Know the Dangers in Your Older Home

BY: Christina Hansen

The Electrical Safety Foundation International


Home fires are a major problem in the United States

Each year, home electrical problems alone account for an estimated 53,600 fires. These fires cause more than 500 deaths, injure 1,400 people, and account for $1.4 billion in property damage.

couple outside house

Older Homes Pose an Even Greater Threat

Many of these fires occur in aging homes. Today, our dependence on electricity is increasing, and we are expecting more out of our home’s electrical system. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, half of the homes in use in the United States were built before 1973. These homes were built before many of the electronics and appliances we use today were even invented. Unfortunately, our increased demands for energy can overburden an older home’s electrical system causing fires or electrocutions.

Put it into perspective:

  • 1/2 of the homes in the United States were built before the advent of the drip-type coffee maker or garage door opener.
  • 1/3 were built before the hair dryer or electric can opener were invented.
  • This does not even take into account the recent explosion in the use of computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices

Electrocutions can be Prevented

Fire is not the only danger. Each year, hundreds of people in the U.S. are electrocuted in their own homes.
Many electrocutions and home electrical fires can be prevented by using more up-to-date technology and by recognizing warning signs your home may be showing.


This Toolkit can help you protect your home

firefighter in gear


Who is ESFI?

The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) is dedicated exclusively to promoting electrical safety. Established in 1994, ESFI proudly sponsors National Electrical Safety Month each May and focuses on raising consumer education to reduce personal injury and death due to electrical accidents. Funded solely by the industry, ESFI is the leading advocate of electrical safety.


By educating yourself on the dangers commonly found in older homes you can take an active roll in protecting yourself.

Home Safety Checklist

This toolkit provides you with a simple and easy checklist that can help you to identify electrical hazards in your home


This toolkit also introduces technology that can protect your family from injury and your home from fire.

This lifesaving technology includes:

  • AFCI's – a new type of circuit breaker that recognizes potential fire hazards and immediately shuts off the power.
  • GFCI's – special outlets that have saved thousands of people from shocks and burns over the last three decades.
  • TRO's – new outlets designed to protect small children from inserting foreign objects into them.


Aging Happens but fires don’t have to

outside of home

Top Causes of Arc Faults

  • Loose or improper connections, such as electrical wires to outlets or switches
  • Frayed appliance or extension cords • Pinched or pierced wire insulation, such as a wire inside a wall nipped by a nail or a chair leg sitting on an extension cord
  • Cracked wire insulation stemming from age, heat, corrosion, or bending stress
  • Overheated wires or cords
  • Damaged electrical appliances
  • Electrical wire insulation chewed by rodents


What is an Arc Fault?

An arc fault occurs when electricity is unintentionally released from home wiring, cords, or appliances because of damage or improper installation. This release of electricity can cause surrounding material to catch fire. According to the National Fire Protection Association, electrical arcing is the source of ignition in more than 30,000 fires annually. These fires are responsible for the deaths and injuries of hundreds of people and cause more than $750 million in direct property damage.


causes of arc faults on wires

A Consumer Product Safety Commission report revealed a number of factors that contribute to electrical fires in existing homes, including improper alterations, deterioration due to aging, and faulty products. These factors often cause arc faults, which are a leading cause of home fires.


How can Arc Faults be prevented in older homes?

AFCI device

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCI's) are devices that replace standard circuit breakers in the electrical service panel. AFCI's detect arc faults and shut down power to a circuit in milliseconds. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Healthy Homes report lists lack of AFCI's among the primary residential hazards associated with burns and fire-related injuries.

These devices are so effective that the 2008 Edition of the National Electrical Code® requires that almost EVERY circuit in new homes be protected by AFCI's

firefighter with arms crossed


Installing & Testing AFCI's

AFCI circuit breakers should be installed by a licensed electrician. They should be tested regularly after installation to make sure they are working properly and protecting the circuit.


Why is it important to have an AFCI breaker installed in my home?

An AFCI provides a higher level of protection than a standard circuit breaker by detecting and removing the hazardous arcing condition before it becomes a fire hazard. Hidden electrical fires can spread quickly, delaying detection by smoke alarms.


Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs)

coffee maker and sandwich press in kitchen

GFCI Quick Tips

A GFCI should be used in any area where water may come in contact with electrical products.

  • Put a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) between your electric power source and your electric product.
  • Test your GFCI monthly and after every major electrical storm.
  • If you have a home without GFCIs, consult a qualified, licensed electrician about adding this important protection; purchase plug-in units or a portable GFCI to provide individual receptacle or load protection.


Over the last three decades, Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs) have saved thousands of lives and prevented many more injuries. Found mostly in areas where electrical products might come in contact with water
(i.e. bathrooms, kitchens, and outdoors), a GFCI is a special type of outlet designed to trip before a deadly electrical shock can occur. Just 25 years after the GFCI was introduced, the number of accidental electrocutions in the United States has been cut in half, even though electricity use has doubled. If GFCIs were installed in older homes, experts suggest that 70 percent of the approximately 400 electrocutions that occur each year in the home could be prevented.


How does the GFCI work?

GFCIs constantly monitor electricity flowing in a circuit. If the electricity flowing into the circuit differs by even a slight amount from that returning, the GFCI will
quickly shut off the current flowing through that circuit. The advantage of using GFCIs is that they can detect even small variations in the amount of leakage current; leakage too small to trip a fuse or circuit breaker.


Testing Your GFCI
GFCIs should be tested once a month to make sure they are working properly.

how to test a GFCI outlet

The nightlight should go out when the “Test” button is pushed. If the light does not go out, then the GFCI may have been improperly wired or damaged and does not offer shock protection. In this case, contact a licensed electrician to check the GFCI and correct the problem.


Older homes do not have technology that saves children

child in playroom by outlet

Every year, nearly 2,400 children are injured by inserting objects such as keys or hairpins into electrical outlets. This means that seven children per day are treated in emergency rooms for injuries due to contact with outlets. The vast majority of these incidents involve children under the age of six.

These injuries can be prevented

Using a plastic outlet cap is a common solution to prevent children from sticking objects into outlets, but unfortunately, plastic caps are not the safest option and can be easily removed by a young child. A safer solution is installing tamper-resistant outlets. These specialized outlets have been so effective in preventing injuries to children that the 2008 National Electrical Code requires that tamper resistant outlets be installed in all new homes constructed. However, these inexpensive products can easily be incorporated into existing homes as well.


What are Tamper-Resistant Outlets?

Tamper-Resistant Outlets are standard wall outlets that feature an internal shutter mechanism that protects children from sticking objects into the receptacle (like hairpins, keys and paper clips).
The spring-loaded shutter system in the outlet only allows electricity to flow when equal pressure is applied simultaneously to both shutters such as when an electrical plug is inserted. During unused conditions, both shutters are
closed, and openings are covered.


Are they easy to install in older homes?

Yes. It is easy to retrofit an older home with tamper-resistant receptacles. Installation of tamper-resistant receptacles is identical to installation of standard receptacles.

What do Tamper-Resistant Outlets cost?

You can replace common electrical outlets for tamper-resistant receptacles for as little as two dollars per outlet in existing homes. ESFI estimates that tamper-resistant receptacles will add less than $50 to the cost of a new home’s electrical system.


The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) is dedicated exclusively to promoting electrical safety. ESFI is a 501(c)(3) organization funded by electrical manufacturers and distributors, independent testing laboratories, utilities, safety and consumer groups, and trade and labor associations. ESFI sponsors National Electrical Safety Month each May, and engages in public education campaigns and proactive media relations to help reduce property damage, personal injury and death due to electrical accidents.
Electrical safety tips are available on the Electrical Safety Foundation International’s Web site, at, or call (703) 841-3229.

Click here to view Home Safety Checklist


This article is the intellectual property of the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), and has been reprinted with their permission. For more great electrical safety articles and resources, visit their website: