At the dinner table, I leaned over and whispered urgently to Kate, our host, “Smells like something burning.” A bit startled, she got up and went into the kitchen to check. At her sudden departure, the conversation around the table fell silent.
As we waited, she returned and announced, “Everything seems to be all right.” Things went back to normal. We were having a good time. The food was delicious and the conversation lively. It was Kate’s husband Alex’s birthday party.
But the smell lingered and seemed to get stronger. “Any one else smell something burning?” I asked loudly this time. In the silence that followed, Alex raised his head, sniffed the air, and said, “I believe you are right.”
With some urgency, we got up from the table and started looking around the house. I decided to go upstairs. Past the first guest bedroom, outside the second recently converted into a study, the smell was perceivably stronger. It seemed something plastic or synthetic was smoldering.
Not knowing what to expect, I cautiously opened the door and flicked on the light. Everything appeared to be normal but the burning smell was strong. Then, I noticed an extension cord running from an outlet next to the door to a computer workstation across the room. The cord was covered with a rug. The smell seemed to originate from the rug. There was no smoke.
After unplugging the cord, which felt quite hot to the touch, I guardedly turned the edge of the rug over. I could see a dark smoky brown welt on the under side of the rug and a faint brown line on the carpet. A few more minutes and the rug would probably have caught fire.
Hearing me call out, Alex and Kate came up. We opened windows, took the rug outside, and double-checked to make sure everything else was all right.
The dinner that resumed was a bit subdued and when the birthday cake was brought out the singing and gaiety seemed bit strained, but we were all happy and thankful to have averted a potentially serious mishap.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that each year about 4,000 injuries associated with electrical cords require hospital visits. About half the injuries is a result of people tripping over extension cords.
The CPSC also reports about 3,300 residential fires resulting in 50 deaths and more than 300 injuries each year are due to misuse of extension cords. Alex had one part right. Running out of outlets while setting up a new computer, he used an extension cord and covered it with a rug to avoid tripping. The weather was unusually cold, so to keep warm, he later plugged in a portable heater into the same cord and forgot to turn it off.
The cord’s rating was adequate for the current being drawn. It would have run warm but it would not have been dangerous. However, the rug over it was acting as a heat trap, the combination a serious fire hazard. The synthetic backing of the rug made the situation even worse.
The moral of the story: don’t use rugs to cover extension cords. They act as thermal insulators and can cause electrical cords running under them to overheat. Use specially designed cord covers instead. They are available at your hardware store, and they are not costly.
Accidents and injuries due to electricity are actually relatively low. But electricity can still be dangerous. Imagine what might have happened if no one was at home, or if it was late at night and everyone was asleep.
For additional safety tips related to electricity, please do a search on the web. There is an enormous amount of information available.