here, either. You see, according to scientists, sleeping by a fan may have some serious consequences for your body and your health. And while these won’t necessarily affect everybody in the same way, they could be worth bearing in mind if you’re planning to use a fan to keep cool.
After all, it’s not just air that a fan circulates; any lingering dust or pollen particles will also be sent zooming around the room. And if you suffer from hay fever, asthma or allergies, chances are you don’t want those entering your airways. So check your fan blades to make sure they’re not coated in dust.
And while this may not exactly be a huge issue, it’s still a real risk, according to allergy expert Dr. Clifford Bassett. Indeed, as he told The Independent in July 2018, “If you experience sneezing or worsening nasal symptoms, and you have indoor allergies, due to air forcefully blowing up your nasal passages causing sneezing, which is actually a protective mechanism, it can be annoying and perhaps cause a flare-up in your nasal allergies.”
Triggering allergies isn’t the only downside to running a fan all night long, however. Air continually hitting your skin can cause it to become parched, according to Mark Reddick of The Sleep Advisor. And you’ll then need to slather on extra moisturizers and lotions to counteract the dryness.
Meanwhile, if you don’t sleep with your eyes fully closed – which, according to Reddick, does happen – the air blasting out of the fan can apparently redden them. And, we’ve all known the pain of waking up with a dry mouth – something that Reddick says a constantly running fan will only exacerbate.
But even if you sleep with your eyes and mouth tightly shut and you don’t have any allergies, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re free from consequence. “The constant stream of air also has a tendency to dry out your nasal passages, which could affect your sinuses,” Reddick says. “If the dryness is particularly extreme, it can result in your body producing excess mucous to try to compensate. Then, you’re more susceptible to blockage, stuffiness and sinus headaches.”
Lastly, if you’re sleeping with the fan in close proximity to your face or any exposed areas of your body, you may wake up feeling a little sore. That’s because, according to Reddick, the cool air from the fan can adversely affect your muscles.
Not all experts agree on the consequences of sleeping with a fan running, however. For example, Dr. Dasha Fielder told lifestyle website Mamamia in 2016 that the link between waking with a sore throat and a fan having been on all night is purely coincidental. “I think what happens at times when people do wake up with a sore throat is that it has nothing to do with having the fan on and much more to do with sleeping with your mouth open,” she said. “That may happen when you are hot.”
Dr. Fielder did admit, though, that it’s important to upgrade your fan if you’ve had it for a while. “Obviously, all equipment has its expiry date. If you’ve had a fan for ten or 15 years, I think it’s time to replace it,” she said. “However, for the general population I cannot see a problem with a fan.”
Others, meanwhile, say the problem is the fan itself – whether you’re sleeping with it on or not. Indeed, according to a 2012 study from the Cochrane Library, electric fans apparently become ineffective at a certain temperature. The machines may end up doing “more harm than good,” in fact, according to the study’s authors.
That’s because if the temperature rises above 95 degrees, you’re no longer blowing cool air around. Instead, you could end up blowing air that’s warmer than your body temperature over yourself. This, then, increases the risk of heat exhaustion from excess sweating – even if the fan still feels like it’s doing its job.
Whether it’s during the day or at night, then, leaving a fan on could well have potential health consequences. And this is particularly the case if you’re prone to allergies. So, next time you’re finding the heat too much, you may want to reconsider turning on that fan.