Your guide to fire extinguishers: How to use, when to replace and alternatives to consider

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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House fires cause nearly 12 billion dollars in damage each year

Fire extinguishers are crucial tools for ensuring the safety of individuals and property in the event of a fire emergency. In fact, one source cites that portable fire extinguishers are capable of putting out 80% of all fires and that 75% of the time when a fire extinguisher is used effectively, the fire department doesn’t need to be called[1]. And yet, 3 out of 5 homes don’t own a fire extinguisher

Do you have a fire extinguisher in your home? In this guide, we’re discussing best practices for fire extinguishers, alternatives to consider and what it can mean for your home insurance.

What is a fire extinguisher?

A fire extinguisher is a portable device designed to discharge a specific firefighting agent to suppress or extinguish a fire. 

The modern fire extinguisher is based on one developed in 1818 by Captain George William Manby, containing potassium carbonate solution and compressed air. Over time, we’ve created new versions including chemical foams, soda acid and water-based solutions which are adapted to putting out different types of fires. 

They come in various types, each tailored to combat different classes of fires. The most common types of fire extinguishers include:

  • Water-based extinguishers (Class A): Suitable for fires involving ordinary combustibles such as wood, paper and textiles.
  • Foam extinguishers (Class A and B): Effective for flammable liquid fires (Class B) and ordinary combustibles (Class A).
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) extinguishers (Class B and C): Ideal for electrical fires (Class C) and flammable liquid fires (Class B).
  • Dry chemical extinguishers (Class A, B, and C): Versatile and can handle a variety of fire types.
  • Wet chemical extinguishers (Class K): Specifically designed for kitchen fires involving cooking oils and fats.

Why you need a fire extinguisher

For most businesses and larger buildings, owners are required to have a certain number of fire extinguishers, based on what materials are present. In your home, it’s also very important to have one, and ideally multiple, too. 

  • Immediate response: Fire extinguishers enable quick response to small fires, preventing them from escalating into larger, more dangerous situations. 
  • Protection of life and property: Having readily accessible fire extinguishers can save lives and minimize property damage in the early stages of a fire.
  • Compliance with regulations: Many jurisdictions and building codes require the installation of fire extinguishers in commercial and residential buildings to ensure compliance with safety regulations.
  • Enhanced fire safety plan: Fire extinguishers are an integral part of a comprehensive fire safety plan, complementing other safety measures such as smoke detectors and fire alarms.

How many fire extinguishers do you need?

This really depends on your home and what you do there. If you have a 6,000-foot house and an underground lab, you’ll need a lot more than someone who lives in a small bungalow (and you’re likely a supervillain). 

A good rule is to include a fire extinguisher on every floor of your home, in the kitchen and in the garage. Make sure they are both accessible and visible to all adult occupants of the house and make sure they are all aware of how to use them.

Children and fire extinguishers

The National Fire Protection Association discourages children from being taught how to use fire extinguishers. This is because it runs counter to their advice to kids which is: to get to a safe place and then seek help.

How to use a fire extinguisher

The best time to learn how to use your fire extinguisher is before a fire breaks out in your home. Hopefully, that time is right now. Please don’t read the rest of this sentence if your home is on fire.

Read all of the instructions that come with your extinguisher and familiarize yourself with its parts and features. 

If a fire breaks out in your home, make sure everyone has left the building or area and the fire department is being called. If the fire is still confined to a relatively small area and the room is not filled with smoke, grab your fire extinguisher. 

For a handy way to remember what to do, remember the acronym “PASS.”

  • P - Pull the pin. Face the nozzle away from you to release the locking mechanism.
  • A - Aim low. Point the extinguisher directly at the base of the fire.
  • S - Squeeze the lever slowly and evenly.
  • S - Sweep the nozzle from side to side across the base of the fire.

Fire extinguisher maintenance

While fire extinguishers are durable, they do have a limited lifespan (on average 10 - 12 years), and regular maintenance is essential to ensure their reliability[2]. Consider the following guidelines:

  • Regular inspections: Conduct monthly visual inspections to check for visible signs of damage, corrosion or leakage. Ensure that the pressure gauge indicates the proper pressure level.
  • Annual professional inspection: Schedule an annual inspection by a certified fire protection professional to verify the extinguisher's overall condition and performance.
  • Recharge or replace: If an extinguisher is used, even partially, it should be recharged immediately. Replace extinguishers that show signs of damage, wear, or those that fail the professional inspection.

Additional fire safety measures

While fire extinguishers are a vital component of fire safety, there are additional measures to consider to enhance overall protection.

  • Automatic fire suppression systems: These systems are designed to detect and suppress fires automatically, providing an additional layer of protection, especially in high-risk areas.
  • Fire blankets: Ideal for smothering small fires or wrapping around a person whose clothing is on fire, fire blankets are a useful complement to fire extinguishers.
  • Evacuation plans: In addition to firefighting tools, having a well-defined evacuation plan is crucial. Regularly practice fire drills to ensure that occupants know how to exit the building safely in case of a fire.
  • Smoke alarms and detectors: Early detection of a fire is critical. Install smoke alarms and detectors in key areas of your home or building to provide early warnings.

Can having fire extinguishers help save you money on home insurance?

Much like you, your home insurance provider has a vested interest in your home not burning down. So do they offer lower rates for homeowners with fire prevention methods in place? 

Installing sprinklers and having fire extinguishers around are beneficial preventive measures that insurance companies will recognize with a lower rate or home insurance discount. This will depend on your provider.

Wrapping up

A house fire occurs in the U.S. every 87 seconds. Fire extinguishers play a pivotal role in safeguarding lives and property by providing a rapid response to small fires. Regular inspections, proper maintenance and adherence to safety regulations are essential for ensuring the reliability of these firefighting tools. In addition to fire extinguishers, incorporating other fire safety measures enhances overall preparedness and reduces the risk of fire-related incidents.