Residential Fire Extinguishers: How to Choose and Use

A fire extinguisher can be a lifesaver. Placed near an exit, in an easy-to-grab spot, it can put out a small fire before the firefighters arrive, or at least suppress the flames while you escape.

 Household extinguishers are classified A, B, or C (or a combination of these) on the label to indicate which types of fires — ordinary combustibles, flammable liquids, or electrical—you can use them on. Many  extinguishers are classified A:B:C and fight all three types of fires.

The main distinction among home extinguishers is size. In most cases bigger is better, but sometimes the biggest extinguishers are too heavy to maneuver. (The size of an extinguisher refers to the amount of chemical inside;  not the total gross weight.) There's also a difference between rechargeable extinguishers and disposable ones.   Most rechargeable models are all-metal construction, while disposables will have a plastic head on them.  A rechargeable one will likely cost more, but will be more sturdy and reliable. .

The National Fire Protection Association (www.nfpa.org) recommends  at least one extinguisher for each floor of the home and one for a garage area. But no matter how many you have, nothing can substitute for the most important safety tool: a fire plan.

Make sure everyone in the family knows how to get out in a hurry, where to meet outside, and how to call 911. Even if you think you've put out the fire on your own, don't cancel that emergency call. Leave it to the pros to decide if it's really out.

Reading the Label

Every household extinguisher is labeled A, B, or C, which tells you the types of fires the extinguisher is effective against.

A is ordinary combustibles like wood, paper, and cloth; B is flammable liquids, such as gasoline or cooking oil; and C is live electricity. 

In the fine print on the label, these letters are preceded by numbers — for example, 3-A:40-B:C — which are the extinguisher's classification rating. The numbers, assigned by Underwriters Laboratories, tell the extinguisher's relative effectiveness against each type of fire, regardless of its weight or the chemical it uses. The higher the number, the greater the effectiveness (and likely the higher the price).

So an extinguisher with a 4-A rating is more effective on ordinary combustibles than a 2-A one. The C designation carries no number; it just means the extinguisher's chemicals won't conduct electricity.

What Size Is Right?

The National Fire Protection Association recommends that any extinguisher selected for home protection carry a minimum rating of 2-A:10-B:C.  This rules out the smaller units (2 or 2 ½ pound capacity) and calls for a model with a 5-pound capacity or greater.

10-pound
Best for: Garage or home workshop, where a fire might grow in size before being noticed.
Look for: Rechargeable model with hose for ease of use. 

5-pound
Best for: Quick grab in the kitchen or laundry room. 
Look for: Rechargeable model with hose for ease of use. 

2-pound
Best for: Car.
Look for: Rechargeable model with mounting hardware to keep it from rolling around in the trunk.

Using an Extinguisher

Fire safety experts advise you to learn how to use an extinguisher before an emergency arises. Check with your fire department to see if they offer homeowner training. Keep extinguishers where you can see and reach them easily, near the room's exit. That way you can fight the fire with your back to the exit and make a quick escape if flames get out of control.

To help you remember how to use an extinguisher, use the acronym PASS:

  1. Pull the extinguisher's safety pin.
  2. Aim the chemical at the base of the flames rather than at the flames themselves, standing at least 6 feet from the fire (or as directed on the extinguisher's label).
  3. Squeeze the handle and hold it, keeping the extinguisher upright.
  4. Sweep the source of the flames until the extinguisher runs dry.

Whenever you have used an extinguisher, whether or not it is completely empty, you must replace it or refill it right away. Same goes with any extinguisher whose pressure gauge slips out of the green zone into red over time. Disposable extinguishers are not refillable and should be discarded after use.

Staying Ready

A fire extinguisher can lose pressure over time, rendering it useless when you need it. Typically, the higher the quality of the extinguisher, the longer it will hold a charge. In any case, it is important to have your extinguishers serviced properly. This will include annual maintenance by a certified fire extinguisher service professional.

A fire extinguisher saves lives and property if used properly against small fires. We hope that the tips above will help you in selecting and using a fire extinguisher.

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