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Air-con fires: How it happens & how to avoid them

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    • SINGAPORE: With the months ahead set to get hotter and drier, many households are turning up their air-conditioners to beat the heat. But fires sparked by air-conditioners are the most prevalent in the household, more than other electrical appliances.

      There are two to three cases each month - according to a report by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) that was published in June. The report was based on the incidents SCDF responded to between 2008 and 2014.

      Between 2008 and 2014, fires involving air-conditioners consistently came out tops, beating other household appliances, like water heaters, washing machines, refrigerators and even televisions.

      In 1998, about 58 per cent of Singapore households owned an air-con. By 2013, the figure jumped to about 76 per cent.



      Various parts of the air-conditioner system can catch fire, but most cases involve the condensing unit - which is usually mounted outside a home and the fan coil unit, which is found indoors.

      SCDF said a root cause of fires in the fan coil unit is when two separate electrical wires are twisted together and insulated with tape, instead of using a single, continuous electrical cable.

      An expert said some errant contractors do this to save costs.

      “If they have old wires, they will join them with new wires and they will strip the insulation from the wires, expose the copper tubes and join both ends of the copper tubes by twisting them and put insulation tape around it," said Mr Zul Zain, Section Head, Facility Technology at ITE College East.

      “This is a cheap way of establishing a connection which is not adhering to standards. It may cause arcing. In layman's terms, arcing is where the current jumps from one end to the other. When this happens, it heats up the insulation. The insulation will turn black which means it's carbonised. Once it's carbonised it will become a good conductor. And once it becomes a good conductor, it will attract fires,” he added.

      Between 2008 and 2014, SCDF responded to 32,624 fire-related calls. Only 197, or 0.6 per cent were reported cases of air-con fires.

      Still, SCDF said any fire, no matter how small, can develop into a large one, putting lives and property at risk.

      "Furthermore, given that rooms and offices are generally well furnished, a blaze such as an air-con fire can be fuelled by the combustibles found in such premises, and thereby developing and spreading quickly to the other parts of the premises," said an SCDF spokesman.

      To tackle this, authorities have embarked on outreach efforts in residential estates. This includes working closely with the People’s Association (PA) and grassroots leaders in the “Post Fire Public Education” initiative.

      This was introduced by the SCDF in 2012, and uses recent fire incidents to drive home the importance of fire safety. During the localised outreach efforts, fire safety exhibition panels are set up at the void deck of the affected HDB Block and door-to-door visits to distribute fire safety pamphlets to residents are conducted by SCDF, PA and grassroots organisations.

      Experts said air-con fires can be avoided, by ensuring air-cons are properly installed by trained and reputable contractors and that maintenance is done regularly.


      - CNA/dl

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