Avoiding an Extension Cord Fire Hazard in Barns

Why are extension cords dangerous for barns and heaters?

Avoiding an Extension Cord Fire Hazard in Barns

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Heat lamps and barn fires are a common theme during cold weather months. Fires start when heat lamps contact a flammable surface. Newer versions of heat lamps with protective casings reduce this risk. Unfortunately, selecting safe heat lamps for barns will not always eliminate the danger when deciding how to keep goats warm in cold weather. There is also an extension cord fire hazard.  

Heather L. relays her story of a tragic loss from fire caused by a bulb shattering. Not long after her fire, one of her neighbors also had a fire that claimed 10 does and 46 kids due to an outlet malfunction where they plugged a tank heater. 

Many barn fires start with the electricity used to power appliances through outlets and extension cords. Why are extension cords dangerous? And how do outlets and extension cords contribute to fire hazards? 

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Is it safe to leave extension cords plugged in? No. Extension cords are designed for temporary, intermittent power needs. Intermittent use allows the cord to cool properly. As a general rule, never use extension cords with heating devices. Wall outlets are rated to handle the higher continuous wattage requirement of a heat source, while most power strips and extension cords are not, resulting in overheating the cord. 

Resistance is key. The thinner the wire — or higher the gauge — the higher the electrical resistance. Resistance produces heat in the wiring. The gauge indicates the cord’s capacity. The smaller the gauge, the more current the cord can handle. Cord length is also important. Long cords cannot handle as much current as short cords of the same gauge, as resistance increases over distance.   

The wattage rating of the appliance should match the ampere, or “amp,” rating of the cord. The cord’s rating is printed on the cord jacket. Never exceed that rating. Watts and amps are not equivalent. To calculate an amp, divide the watts by volts. For instance, a 1200-watt appliance divided by 120 volts (standard outlet voltage) equals 10 amps. Using more than one appliance is not recommended, as the wattage required will also increase.   

The quality of insulation on the cord is critical. Use only cords approved by an independent testing laboratory, such as the Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL), Intertek (ETL), or Canadian Standards Association (CSA) which will be indicated on the cord. What happens if an extension cord gets wet? If the cord is going to be used outdoors — meaning in an environment that is not climate-stable — the cord should be rated “For Outdoor Use.” To avoid electric shock, do not submerge outdoor cords in water or snow. Never fix the cord to surfaces with tape, nails, or staples. Covering a cord traps heat, and crimping compromises the wires and insulation. 

Do not plug cords together, especially cords with different ratings. The joined area is a hazard as it can loosen and corrode, increasing resistance, generating heat, and potentially causing a fire.

Use the length needed. The cord rating assumes that it can dissipate heat, and coiling a cord in use, especially on a reel, prevents any heat from dissipating. A hot extension cord can fail. Do not plug cords together, especially cords with different ratings. Why can’t you plug an extension cord into another? The joined area is a hazard as it can loosen and corrode, increasing resistance, generating heat, and potentially causing a fire. An overload will usually trip a breaker, which is an electrical safety feature. Extension cords elevate resistance; the breaker cannot determine if it is a fault or just the load needed by the appliance.   

Cords usually fail in one of three ways: 1. continued use, not allowing heat to dissipate, so the insulation melts; 2. mechanical damage to the insulation, such as piercing, scraping, or cutting, exposing the wire; or 3. moisture, dirt, or corrosion on the contact points, increasing the resistance and heat in that area

Cords should be three-pronged, the third prong being a grounding pin, which is a safety feature. Never remove the grounding pin, nor fit an adapter into a two-pronged outlet. Unplug cords when not in use. Unplug at the plug, do not pull. Pulling cords can damage the wires. Never use a damaged cord. An exposed strand of wire can shock or result in an electric burn. A cord hot to the touch is dangerous and a sign that it is failing or overloaded. Throw away damaged cords. Regularly check plugs and outlets for signs of corrosion or scorching. Replace loose-fitting connections.  

Plugging a cord into a surge protector creates another extension cord fire hazard. Carefully match the cord and the protector. The sum of everything plugged into the cord and surge protector must be below the surge protector rating. It is also possible to overload the outlet when using surge protectors or extension cords. Know what demands are being placed on the same circuit as the outlet — there may be several outlets sharing one circuit. 

Extension cord fire hazard: Never use a damaged cord. An exposed strand of wire can shock or result in an electric burn.

Overloaded circuits usually trip breakers. You may also notice lights are dimming or flickering or outlet faceplates discoloring or being warm to the touch. If you feel a shock from an appliance, cord, or outlet, investigate it.  

Karissima Walker, Walkerwood, South Carolina, relates her heartbreaking experience with chicken heat lamps, “The story is the same as everyone: I thought I had it foolproof, and I was wrong. I lost the entire barn and all the inhabitants, as well as sustaining damage to the house. It was a lamp over some chicks. It did have the guard over to keep the bulb from dropping, but I’ve seen those fail. It was secured above, as well. The fire department inspector indicated that he thought the fixture simply shorted.” 

One should never attempt to extinguish an electrical fire with water. Water conducts electricity, and you could be electrocuted. The other possibility is allowing the current to travel to other flammable items and spread the fire. It is wise to have fire extinguishers inside as well as away from the barn. There are different ratings for fire extinguishers. A barn fire can be a Class A fire — hay, wood, and straw, or a Class C fire — electrical. An extinguisher rated for Class A can make a Class C fire worse. Choose an extinguisher rated for both Class A and C. Baking soda is effective on small fires, as is a heavy blanket — but the blanket must completely cover the fire to deprive it of oxygen. 

A barn fire can be a Class A fire — hay, wood, and straw, or a Class C fire — electrical. An extinguisher rated for Class A can make a Class C fire worse. Choose an extinguisher rated for both Class A and C.

While many people have smoke detectors in their houses, few have them in their barns.  Household smoke detectors are not suitable for barn use due to the dust level. Thermal and flame detectors are preferred. The only drawback is that often there is no one close enough to hear the alarm. 

“The only safety feature I would like to have,” Heather offered, “is a detector that will alert my phone if it goes off. Even though we had a monitor in the barn, I heard nothing because the fire tripped the breaker almost immediately.”  

Such systems do exist, called telephone dialers.  

Heather was very cautious when rebuilding and planning for raising baby goats in cold weather. “After the fire, we really had to consider whether we wanted the risk of even having electricity in the new barn. We finally opted to, as there is a risk with everything in life, and if we accept the risk to have electricity in our houses, then it made sense, with precautions, to also have it in our barn. Because of the neighbor’s experience, we will have zero extension cords used in the new barn, and all the outlets that will have a tank heater are wired for heavy amp pull and have their own breakers.”  

Prevention is key with electrical fire. Suppose you cannot accomplish the things that need to be done in your barn without creating an extension cord fire hazard or overloading circuits. In that case, it is time to consult with an electrician about permanent solutions. It is much safer to install new circuits and outlets than to recover and rebuild from fire loss. 

 Karen Kopf and her husband Dale own Kopf Canyon Ranch in Troy, Idaho. They enjoy “goating” together and helping others goat. You can learn more about them at Kopf Canyon Ranch on Facebook or kikogoats.org    

Heather’s barn, the day after a barn heat lamp fire.

A Tragic Heat Lamp Fire Heather’s Story

My name is Heather L., and I live in the intermountain desert region of Northwest Wyoming. My small family consists of me, my husband of 17 years and our two children. We bought our small acreage property about five years ago.  

We finally had the room and opportunity to include goats on our little farm! I have been studying about goats for over a decade. I started with a Nubian and then a small herd of Nigerian Dwarves. We currently have around 50 dairy goats and Boers. 

It is normal to get temps well below –30 degrees F between December and May. I felt confident that the small barn we built would be sufficient until we could build something bigger later on, as funds allowed. Having read many discussions about the safety of different types of heaters, I opted for plain, readily accessible livestock heat lamps from my local farm supply store. You know, the kind used for brooding chicks. I was cautious and careful, and for four kidding seasons, we had no problems. We secured them to the lower rafter above the kidding stall with wire through the holes in the metal lamp bowl then secured to the rafters with screws and I-bolts. We secured cords along the rafter with pipe brackets, and my husband, who has electrician experience, wired in outlets above the stalls. The lamps and cords were above where the goats could reach. I also kept a video baby monitor in the barn, and I was present for the majority of the births. I diligently kept the lamps dusted and installed fresh bulbs every season. 

Despite all my precautions, I got a devastating call on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2020. 

I had just been out to the barn, checking on three does that had signs of imminent labor. I decided to get some food and a shower before spending the day in the barn.  

Just before I got into the shower, I got a call from our closest neighbor, about 40 acres across the field. She had seen smoke and asked if we were burning anything. I told her no. She got out her binoculars. Then she yelled out in horror, “Heather, your barn is on fire!”  

Heather’s barn, fully engulfed in flames from a heat lamp fire.

I have a muscle disease and cannot move quickly, so I hollered down the hallway to the kids. My daughter ran outside, turning on the exterior hose on her way out. The barn, which was less than 200 ft from our house, was fully engulfed in flames. There was absolutely no way that she could save our does. It was the most devastating thing I have ever experienced.  

Another neighbor, who is on the local volunteer fire dept crew, pulled in the driveway and asked if I had called emergency services. I motioned to the phone and said I was. The fire station is about six miles away from our home.  

We had one hose with low pressure, and we are on a cistern, so we only had about 1,200 gallons of water available. Our neighbors who saw the fire helped move the rest of our goats. Thankfully, no other animals were hurt.  

Within 10 minutes of calling dispatch, the fire trucks were on our property. The barn was a total loss, but the fire spread to the trees, which went directly over our house. Our wonderful volunteers knocked the fire down, and the house received no damage. 

The barn heat lamps were still secured to the rafters, so we don’t know the exact cause, but the fire started in a kidding stall, directly under a heat lamp. The inspector said that the bulbs can shatter, sending a shower of sparks down. When you have a stall full of dry, soft straw, that’s a dangerous combination. 

We had other goats due within the next couple of months. I have had babies born in January and instantly freeze to the ground, so we needed a barn with good protection from our bitter elements. We weighed the pros and cons and decided to never use another heat lamp on our property. We built a new barn with a fully enclosed, insulated kidding room the same size as the original barn. After much research, we opted for an electric, garage/shop-style heater mounted to the ceiling. The heater has safety features to prevent overheating. We used it that early spring, and while it doesn’t make the room too warm, it is safer for kidding. We also installed wi-fi cameras, so I can monitor with my phone. 

Heather’s new barn, with a garage heater as a safe alternative to heat lamps.

During the barn rebuilding, we put in more electrical safety features. In our climate, and with my personal health issues, we had to have some form of heat in our barn. After more research, we found safe alternatives to heat lamps, including a contained heat mat brooder for the chicks. 

When all is said and done, I only regret that I did not heed the warnings to stay away from cheap heat lamps. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I will never forget the screams of my girls, trapped in the barn, burning alive. That alone is enough for me to confidently say there will never be another heat lamp on my property as long as I am alive. 

Find safe alternatives to heat lamps. There are so many options out there now. Our local fire inspector told me, that heat lamps are the number 1 cause of barn fires. 

Life moves forward and we now have a safer, larger barn, but the heartache of knowing what my girls went through in their final moments will never go away. 

— Heather L.

Originally published in the November/December 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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