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Preventing electrical fires

Inspections could help reduce residential electrical fire burden suggests a recent study

March 27, 2020
By Len Garis and Ian Pik

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A recent study in British Columbia suggests that residential inspection programs with a focus on secondary suites and basements could reduce the burden of electrical fires.

Electrical fires cause significant casualties and damage in Canada. Recent fire data shows that in British Columbia alone, an average of 200 electrical fires take place each year, causing almost 12 injuries and deaths per year and almost $69,000 in material losses per incident.

Researchers from the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) and the British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit (BCIRPU) examined the 2,635 residential electrical fires in the province from 2004 to 2017, and the impact of factors such as jurisdiction, area of origin and equipment type on both their prevalence and burden (human and financial).

The result was a safety inspection checklist identifying the areas of the home and types of equipment most often involved in residential electrical fires. Published in March 2019, The Influence of Electrical Fires in Residential Homes: Geospatial Analysis Pointing to Vulnerable Locations and Equipment Failures was authored by Alex Zheng, Fahra Rajabali, Kate Turcotte, Len Garis and Ian Pike.

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“Electrical fires cause significant pain, suffering and financial losses each year – and regrettably, many are preventable,” said lead author Zheng, a BCIRPU biostatistician and researcher. “Our research has helped narrow down where and how electrical fires happen. We’re hoping it will lead to the development of evidence-based programs to tackle this problem.”

The study was based on data collected by the British Columbia Office of the Fire Commissioner on residential fires in both detached and multi-family homes. Of the 28,160 residential fires in B.C. from 2004 to 2017, 9.4 per cent (2,635) were determined to be electrical fires, caused by a short circuit or sparks. Over the 13-year study period, electrical fires caused more than 150 injuries and deaths (about six injuries or deaths per 100 fires), and more than $180 million in material losses (about $14 million per year).

Distinct patterns emerged from the data. Of note:

  • Fires originating in a basement made up 14 per cent of electrical fires, compared to nine per cent originating elsewhere in the home. Based on a modeling analysis that calculated the odds, basement fires were 39 per cent more likely to be an electrical fire than those elsewhere in the home.
  • Basement hotspots were laundry rooms (making up 16.5 per cent of electrical fires), common living spaces (14.8 per cent) and passageways (12.3 per cent). Based on the modeling analysis, all basement rooms had similar odds for electrical fires.
  • For electrical fires on any level of the home, hotspots were garages (making up 16.6 per cent of electrical), bathrooms (15.7 per cent), laundry rooms (15.2 per cent) and common living areas (12.6 per cent). Based on the modeling analysis, garage fires were 86 per cent more likely to be an electrical fire than those elsewhere in the home, bathroom fires were 53 per cent more likely, laundry rooms were 43 per cent more likely and common living space fires were 17 per cent more likely.
  • Kitchens were the room of origin less than five per cent of the time for electrical fires, possibly because they are high-use areas where problems are quickly identified. Based on the modeling analysis, kitchen fires were 64 less likely to be an electrical than those in other areas.

The higher risk of basement fires has significant implications for B.C., where high housing prices have made secondary suites – often located on a home’s lower level – an attractive option as both a mortgage helper and a source of affordable housing.

Many suites are installed without following the required regulatory process and are therefore unlikely to meet safety standards. This is particularly worrying when it comes to electrical wiring, due to the risk for fires and other electrical injuries.

To limit this risk, the study suggests that an inspection scheme focusing on electrical safety, and basements in particular, would be effective in reducing the overall burden of electrical fires.

The authors also suggest specific inspection priorities, based on their review of the types of equipment involved in electrical fires. Their assessment indicated that electrical distribution equipment was the cause of half of all electrical fires. More than half of this equipment was permanent fixtures such as electrical wiring, outlets and switchboards. Other equipment with elevated risk included permanent wiring, and cords, switches, outlets and power bars. Clothes dryers and electrical equipment with motors were also leading causes of electrical fires in certain rooms.

The following order of priority is recommended for inspections: garage, laundry, bathroom, basement, common living space, then other areas of the home. The focus in each area should be:

  • Garages: permanent wiring, extension cords, and batteries.
  • Laundry rooms: clothes washers and dryers.
  • Bathrooms: electrical components with motors.
  • Basements: permanent wiring, switchboards, extension cords, and clothes dryers.
  • Common living spaces: permanent writing, extension cords, outlets, surge protectors, and space heaters.

It was interesting to note that illegal electrical bypasses were the known cause of only about two per cent of electrical fires. This indicates that all basements and secondary suites – not just unregulated ones – should be a target for inspections.

There was also not enough evidence to conclude that basement, room type or the home’s jurisdiction (e.g. city, municipality, regional district, First Nations land or other) had an effect on the overall human and cost burden of electrical fires, underscoring the need for inspections to address the whole home.

There are some limitations to the study, based on the lack of clarification about some of the data. However, the study represents the best data to date, and the conclusions reached will be useful for jurisdictions considering inspections to reduce the burden of electrical fires.

The study can be downloaded for free from the UFV public safety and criminal justice research database at https://cjr.ufv.ca.


Len Garis, Fire Chief (Ret), Adjunct Professor at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), University. Contact him at Len.Garis@ufv.ca. Ian Pike is Professor of Pediatrics at the University of British Columbia. Contact him at ipike@bcchr.ca.


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