How many things can you plug into an electrical outlet before it catches fire?

Electrical Fires

In addition to calculating your electricity usage, there are other things you can do to prevent your home from going up in flames this Christmas. Things like faulty wiring, winter weather and bad product choices can all act as contributing factors in a holiday fire.

­Every year, thousands of counterfeit electrical products end up on the shelves of legitimate stores across the United States. And a lot of these products simply aren't built to withstand the demands of the extra holiday decorations. The Consumer Product Safety Commission gets its hands on these p­roducts whenever it can. The CPSC tests products and finds that many counterfeit products can't stand up to even the most basic safety testing. When they discover a counterfeit or faulty product, the CPSC issues recalls of these products.

Even certified products can cause an overload. Electrical devices that are built to put out heat, like space heaters and hair dryers, tend to use more power than other devices. Devices like these may overload a circuit, especially one that's already reaching its maximum amperage allowance. Coupled with a faulty circuit breaker, this overload can cause the products to overheat and possibly catch fire.

But it's even more likely that a fire will occur in a place you can't easily see. Waste heat generated by the electrical current can cause wiring hidden within a home's walls to expand and contract, eventually loosening it. Once that wiring is loose, the electricity can arc, with a heat output reaching 1,500 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's more than enough to ignite wood or old insulation under normal circumstances, but winter weather is less humid than in the summer. Inside a house in the winter months, the relative humidity within the walls can drop to that of the average desert, turning studs -- wooden wall supports -- into kindling, easily ignited by an arcing current.

Here we arrive at one of the problems with electrical fires: By the time you see smoke coming out of your outlet, a fire has most likely already begun and is spreading out of sight within your walls and up to your attic. It's easy for a homeowner who has turned off the power to a burning socket to think that they've taken care of the problem. But an unseen fire may already be building beyond the outlet.

Even worse, electrical fires can be particularly tricky to put out. Since they involve electricity, using water to put out the fire can cause electrocution. Chemical powders can cause the fire to smolder then reignite. According to Georgia Mutual Aid Group state safety officer Phil Choven, if you notice an electrical fire, you should turn off your power (if it's safe) and leave your house. Then call 911 to report the fire.

Read the next page to find out how you can protect yourself from holiday fires.