Fire Effects on Receptacles

Matthew E. Benfer, Daniel T. Gottuk
Hughes Associates Inc., USA

Presented at the International Symposium on Fire Investigation Science and Technology, 2012


Although significant casualties and damage are attributed to electrical fires, there is still much uncertainty in clearly identifying forensic indicators of electrical components post-fire to be able to justify whether the component damage was a result of the fire (i.e., a fire victim) or whether it signifies a cause. The objective of this study was to assess the damage and potential forensic signatures of a range of electrical receptacle configurations exposed to two types of fires in order to provide a technical basis for realistic electrical fire scenarios, improving fire scene interpretation, and evaluating the utility of forensic analysis techniques. Specifically, the approach was to, first, characterize the damage (e.g., location of damage, melt, arcing, etc.) to receptacle configurations that have been the source of overheating and compare this to data for receptacles exposed to fire. A second objective was to characterize the similarities and differences between arcing and melting in receptacle components and wiring.

Laboratory testing evaluated the impact of a wide range of variables on the formation of overheating connections in residential duplex receptacles. Two types of receptacle configurations have been evaluated: 1) those focused on terminal connections and 2) those focused on plug connections. Testing included 528 receptacle trials, 408 trials with various terminal connections and 120 trials with various plug connections. Thirteen pre-fabricated wall assemblies of 36 receptacles were placed in 8 compartment fire tests and 5 furnace fire tests. The variables evaluated in the fire exposure testing included: the receptacle material, materials of the receptacle faceplate and box, terminal torque, and energized state of the receptacle. A portion of receptacles in the fire exposure testing had overheated connections that were created in the laboratory testing. These receptacles were used to assess whether evidence of overheating would persist after a fire exposure. All receptacles were documented for damage to the receptacle, faceplate, and outlet box including any arcing, overheating, and/or melting.

The results of laboratory testing indicate that only the loosest connections tend to form significant overheated connections irrespective of other variables such as receptacle materials and installation. Characteristics of damage to receptacles as a result of overheating have been identified and have been found to persist even after fire exposure. In addition, locations of arcing within receptacles as a result of fire exposures were identified and characterized. The location of arcing is primarily dependent on the duration and intensity of the fire exposure, as well as the construction and materials of the receptacle, outlet box, and faceplate.

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