Which Should I Buy?
You'll find residential fire extinguishers at home centers, building-supply and hardware stores, as well as through companies that service them. Shopping for an extinguisher is a lot like shopping for a car — you'll have more than enough makes and models to choose from. But you can narrow down those choices with a few basic questions: What kind of fires can it put out?
A fire is a fire, right? Wrong. Fires have different properties depending on what's burning. Because all fires aren't alike, neither are extinguishers. The agent inside must match the fire for the unit to work. Safety experts group fires into classes. The three major ones for homeowners: Class A — ordinary combustibles, such as wood, cloth, or trash; Class B — flammable liquids, including cooking oil, gases such as propane, and some plastics; Class C — fires that are heated by electrical energy. Class C fires actually involve the same fuels as A and B, except electrical current supplies the ignition source needed for burning. Take away the current, and any remaining fire falls into one of the other two classes. How can you tell which fires an extinguisher can effectively and safely put out? Be sure it has a UL-listed label. Underwriters Laboratories tests and rates extinguishers according to the classes and size of fire they can put out. Look for the fire class symbols. Every manufacturer use symbols that tell you at a glance which classes of fire the extinguisher is rated for. They appear on the label as either the class letter inside an icon — A in a green triangle, B in a red square and C in a blue circle — or as small pictorials that show the type of fire on which the extinguisher is effective. Which class should I pick?
Most residential extinguishers are BC- or ABC- rated. For most homeowners, ABC extinguishers are the best choice. Here's why:
BC extinguishers use carbon dioxide or sodium bicarbonate as the extinguishing agent and are most effective on B and C fires, though they can have some effect on an A fire. ABC extinguishers, however, work on all three fire classes. Often referred to as "multipurpose," ABC units use ammonium phosphate. The downside to this chemical: it leaves behind a fine, yellowish powder that can coat floors, furniture, and appliances, and wreak havoc on electrical and electronic equipment if not quickly cleaned up. What size do I need?
There are several considerations here. The primary ones are size and heft. A unit that's too bulky and heavy is useless. Choose a unit that the smallest adult in your home can handle. But you also need to consider the size of fire the extinguisher is rated to put out. UL determines the latter qualifier. After using an extinguisher on fires of various sizes, an examiner translates the results into a numerical code that accompanies the rated class. The numbers range from 1 to 40 for a Class A rating, and 1 to 640 for Class B. Class C fires get no numerical rating, because they're caused by an electrically energized A or B fuel. The higher the number, the larger the fire the unit can handle. Unfortunately, the more fire an extinguisher can put out, the bigger and heavier it is. Residential fire extinguishers weigh from 2 to 10 lbs. Your best bet: Buy an extinguisher that's rated highly, yet light enough for all adults in the house to handle. As a rule, Conroy suggests extinguishers with a 2-A: 10-B:C rating. That means it will put out a Class A fire that would otherwise require 2½gallons of water; that it should put out a 10-square-foot Class B fire when used by a novice firefighter and one up to 25 square feet when used by a pro; and that it works on electrical fires. Should I choose a disposable or rechargeable model? There's no easy answer; it depends on your habits and values. Disposable models last about 12 years before they lose pressure and must be discarded. They weigh and cost the least—between 2 and 10 lbs. Rechargeable models can be refilled and pressurized after use and if they lose pressure. They're usually made of more durable materials, with metal head and discharge parts instead of the plastic found in most disposables. On the downside, rechargeables should receive a yearly check by a certified technician for pressure and defects. While the typical fee is $10 to $25, ongoing servicing rates vary, so compare companies. And if you buy a rechargeable extinguisher from a store without on-site service, be sure it can be serviced locally. Rechargeable models cost more than disposables — up to $50 — and typically weigh in at 9 to 10 lbs. for a 2-A: 10-B:C unit. Which should you buy?
Compare short- and long-term costs. And consider whether the durability of a rechargeable and the reassurance of having it checked annually by a professional are worth its added expense. Remember, too, that whichever fire extinguisher you decide on, only adults should use it.
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