There’s a gif going around online that shows a central air conditioner unit with flames shooting out the top of it. If you’ve seen it, you may have wondered, how did that happen?? And how can I make sure it never happens to my air conditioner?
These are both excellent questions. Let’s take a look at the problem of air conditioner fires, the common causes, and how to prevent them.
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How Common are Air Conditioner Fires?
According to the National Fire Protection Association’s 2017 report on Home Structure Fires, air conditioners were involved in the ignition of 2,800 home fires per year, on average, from 2011-2015. That’s only 1% of the total home fires that occurred, but it’s still a disturbingly large number.
It’s even more worrisome when you consider that most of those fires occurred during only three months of the year. June, July, and August are the months when air conditioners run the most. That’s a lot of fires in just three months!
The NFPA found that those 2,800 air conditioner fires caused an average of 20 civilian deaths and 140 civilian injuries each year. They led to about $78 million in property damage per year.
The NFPA’s 2012 report on home fires caused by air conditioning or related equipment goes into some more detail. Room air conditioners, such as window units, appear to be somewhat more likely to cause fires than central air conditioners, by a ratio of 5 to 3.
Clearly, air conditioner fires are a serious problem. In order to prevent them, we have to understand how they happen.
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Electrical Causes of Air Conditioner Fires
Air conditioner fires can have several causes, but they’re generally due to some kind of electrical problem or overheating. Old or damaged wiring can lead to sparks, and so can loose electrical connections. According to the NFPA’s 2012 report, when home fires started with the air conditioner, over one-third of the time the first thing to ignite was the insulation on an electrical wire or cable.
Electrical sparks become particularly dangerous when there’s flammable material nearby. For instance, if your air conditioner unit has dried leaves or other debris inside it—such as a mouse nest–that can be the perfect kindling for a fire.
If flammable items such as dried leaves or paper have accumulated around the outside of your air conditioner, that can be a fire hazard. You should always aim for three to four feet of clearance around your air conditioner. This will help with airflow too.
With window air conditioners, a major source of fire danger is using an extension cord to plug the unit into a wall outlet. Residential extension cords and surge protectors are not rated high enough to safely power a window unit. This can cause even a new cord in good condition to overheat and catch fire.
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Overheating Can Cause Air Conditioner Fires
Aside from electrical issues, the other major cause of air conditioner fires is mechanical or other problems that lead to overheating. For instance, if the motor bearings don’t have enough lubrication, they can cause the motor to overheat, potentially leading to a fire.
Likewise, dirt or debris collecting inside of the air conditioner can insulate the motor or create friction that leads to overheating. They can also block airflow, which means the fan has to work harder to pull the necessary air.
Similarly, a dirty air filter can block airflow and overtax the blower motor. Anything that makes the motor have to work harder can lead to overheating. If there’s flammable debris near the overheated motor, that makes the situation even worse.
As air conditioners get older, they can be more prone to fires as their motors degrade and wear out. This is another good reason to consider replacing your older unit before it breaks down completely.
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Preventing Air Conditioner Fires
As you can see, air conditioner fires are a serious problem with several different potential causes. So what can you do to keep your home and family safe?
First, always have your air conditioner professionally installed. That’s true for window units as well as central ones. Professional installation of a window unit can help to prevent fires and ensure that if a fire does break out, it will stay outside of your home.
Never use an extension cord with your window unit. Fire prevention experts also warn that you should never run the cord for your air conditioner under a rug or through the wall. Again, this can lead to overheating and put the wire in contact with flammable materials.
For your central air conditioner unit, the next best thing you can do is have it inspected and serviced at least once a year. This will help to keep it clean—removing all that dirt and debris that can block airflow and act as kindling.
And your annual service should include an inspection of the electrical components of your air conditioner, to make sure everything is in working order.
Finally, as always, change your air intake filter regularly. It really is the best thing you can do personally to ensure your air conditioner runs as safely and efficiently as possible.