After a close call in my apartment–who knew olive oil is bad for high-heat cooking? – it dawned on me that I had never used a fire extinguisher. I’m no fire chief, but learning on the fly while your smoke detector is blaring seems like the wrong time to figure that out.
Fortunately, I removed my smoking pan from the heat before anything could ignite—but the experience left me reeling.
Don’t wait until the heat of the moment to wonder about fire extinguishers. Here’s what smart homeowners (and renters) need to know.
Do I need a fire extinguisher?
Short answer: Yes.
It’s a good idea to have at least one, although many experts, like the National Fire Protection Association, recommend having a fire extinguisher on each floor. Place yours near an exit, in an easy-to-grab spot.
A fire extinguisher can make a big difference in an emergency, but it can’t replace your most important safety tools: working smoke alarms and a fire escape plan.
What if I rent?
If you rent, your landlord is typically responsible for providing smoke detectors in each unit – but not necessarily fire extinguishers. That depends on your state and local fire codes, so ask your landlord to be sure. If you end up buying one, it generally won’t break the bank. Fire extinguishers typically run from $20 to $70, depending on the type.
Types of fire extinguishers
Not all fires are the same, and neither are fire extinguishers. The letters A, B and C on the label refer to the types of fire the extinguisher is capable of putting out.
- Class A extinguishers are effective on fires in paper, wood, textiles and plastics. (Think “A” for “ash.”)
- Class B extinguishers are effective on liquid fires, like those involving cooking oil, paint, gasoline or kerosene. (Think “B” for “barrel.”)
- Class C extinguishers are effective on electrical fires and live wiring. (Think “C” for “current.”)
The best choice for your home is a multi-purpose extinguisher like ABC, which can be used on all types. You can opt for a single-use or a rechargeable model. A rechargeable fire extinguisher is filled with either water or a powdered chemical—check your extinguisher’s label to see what to refill yours with.
Typically, fire extinguishers are sold in 2-pound, 5-pound or 10-pound canisters. Larger sizes pack more punch, but choose a size that you can lift easily. If it’s too heavy, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
How to use a fire extinguisher
First things first: If there’s a fire of any size in your home, call 911. Remember that fire spreads rapidly – even if you end up extinguishing the fire yourself, it’s a good idea to have the pros on the way to check your work.
If you do need to use your extinguisher, the National Fire Protection Association uses the handy acronym PASS:
- Pull the pin. Grab the extinguisher, point the nozzle away from you and release the locking mechanism.
- Aim low, pointing the extinguisher at the base of the fire.
- Squeeze the lever slowly and evenly.
- Sweep the nozzle from side to side.
Use your extinguisher on a small fire that’s not growing – for example, a fire contained in a wastebasket. When fighting the fire, keep your back to a clear exit so you can make an escape if you need to. If the room fills with smoke or the fire grows, leave immediately.
If you’d prefer a hands-on learning experience, call your local fire department. Most offer training on how to use a fire extinguisher.
When to replace a fire extinguisher
Fire extinguishers don’t last forever. All models can lose pressure over time. Depending on the model, they last between 5 and 15 years – even if no expiration date is listed.
To make sure your fire extinguisher is in good working order, check the pressure gauge monthly. If it’s in the green, it’s functional. If it’s in the yellow or red, it will need refilled or serviced. Replace yours ASAP if you notice any of these things:
- The hose or nozzle is cracked, ripped, or jammed.
- The locking pin is unsealed or missing.
- The handle is missing or unsteady.
- The inspection sticker or service record is missing.
To protect your home to the best of your ability, check out more top safety tips from a former firefighter.
Also talk to an insurance professional like an Erie Insurance agent in your community. He or she can help make sure your home has the right homeowners insurance in case a fire happens despite your best efforts to prevent one.