“What we don’t know is how soon it will happen, we just know that it will happen.” Fire official talks overloading power strips

What can happen when a power strip is overloaded. (Photo Credit: Shepardsville Fire Dept.)
What can happen when a power strip is overloaded. (Photo Credit: Shepardsville Fire Dept.)

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) – Power strips are handy when you have just ‘one more thing’ that needs plugged in.

But sometimes ‘one more thing’ turned into an overloaded power strip.

Fire officials say that it can become dangerous.

Norm Loudermilk is an arson investigator with the Terre Haute Fire Department. While he isn’t an electrician, he does know a few things about power strips.

He says, “I think that we’re just all creatures of habit, you know, we’ve been doing it for years, our parents did it, that’s the way we grew up. We plug as much stuff as we can in here, quote ‘nothing’s ever happened, so then why worry?'”

But Loudermilk says you should be inspecting your power strips and doing so often because it gives you a chance to catch if anything is going wrong.

He says, “If you buy one that’s white, which I recommend, and you start seeing little tan spots around the plugs, then you know that that’s starting to heat up, that’s starting to get discolored. So you want to replace that as soon as possible because you know that that is drawing a lot of power.”

The investigator adds, “These get old, they don’t last forever so make sure you replace them frequently. The other thing is just maintenance. Check them. Make sure there is no wear or tear, no arching or black marks on the tips of these. If you see that, then you have a problem with your outlet. Make sure they’re plugged in all the way. If they start to pull out they will begin to arch and that will cause a spark and will heat things up.”

Loudermilk says there’s a variety of reasons why overheating can happen.

The investigator says, “If you start plugging in a computer, and a stereo, and a TV, and a sound system, and on top of this you have an extension cord that goes out into another, and you have four things plugged into that, then you’re drawing more power than what this thing was ever intended to.”

Loudermilk says even though there are multiple outlets on a power strip, it isn’t always best to fill every one.

He says you could plug in multiple small items like a hair dryer or curling iron.

But it’s up to you to make sure you don’t exceed the power or current rating of the power strip.

Another thing to check for is a UL sticker.

It means the power strip has been tested and approved.

Loudermilk says, “We have been called to fires where the cause of the fire was electrical and the source of that ignition was a power strip or an overloaded extension cord. Again, every cord is rated for how many amps that it can pull through that cord. What we don’t know is how soon it will happen, we just know that it will happen.”

The investigator even notes that there are other bad practices out there that could be to blame for overheating a power strip.

He says, “People will take these and cover them up. They’ll put them under a rug, they’ll put them under the back of their couch, and then all that does is take that heat that is building up and confines it and all they’re doing is raising the temperature of this item and the temperature of this surrounding material which is combustible, and that’s where you have a failure.”

Loudermilk says detecting an overheated strip only takes a touch.

He says, “If you reach down and feel this, it should never feel hot. You know, it shouldn’t feel hot to the touch. If it’s starting to feel warm, then you’re drawing more power through here than you probably should and you’re going to start having failure of this.”

Loudermilk says breaking these bad habits to keep these devices from overheating or overloading could just save your life.