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Blazing Battles: How to Choose the Right Fire Extinguisher


Among all of the life lessons you were inundated with as a child, there are some that have probably stuck with you throughout your life. Look both ways before you cross the street, don’t run with scissors, and, from the time you were young, “stop, drop, and roll” in case your clothing ever catches on fire. As you got older, and realized your clothing doesn’t catch on fire quite as often as you were led to believe, perhaps you began to notice fire extinguishers for those times when virtually anything besides your clothing goes up in flames.

Fire extinguishers have been around for hundreds of years and have been a staple in fire safety for the past century. You walk by them every day and pay little or no attention to the red cylinders hanging on the walls or support posts of your local stores, schools, hospitals, office buildings, and other structures. They’re required by most, if not all, municipal codes to be easily accessible in commercial occupancies. The specific number of extinguishers and where they’re located can vary, but the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends no more than 75 feet between extinguishers. That number can fluctuate a bit based on type of occupancy, square footage, and layout.

The less regulated, but probably more important recommendation that all homes have at least one working fire extinguisher can be a source of guilt. No one can deny that having a fire extinguisher in an occupied home is anything but a good idea. But, unfortunately, most have placed a fire extinguisher on the “I’ll get it one of these days” list. If someone hasn’t experienced the immediate and critical need for an easily accessible, working fire extinguisher, the draw to prioritize having one in the home falls dramatically.

I conducted an informal social media poll asking who has a fire extinguisher in their home. I should also mention that I am a career firefighter, so a good number of my social media friends are fellow firefighters and our family members. A shocking 75 percent of those who responded don’t have a fire extinguisher in their home.

One of the primary reasons people give for putting off the purchase of a fire extinguisher is the intimidation factor. Most recognize the obvious: A fire extinguisher is used to extinguish a fire; it’s right there in the name. But it’s not as simple as that. There are different sizes, purposes, styles, and a wide range of costs. Unfortunately, it all adds up to most people overlooking an extremely important and easy-to-use safety tool.

Understanding Fire Extinguisher Classes

In an effort to simplify the purchase and use of a fire extinguisher, let’s begin with the label and discuss what it’s telling you. The principal information you should pay attention to is the part about the classes of fire that can be extinguished with that specific device. Believe it or not, it’s not as simple as one size fits all. Fire extinguishers aren’t simply pressurized canisters filled with water. As you may know, spraying water on certain fires can actually make a bad situation worse. Most fire extinguishers, in fact, have varying chemical agents or powders that allow them to extinguish a variety of different types of fires. This is where reading the label becomes important. Fires are classified by what’s actually burning. For the average homeowner and fire extinguisher customer, there are five classes of fire you may encounter.

These classes are easily distinguished from one another by differing colors and shapes for each class. The intent of this is so they can be identified, if there were to be any damage to the label, by its shape. To take the simplicity of identification a step further, many fire extinguisher manufacturers have included color coding. Not all fire extinguisher companies use the color coding, but all use the letters and shapes.

The most common types you’ll find are combination extinguishers. They’re known as “ABC” extinguishers, referring to the types of fire they’ll put out. These extinguishers contain a multi-purpose extinguishing powder (usually a combination of monoammonium phosphate and ammonium sulphate) that allows them to be approved by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) to suppress ordinary combustibles, flammable liquids, as well as energized electrical equipment. The aforementioned fire extinguishers that you encounter in all commercial occupancies and homes are almost exclusively ABC extinguishers.

In some specialty shops and industrial locations where flammable metals are prevalent, you may find Class D extinguishers. In most scenarios, though, a Class D extinguisher wouldn’t be needed. They act much like ABC extinguishers, but often use a sodium chloride-based powder. This substance can be used on other classes of fires, but, in short, Class D extinguishers are expensive and messy.

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Class K extinguishers are becoming more common and are now available in most retail stores that carry fire extinguishers. These are specially formulated to put out grease-based kitchen fires. They spray a fine mist combination of alkaline chemicals that operate on the principle of saponification, a chemical reaction between a base and an acid to create a salt. (The same principle is used to convert fatty acid and lye into soap — see “All Washed Up” in Issue 30.) Class K extinguishers are able to snuff out the fire without the risk of spread or reignition.

How to Use a Fire Extinguisher

Knowing the purpose of the fire extinguisher is half the battle. Knowing what to do with it is the other half. The safe operation of a fire extinguisher could be a several hour class, but the basics are right there on the box when you purchase one. It’s broken down to a handy acronym: PASS.

Pull: Simply pull the plastic or metal pin sticking out the side of the handle. This pin is in place to prevent accidental discharge. If you’re not too overwhelmed at the moment and think about it, put the pin in your pocket, rather than throwing it. That way, if you wish to reinsert it in the extinguisher handle and carry it after the fire is out, you can.

Aim: Aim low, pointing the extinguisher at the base of the fire. The tendency is to point it at the bulk of the fire, but your most effective use of the contents of the extinguisher is to aim at the base first.

Squeeze: Squeeze the handle to discharge extinguisher.

Sweep: Sweep the fire from side to side until it’s completely extinguished and then back away.

Now that you’re versed on the use and operation of a fire extinguisher, it’s time to purchase one. When looking at your options online or at your local department store, they may all look similar. Which one is right for you? It can be daunting to say the least. Seven extinguishers, commonly found on the shelves of nationwide popular retail stores were put to the test and evaluated on:

  • Fire Class(es)
  • Discharge Range
  • Discharge Time
  • Weight
  • Rechargeability
  • Warranty
  • Cost

Comparing Performance

All seven fire extinguishers were discharged and evaluated. When fire extinguishers are tested and rated by UL, it’s done in a laboratory in a controlled environment. Our testing was done far less scientifically, but more practically. A mostly windless day (2 to 4 mph) was chosen and the test subject, Nick, had never utilized a fire extinguisher before. He was given minimal instruction (PASS). Each extinguisher was discharged for 2 seconds on a small fire and then that 2 seconds was added to a separate test for discharge time and distance.

The good news is, across the board, all extinguishers performed very well. In every instance the fire was out before even the 2-second mark. It’s in the subjective details that you can differentiate your own comfort level and which extinguisher would best work for you and your family. Listed cost for each extinguisher is based on an internet search at the time of writing.

Important Designations

Class A and B fires also use a numerical designation. Each “A” rating is the equivalent effectiveness that 1¼ gallons of water applied would be. Each “B” designation represents a square foot that can be extinguished by someone trained on its use.

For example: In the hands of a trained user, a 4A20BC extinguisher has the equivalent of 5 gallons of water (4A20BC), can extinguish 20 square feet of fire (4A20BC), and can be utilized on energized electrical equipment (4A20BC).

Summary

Although this is a small sampling of the many fire extinguishers found online or on retail shelves, it provides a broad overview of the high-quality options that you have when identifying which extinguisher is right for your home. There are additional extinguishers designed specifically for automotive use, flammable metals use, and a slew of others. The purpose of this evaluation wasn’t to tell you which fire extinguisher to buy, but rather highlight seven common-purpose fire extinguishers and demonstrate their uses so you can determine what factors are most important to you. Do your research, and make an educated decision about which one(s) to purchase for your home. The most difficult parts are committing to making the purchase and following through.

First Alert Tundra

Fire Class(es)
A,B,C,K

Discharge Range
16 feet

Discharge Time
39 seconds

Weight
1.4 pounds

Rechargeable
No

Warranty
3 years

Price
$18 (Amazon)

URL
www.firstalert.com

Notes
The First Alert Tundra is a bit of a unicorn in the traditional fire extinguisher market as an aerosol-style extinguisher. More and more are becoming available over time. The Tundra breaks from the traditional labeling and uses pictures and simple descriptions to describe its use, rather than the classes. First Alert confirmed that the Tundra can be used with Class A, B, C, and K fires. In our testing, the Tundra remained effective far beyond the advertised 16-foot range, and our discharge time was a full 39 seconds. Impressive for its compact design!

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First Alert Home 1

Fire Class(es)
1A10BC

Discharge Range
15 feet

Discharge Time
14 seconds

Weight
5.4 pounds

Rechargeable
Yes

Warranty
10 years

Price
$18 (Lowes)

URL
www.firstalert.com

Notes
The First Alert Home 1 is one of the most commonly found extinguishers in retail stores and homes. It’s compact, inexpensive, and capable of putting out a good amount of fire for its size. Regardless of the brand you choose, a 1A10BC extinguisher makes a nice, multi-use tool that can be kept accessible, but easily tucked away so as not to stand out in a residential room.

First Alert Home 2 Pro

Fire Class(es)
2A10BC

Discharge Range
25 feet

Discharge Time
21 seconds

Weight
10.2 pounds

Rechargeable
Yes

Warranty
12 years

Price
$40 (Amazon)

URL
www.firstalert.com

Notes
There are a few manufacturers that carry both residential as well as commercially available extinguishers. First Alert is one of them. The First Alert Home 2 Pro is the type of extinguisher you’d commonly see in a department store or school extinguisher cabinet, but it’s available for residential purchase as well. As you can see from the performance numbers, it’s just what you’d expect when compared to its smaller relative: slightly bigger, slightly more expensive, slightly further reach, and slightly longer discharge time. If your home habits lend themselves to a bit more of a fire hazard concern, this might be the extinguisher for you.

Kidde Basic Use

Fire Class(es)
1A10BC

Discharge Range
22 feet

Discharge Time
17 seconds

Weight
2.5 pounds

Rechargeable
No

Warranty
6 years

Price
$13 (Home Depot)

URL
www.kidde.com

Notes
The Kidde Basic Use fire extinguisher is a counterpart to the First Alert Home 1. It performed slightly better in our testing, but only by a marginal amount. Kidde has a strong and enduring reputation as a leader in home fire safety, but in 2017, announced a major recall to a few extinguishers due to clogging or the need of excessive force to activate. By all appearances, the company corrected the problem and has rebounded to regain its place among the home fire safety leaders.

Kidde Pro 210

Fire Class(es)
2A10BC

Discharge Range
30 feet

Discharge Time
30 seconds

Weight
7 pounds

Rechargeable
Yes

Warranty
6 years

Price
$44 (Home Depot)

URL
www.kidde.com

Notes
Like the First Alert Home 2 Pro, the Kidde Pro Series 210 is the larger of the residential Kidde options. It performed extremely well in our evaluation, leading the pack in discharge time and distance. Like its competitor, it’s slightly larger, but carries with it greater capacity for fire extinguishment. Some would consider these 2A10BC extinguishers overkill for a residential application, while others feel bigger is better.

Cold Fire CF302/20TL

Fire Class(es)
ABDK

Discharge Range
18 feet

Discharge Time
10 seconds

Weight
1.3 pounds

Rechargeable
No

Warranty
3 years

Price
$25

URL
www.coldfiresw.com

Notes
Cold Fire extinguishers are relatively new to the market and are in a class of their own. The company’s popularity is growing among police and fire departments. Although these extinguishers aren’t found on retail shelves, they’re commercially available through the manufacturer’s website and can be ordered by email at [email protected] Although their 20-ounce extinguisher performed on the low end of discharge time and distance, the fire knockdown power is unmistakable. Cold Fire touts a UL rating for A, B, D, and K fires, which means, although they lack the Class C rating for energized electrical equipment, the Class K rating makes them usable for kitchen grease fires. Cold Fire is 100-percent biodegradable, nontoxic, noncorrosive, and has six times the penetrating capability of water. Their small extinguishers pack an impressive punch.

Kidde Kitchen

Fire Class(es)
10BC

Discharge Range
15 feet

Discharge Time
22 seconds

Weight
3.9 pounds

Rechargeable
No

Warranty
12 years

Price
$15 (Menards)

URL
www.kidde.com

Notes
The Kidde Kitchen extinguisher isn’t like any of the other extinguishers evaluated for this article. It’s specifically formulated for kitchen fires. Although Class K extinguishers are specifically designed for burning cooking oils — the alkaline mixture combines with the burning oil to form a soapy foam layer — this extinguisher is rated for Class B fires, which basically eliminates the oxygen and puts out the fire. In our evaluation, it immediately snuffed out the grease fire, didn’t splatter or spread the fire, and left a film over the oil, suppressing the flammable vapors. This is a great option to have in your family’s kitchen.



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