Fire extinguishers can seem like simple things, but homeowners trying to buy one can find themselves plunged into a dizzying set of choices between water, foam, carbon dioxide and dry chemical extinguishers.
“The whole field of fire extinguishers is a bit complicated,” said John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for Underwriters Laboratories (UL), an independent testing and certification lab. “It makes for a little bit of a consumer struggle.”
Fortunately, there are all-purpose extinguishers that can be used for most home fires, plus specialized extinguishers that can keep you safe in your yard, garage or other locations. Here’s what you should know before you buy.

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    It’s never a good idea to extinguish a grease fire with water. Since water and oil don’t blend, when you empty water into an oil fire, it streams towards the base of the skillet and rapidly evaporates, bursting burning oil all over the place.

    Choosing a fire extinguisher

    Choosing the right fire extinguisher will depend on the type of fire you will likely need to put out. Fire extinguishers are rated by classes of fire to indicate what types of fires they are designed to counter. If you are wondering, “what is a class c fire?” then this will help. The fire classes include:

    • Class A: Combustibles, such as wood and paper. A water-based extinguisher is used for this type of fire.
    • Class B: Burning liquids, such as petroleum, oil, or grease. A carbon dioxide-based extinguisher is used for this type of fire.
    • Class C: Electrical fires, such as motors or extension cords. A dry chemical-based extinguisher is used for this type of fire.
    • Class ABC: Multipurpose. These will put out just about any home fire. If you have only one fire extinguisher, it should be a multipurpose one.

    At least two other types of fire extinguishers have cropped up (Class D for burning metal fires and Class K for grease fires caused by deep fat fryers and similar appliances). Since these are used almost exclusively in commercial settings, though, you almost certainly won’t need one at home.

    Extinguishers and home fires

    Fortunately, all types of fire extinguishers operate in much the same way (see “Using your extinguisher” below).

    Using the wrong class of extinguisher on a fire, though, can be dangerous. For instance, using a Class A, water-based extinguisher on an electrical fire can electrocute you, or spread a kitchen grease fire rather than put out grease fire. That’s why it’s recommended you equip your home with a multipurpose ABC extinguisher – they can safely put out all kinds of home fires. (A Class B extinguisher would also be good for the kitchen and is safe for grease fires.) You could also use a class b fire extinguisher for your kitchen or garage because the most likely fire in those areas are going to involve oil or flaming liquid, but multipurpose is still recommended.

    How to put out a oil fire if you don’t have the right extinguisher: Either try to starve the oil fire of oxygen by placing a pot on top of it or poor baking soda on it.

    If you have a lot of expensive electronics in your family room, a Class C extinguisher would likely be the best extinguisher to keep there: It will put out fires that spark from faulty cords or wiring without ruining your valuables. These are also known as an electrical fire extinguisher, but they are simply used for electrical fires and are not actually electronics themselves.

    It’s important to check an extinguisher’s rating, which indicates the size of the fire it will be able to put out. The larger the number, the greater the capacity will be.

    It’s also a good idea to get one certified by an independent testing lab, such as UL.

    Although larger extinguishers can put out bigger fires, the size should be manageable. If you are buying one for an elderly parent to keep in a kitchen, for example, make sure it’s not too heavy for them to lift.

    Where to store them

    Most home fires begin in the kitchen, and that’s a logical place to keep a fire extinguisher. These fires often begin when food is left on a lit stove unattended. However, it may be safer to have more than one fire extinguisher in your home.

    In a two-story home, it’s a good idea to keep a second fire extinguisher in the bedroom, or at least one on the second floor in addition to the one in the kitchen. Bedrooms are also common places for fires to begin because people often smoke or burn candles in them.

    If you have a workshop in the basement or garage of your home, you might consider keeping a fire extinguisher there as well.

    Once you get a fire extinguisher, be sure to check the gauge at least once a month to see that it’s still charged.


    Using your extinguisher

    Once you get a fire extinguisher, take a few minutes to learn fire extinguisher use. If a fire breaks out, you don’t want to lose precious time reading the label.

    UL’s Drengenberg suggests learning the acronym “PASS” to remind yourself how to use a fire extinguisher. PASS stands for:

    • P: Pull the pin that holds the trigger.
    • A: Aim at the base of the fire, not the flames.
    • S: Squeeze the trigger. Don’t jerk it.
    • S: Sweep across the base of the flames rather than spraying a single point.

    Key tips for fire emergencies

    Remember your most important priority is to get everyone out of the house immediately and call 911. If a blaze isn’t contained or the room fills with smoke, don’t worry about fighting the fire – just get out. A typical home fire extinguisher will be exhausted in less than a minute, so if flames are blocking your exit, use it to put them out.

    Also keep in mind that if a fire involves a mattress and you put it out with an extinguisher, you’ll need to take additional action. Since mattresses can smolder and reignite, call the fire department for guidance on removing it from your home – and douse it with a hose once it’s outside.

    If a fire breaks out on the stove, reaching for the fire extinguisher might not be the best idea.  UL’s Drengenberg suggests using a lid or cookie sheet to smother a pan fire. It’s a fast and effective way to put it out and doesn’t leave a difficult-to-clean-up mess.

    Daniel Levine is a writer for His work has appeared in the New York Times, Narrative and other publications.