Everyone knows what fire looks like but few people really understand how a fire begins and what makes it grow. Similarly, fire extinguishers and the different types, sizes and models are often a mystery to many. At Fire-X, we offer the following answers to your fire suppression equipment questions.
What is Fire?
In order to have a fire, there must be three elements:
- Fuel: something which will burn
- Heat: enough to make the fuel burn
- Oxygen: air
All three elements must be present at the same time to have a fire. Fire will burn until one or more of the elements is removed, then it will go out.
How Do Photoelectric Smoke Detectors Work?
All smoke detectors consist of two basic parts: a sensor to sense the smoke and a very loud electronic horn to wake people up. Smoke detectors can run off of a 9-volt battery or 120-volt house current.
Occasionally you will walk into a store and a bell will go off as you cross the threshold. If you look, you will often notice that a photo beam detector is being used. Near the door on one side of the store is a light (either a white light and a lens or a low-power laser), and on the other side is a photo detector that can "see" the light.
When you cross the beam of light, you block it. The photo detector senses the lack of light and triggers a bell. You can imagine how this same type of sensor could act as a smoke detector. If it ever got smoky enough in the store to block the light beam sufficiently, the bell would go off. But there are two problems here: 1) It's a pretty big smoke detector, and 2) it is not very sensitive. There would have to be a LOT of smoke before the alarm would go off -- the smoke would have to be thick enough to completely block out the light. It takes quite a bit of smoke to do that.
Photoelectric smoke detectors therefore use light in a different way. Inside the smoke detector, there is a light and a sensor, but they are positioned at 90-degree angles to one another, like this:
In the normal case, the light from the light source on the left shoots straight across and misses the sensor. When smoke enters the chamber, however, the smoke particles scatter the light and some amount of light hits the sensor:
The sensor then sets off the horn in the smoke detector. Photoelectric detectors are better at sensing smoky fires, such as a smoldering mattress.
How do multi-class dry chemical fire extinguishers work?
If you ask any firefighter what it takes to create a fire, you will learn that you have to have three things:
- Fuel - some sort of combustible solid, liquid or gas
- Oxygen to react with the fuel
- Heat - there must be enough heat to get the fuel above its flash point. There is paper on your desk right now that is surrounded by oxygen. It does not burn unless you get the paper hot enough.
If you want to put out a fire, you need to remove one of the three elements. When you watch firefighters battling a forest fire, they generally try to remove fuel or heat. Either they pour water on the fire to reduce the temperature, or they try to bulldoze strips of bare earth to eliminate the fuel.
A carbon dioxide fire extinguisher works by eliminating oxygen and replacing it with carbon dioxide. You could do the same thing with just about any non-oxidizing gas (nitrogen, for example), but carbon dioxide is inexpensive and easy to store.
Another way to cut off oxygen is to throw a blanket over the fire. Covering the fire with dirt or sand does the same thing. You might have heard that you can put out a kitchen fire by throwing baking soda or salt on the fire. Throwing sand would do the same thing, but most people have more salt in their kitchens than they have sand.
Dry chemical fire extinguishers are by far the most common fire extinguishers in the home. They can handle all three types of fires you would find in a kitchen or workshop: combustible solids like wood or paper, combustible liquids like gasoline or grease, and electrical fires. The idea behind a dry chemical fire extinguisher is to blanket the fuel with an inert solid (similar to dirt or sand). A dry chemical extinguisher sprays a very fine power of sodium bicarbonate (normal baking soda), potassium bicarbonate (nearly identical to baking soda), or monoammonium phosphate. These solids coat the fuel and smother the fire.
Fire Extinguisher Sizes
Portable fire extinguishers are rated for the size of fire they can handle. This rating is expressed as a number from 1 to 40 for Class A fires and from 1 to 640 for Class B fires. This rating will appear on the label—2A:10B:C, for example. The larger the numbers, the larger the fire of a specific class on which the fire extinguisher can be used (but higher-rated models are often heavier - make sure you can hold and operate an extinguisher before you buy it).
No number accompanies an extinguisher's Class C rating. The C on the label indicates only that the extinguisher is safe to use on electrical fires.
Extinguishers for Class D fires must match the type of metal that is burning. These fire extinguishers do not use numerical ratings. Extinguishers for Class D fires are labeled with a list detailing the metals that match the unit's extinguishing agent.
Different Types of Fire Extinguishers
The fire extinguisher must be appropriate for the type of fire being fought. Multipurpose fire extinguishers, labeled ABC, may be used on all three classes of fire. If you use the wrong type of extinguisher, you can endanger yourself and make the fire worse. It is also very dangerous to use water or an extinguisher labeled only for Class A fires on a cooking-grease or electrical fire.
Depending on their intended use, portable fire extinguishers store specific "extinguishing agents," which are expelled onto the fire. The types of fire extinguishers include:
- Pressurized water models are appropriate for use on Class A fires only. These must never be used on electrical or flammable-liquid fires.
- Carbon dioxide extinguishers contain pressurized liquid carbon dioxide, which turns to a gas when expelled. These models are rated for use on Class B and C fires, but can be used on a Class A fire. Carbon dioxide does not leave a residue.
- Dry chemical extinguishers are either stored-pressure models or cartridge-operated models. The stored-pressure models have a lever above the handle for operation. The cartridge-operated models require two steps: Depress the cartridge lever, and then squeeze the nozzle at the end of the hose. The dry chemicals leave a residue that must be cleaned up after use.
- Ammonium Phosphate dry chemical can be used on Class A, B, and C fires, but should never be used on a fire in a commercial grease fryer because of the possibility of reflash and because it will render the fryer's automatic fire-protection system less effective.
- Sodium bicarbonate dry chemical, suitable for fighting Class B and C fires, is preferred over other dry-chemical extinguishers for fighting grease fires. Where provided, always use the extinguishing system first. This also shuts off the heat to the appliance.
- Potassium bicarbonate, urea-based potassium bicarbonate and potassium chloride dry chemical are more effective and use less agent than sodium bicarbonate on the same fire.
- Foam (or AFFF and FFFP) extinguishers coat the surface of a burning flammable liquid with chemical foam. When using a foam extinguisher, blanket the entire surface of the liquid to exclude the air.
Contact Fire-X today for all of your fire equipment needs. We want to be your source for fire extinguishers, fire alarms, fire sprinklers and more.
Call us today at 419-241-3430.