What to Do When Your Outlet Smokes

What’s not to love about electricity when it powers so much of our lives? Well, it’s all great until it isn’t … what happens if you suddenly have a smoking outlet? What DO you do?

Before we get to that, let’s talk first about causes of smoke in your electrical outlets. Because taking the appropriate steps to prevent is a much better solution than having to deal with the problem in the first place. So what are some common issues?

  • Debris inside the outlet: Dust and/or dirt in an electrical outlet can absolutely cause a short circuit. When a build up of debris occurs, that can transfer electricity, resulting in an arcing. That arcing can create heat and a possible fire hazard. If you want to avoid this, clean your outlets by turning off the outlet’s circuit at the breaker box. Once it’s off, take a screwdriver, remove the cover and use a vacuum attachment to remove debris from the plugs and inside. You can wipe the cover with a damp cloth, too. Don’t spray anything around this and make sure you let everything dry completely before replacing the covers and restoring the power.
  • Wiring Issues: If you’ve got damaged connections, faulty grounds or loose wires anywhere in your home electrical system, these can lead to arcing and then smoke & fire. That smoke will need to go somewhere, so typically it exits through outlets. If you see smoke coming from an outlet not in use then that’s a sign that there’s a much bigger problem somewhere and you need to turn off the circuit at the breaker box immediately. Dial 911 and do NOT restore power until you’ve had an electrical inspection by a licensed electrician.
  • Corrosion/Loose Connections: You need to have the connections between a device’s plug and receptacles secure in order for electricity to flow properly. With heavy use, sometimes an outlet can have wear, cracking or corroding and that affects the connection of the prongs to the receptacle. If a device’s plug doesn’t fit snugly, then sparks and/or arcing can happen when the current jumps the gap. That can lead to smoke which can lead to fire. Replace any damaged outlets.
  • Overloaded Outlets: It’s no surprise that we can overload an outlet, given how many devices households typically are using, so consequently overloading is a common cause of smoking outlets. In fact, many circuits for houses are only designed to handle a load of 15-20 amps. Plug a few devices into the same outlet and chances are you’ve gone beyond its capacity. Now typically when an overload occurs the breaker will trip and shut it down. When that doesn’t happen, the overload can cause excessive heat, smoldering wires, smoke and of course the possibility of a fire. Do NOT ignore a tripped circuit. If a circuit continues to shut down, disconnect some items and use them on another circuit. It would also be wise to consult with a licensed electrician about possible upgrades to your home’s electrical system.

If you notice an outlet smoking, it is definitely a serious issue and you should take immediate action. It’s really important that you at the very least know what to do if you spot a smoking outlet, to keep you & your family safe. Once you’ve determined whether or not you need to evacuate, then move onto whether there’s a fire already in the wall. If it’s very sudden, like you’ve just plugged something in and you see a spark, or notice a burning smell, you may be able to follow these steps and avoid an actual fire.

  1. Turn off and unplug the device
  2. Feel the wall where the outlet is located. If you feel that its hot or there’s more smoke pouring out of it, evacuate and call 911.
  3. Waiting for help is the safest. But if you feel that you can tackle this and stop a small fire from spreading then use the appropriate fire extinguisher. Remember on electrical fires NEVER use water because that could result in electrocution. Only use powder-based or CO2 extinguishers.
  4. If the wall isn’t hot AND if the smoke has stopped once the device has been unplugged, then you can investigate further, looking for causes.
  5. Do NOT turn the power back on to the circuit until you’ve determined the problem and addressed it. A licensed electrician is your best defense in sorting out the cause of the problem and determination that it is no longer a danger.

Electricity has enriched our lives in so many ways, but with its awesome power, it should be taken seriously, particularly when problems arise. While it’s great to know what to do when an outlet smokes, even better to know WHO should fix it? Scheduling an Electrical Safety Inspection with Sylvester Electric can give you the peace of mind to know that your house’s electrical system is up to code and operating safely. Give us a call – We’re there when you need us!