Updated: November 2015
A fire extinguisher is something most people don't think about until they need one. And while a fire extinguisher can help you put out many small home fires, you'll find that it's of little value if it hasn't been kept in operating condition.
You need to check your fire extinguisher periodically to make sure it is functioning properly.
Before you buy or use a fire extinguisher, you should know what types of fires it is made to handle. The U.S. Fire Administration says fire extinguishers are made to combat five types of blazes:
Some fire extinguishers may be made for more than one type of fire, and they will be labeled as such: "ABC" or "BC," for example.
The National Fire Protection Agency's code says portable fire extinguishers should be inspected monthly and should undergo thorough maintenance once a year. And while the yearly maintenance should be performed by a professional, you can perform the monthly checks.
Performing a monthly inspection of your fire extinguisher is easy. Check the label or user manual for the manufacturer's maintenance suggestions, and then follow these steps for doing your own monthly check:
1. Ensure easy access.
It's critical that your fire extinguisher is easy to access in the event of an emergency. You don't want it blocked by furniture or other items.
2. Make sure it's visible.
You can't use a fire extinguisher to put out a fire if you can't find it. Be certain the extinguisher is placed or hung in a spot that can be easily seen by everyone in the room. Many fire extinguishers come with a large red decal that you can stick on a wall to help you spot the extinguisher in an emergency.
3. Check the tamper seal.
Extinguishers have a tamper seal to verify that they have not been interfered with. Check this seal during your inspection. If the seal is broken, someone may have tried to use the extinguisher. If so, it's time to replace the extinguisher or have it professionally inspected.
4. Look at the pull pin.
The pull pin is the piece that is pulled out of the handle to allow the extinguisher to operate. Be certain the pull pin is still inserted in the handle. If the pin is missing, it's a clear sign that the fire extinguisher has been tampered with or used and needs a professional inspection.
5. Check the pressure.
Many fire extinguishers have a pressure gauge. If yours has one, ensure that the gauge's needle indicates that the pressure is in the proper operating range. Most of the time, the correct pressure will be marked in green on the gauge.
6. Look for physical damage.
Fire extinguishers can be dropped and damaged in many ways. Look for obvious physical damage. In addition, corrosion and other age-related damage can indicate that it's time to either have your extinguisher looked at by a professional, or it's time to get a new one. The US Fire Administration says that, if you ever notice that your fire extinguisher is damaged in any way, you should replace it immediately.
7. None of the parts are damaged or restricted.
The USFA says you should make sure there are no bugs or other debris in the extinguisher's hoses or nozzles.
8. If you have a dry chemical extinguisher, shake it once a month.
Your manual will tell you if your extinguisher is the dry chemical type. The USFA says shaking your extinguisher will help prevent the powder inside from settling or packing. But always check the manual or the manufacturer's recommendations first.
9. Track the professional inspections.
Your fire extinguisher should have a tag to record the annual professional inspections. Check this tag to be certain that an annual schedule is being maintained.
It's important to keep in mind that different types of fire extinguishers require different types of testing and maintenance. Your portable fire extinguisher is likely either a stored pressure extinguisher or a dry chemical system. If you're not sure, check your owner's manual.
According to fire equipment distributor Sutton-Clark Supply, Inc., these two types of fire extinguishers require different types of annual maintenance, which should always be done by a professional.
Stored Pressure Extinguishers: The professional who performs the yearly maintenance on this type of fire extinguishers will likely completely disassemble it. At this time, a test will likely be performed on all carbon dioxide hose assemblies to ensure whether that the extinguisher is functioning properly. Some stored pressure extinguishers may require a 12-year hydrostatic test by a professional and may be subject to additional maintenance procedures. Again, check your manual.
Dry Chemical Systems: These extinguishers require semi-annual maintenance in accordance with the manufacturer's manual. An exception is the dry chemical within a stored pressure system, which requires examination every six years.
Fire extinguishers are often an overlooked part of a home safety plan. Do your checks, know how to use them (check with your local fire department about fire extinguisher education) and consult professionals when you need them, and be sure your extinguishers will be ready if you need them.
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