Should I Inspect My Fire Extinguisher?

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We don't often think about our fire extinguishers, but an inspection can help make sure they work when we need them most.

Every time we cook, we create a potentially hazardous situation in our home. Most of the time we sauté and simmer our way through it gracefully. But still, every year U.S. fire departments respond to 170,000 or more house fires started by cooking, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Here’s what this statistic doesn’t reveal: Homeowners douse many more fires without calling 911, because they keep a working fire extinguisher on hand and know how to use it. If you’re new to home fire protection or haven’t had a kitchen fire yet, here’s how to make sure your extinguisher will perform if needed.

What Is a Fire Extinguisher Inspection?

For homeowners, a fire extinguisher inspection is a quick check to make sure that your extinguisher will work when you need it. Inspections aren’t required by law, but checking periodically to make sure your extinguisher is proper stored, easily accessible, charged and undamaged is a good habit to get into.

“Do this at least once a year,” says Matthew Fix, president of Life Safety Technologies and Flow Fire Protection in Fort Collins, Colorado. “When you change your smoke detector batteries is a great time.”

Can You DIY a Fire Extinguisher Inspection?

fire extinguisher checkAlaina DiGiacomo/Family Handyman

Yes. Although home extinguishers are not built like commercial models, which feature all-metal components that require service, it is still important to inspect them regularly.

When doing a DIY fire extinguisher inspection, check to make sure:

  • The gauge on the top of the extinguisher is in the green. Some non-rechargeable extinguishers also have push-to-test pressure indicators.
  • There is no damage or corrosion to the vessel.
  • The expiration date has not passed.
  • The pin is in the handle,
  • The operating instructions face outward,
  • It’s easily reachable and not stashed behind something.

Update the log with inspection dates and notes, if you’re are keeping one. A log can be as simple as a piece of paper on the wall nearby. Also, try to stay up to date with updates from the manufacturer so you know about potential problems or recalls.

How Do I Know My Fire Extinguisher Is Working?

full fire extinguisherAlaina DiGiacomo/Family Handyman

If all appears well upon inspection, chances are your extinguisher is working.

“Here’s where a little bit of faith steps in,” says Fix. “There is no way to functionally test the extinguisher. Ensuring the gauge is in the green is the only way to know that it’s ready to fight a fire.”

What If My Fire Extinguisher Has Expired?

Most home fire extinguishers have an expiration date, typically between 10 and 12 years. Look for a date stamp on the tag, on the cylinder body or the manufacturer’s website.

While the gauge might still be in the green, if the extinguisher is expired, it’s important to replace it. Seals and internal hardware can degrade over time, jeopardizing the extinguisher’s ability to function.

Because fire extinguishers are under pressure, check with your local fire department and/or landfill for the proper way to dispose of an expired one. Don’t just throw it in the trash.

Can I Fix or Refill My Fire Extinguisher?

No. Most residential fire extinguishers are single use and non-rechargeable, according to Barry Chase, of the National Fire Protection Association. “In many cases, simply replacing the extinguisher will be the best course of action,” he says.

Fire Extinguisher Safety Tips

  • Keep extinguishers out of the reach of children.
  • Never point them at another person or animal.
  • Install them in visible, accessible locations.

Try to choose a location close to an exit. Definitely not under the kitchen sink, where it may be forgotten or too close to a kitchen fire to safely retrieve.

In general, keep one on each floor, one in the kitchen and another in the garage. If you have a basement, keep that one near the stairs so you can reach it quickly. Make sure the kitchen one is rated for grease.

Also, know how to use it before you need it. “Become familiar with its parts and operation before a fire breaks out,” says Thaddeus Harrington, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Otherwise, the time it takes to read the instructions and figure it out could jeopardize your home and your safety.

“I would also recommend that folks seek out training opportunities in their local towns or cities,” says Fix. “There are a lot of good information and demos on the internet, but there’s nothing like actually getting to feel and use a fire extinguisher for the first time. They can make the difference between life and death.”

What To Do If You Have a Home Fire

If it’s a small fire that’s easily containable with a home extinguisher, Harrington and Fix suggest applying the acronym PASS to trigger your memory:

  • Pull the pin and hold the extinguisher with the nozzle pointing away from you, then release the locking mechanism.
  • Aim low by pointing the extinguisher at the base of the fire.
  • Squeeze the lever slowly and evenly.
  • Sweep the nozzle from side to side.

“Stay calm and let the extinguisher do the work,” says Fix.

The National Fire Protection Association also says you shouldn’t attempt to extinguish a fire unless you can avoid breathing in smoke and other fumes.

“Keep your back to a clear exit when you use the device so you can make an easy escape if the fire cannot be controlled,” says Harrington. “If the room fills with smoke, leave immediately.

“Fire extinguishers are one element of a fire response plan, but the primary element is a safe escape. Every household should have a home fire escape plan and working smoke alarms.”

How Do I Choose a Good Home Fire Extinguisher?

It depends on your budget. Some people opt for the more expensive commercial-grade extinguishers, which are all metal and can be serviced. But many homeowners buy one-time use models and replace them upon their expiration.

If you’re going for the later, note that the higher-quality ones have metal handles instead of the more-breakable plastic ones. A good all-around extinguisher is this one from Amerex. For those on a budget, try this two-pack from Kiddie. Don’t forget: Fire extinguishers make great gifts, too!

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.