It's not natural, but for a variety of reasons, on rare occasions,
catastrophic things go wrong. Today, we have Arc fault circuit breakers,
designed to prevent this sort of thing from happening, and when they work,
they do just that.
This past Monday night, my brother in law called me and told me that an arc
fault circuit breaker in his panel, burst into flames. Fortunately nothing
but the breaker was damaged.
My story might not be too applicable, but in 1980 I had a 1500 watt
room heater plugged into a receptacle in a building built in 1930.
I had used this for several nights, maybe many, but this time, in the
morning, for some reason I woke up and saw one or two inch blue
flames coming from the hard rubber plug, or from the receptacle.
Although continuing to lie down, I quickly spraing into action, to
pull the cord out of the wall. I was reaching for the cord and the
girl who was with me kept pulling my arm back, why I don't know. On
my third or fourth try, she still hadn't given up, but I used more
than the usual force needed to move my arm and it's good that I was
stronger than she.
The plug got hot because the outlet wasn't springy anymore and didn't
make good contact with the plug. The outlet had many coats of paint
and I continued to use it without problem for a tv and iirc an
electric blanket, but not the heater anymore.
So the arcfault breaker is there to prevent fires from arcing, and
instead it catches on fire. I guess I should keep the door to my
breaker box closed.
On a clear, calm day here a few years ago, a tree fell on a the power
lines higher tension wires shorting them out on the household wires.
The surge blew all the surge protectors in my house and there were
scorch marks around a few outlets. Fortunately all we lost was a
microwave oven, not on a surge protector. There was no fire but if
something was flammable around the outlets, there could have been.
You've heard of "Spontaneous Human Combustion?"
Electrical outlets DO burst into flames from any number of causes: oily
rags, rodents playing with matches, etc. That's probably why electrical
outlets are required to be in boxes.
However, the NEC or UL or whoever is in charge of this stuff left the front
To be even more safe, switch and outlet plates should be at least as
fire-retardant as the boxes and the holes in the boxes should be plugged
with an inflammable substance like concrete.
Maybe teeny-tiny sprinkler systems...or Halon.
Remember that many outlets are not isolated, but are part of a
chain so current may be going through the outlet even if nothing is
plugged into it. If you have aluminum wire it can cause a great deal
of heat and start a fire well below the rated capacity of the outlet.
The same thing can happen to copper wire, but it is much less likely.
I have seen the ad on TV, and my take is that it appeared to me that the
flames suddenly arose from ignition of a flammable gas or vapor of a
flammable liquid. As in my take is that the scene was staged to an extent
- Don Klipstein ( email@example.com)
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