Hand Portable Fire Extinguishers

By The Old House Web

Each year, fire kills or severelyinjures thousands of people and destroys millions of dollars worth ofproperty. Many fires begin small and may be extinguished, orcontrolled until help arrives, by a fire extinguisher.

You canminimize personal and property damage by having a fire extinguisheron hand and knowing how and when to use it.

Fires are classified bythe types of materials involved in the fire and the location of thefire. Most fires fit into one or a combination of threeclassifications: Class A, Class B or Class C. The chart in Figure 1will help you classify the fires that you might encounter in yourhome or on your farm. It gives general recommendations for the typesof extinguishers most likely to be used to extinguish these fires.

Know What the Extinguisher Label Says

Fire extinguishers are identified by the class and size of a fire thatthey are designed to extinguish and by the extinguishing agent theycontain. The universal fire class symbols are present on extinguisherlabels. They tell you which classes of fires the unit will extinguishsafely.


The size of the extinguisher is shown on the label in either pounds ofdry chemical or gallons of liquid contained in the unit. (The size issometimes identified in the manufacturer's model number.) More drychemical, for example, will not necessarily mean that a unit willextinguish more fire than one with less chemical. This is due tovariations in chemicals used in extinguishers. Look for theclassification or rating to be certain of the unit's extinguishingcapacity.

Classification or Rating

The classification, or rating, shows the size of a Class A or B firethe unit can be expected to put out. Controlled laboratory testing(by Underwriters' Laboratories or Fire Marshall, UL or FM) determinesclassification before a manufacturer puts a model on the market. Thehigher the rating or classification, the greater the extinguishingcapacity. For example, a unit classified 4A can be expected toextinguish twice as much class A fire as one classified 2A. Whencomparing units of similar physical size, compare classifications tobe sure which unit will provide the greatest fire fighting potential.


Read the operating instructions on the label and examine the unit whenit is purchased. Be certain to instruct all family members andemployees on the premises in the use and location of a fireextinguisher. Prepare ahead of time! Do not wait until a fire occursto read and interpret operating instructions. Although extinguishersmay vary slightly in operating procedures, most will use thefollowing steps:

  1. Grasp the unit by the carrying handle and the base; remove it fromthe mounting bracket and carry it to the fire .
  2. Pull the locking pin to break the tamper seal. If the unit has ahose, remove the hose from its retaining clip.
  3. Move the extinguisher as close to the fire as possible withoutendangering yourself. Grasp the hose in one hand and press or squeezethe handle or trigger release with the other. (If the unit is a CO2extinguisher, do not grasp the plastic discharge horn, since it mayfreeze your hand.) If the unit has no hose, direct the stream ofextinguishing agent by maneuvering the extinguisher.
  4. Discharge the contents of the unit at the base of the flames witha back and forth, sweeping motion. Sweep from the near edge to therear of the fire and then up the vertical surface. Always leave anescape route for yourself when you are fighting a fire.


Place the mounting bracket for the extinguisher on a firm surface 31/2to 5 feet above the floor. Extinguishers should be installed awayfrom any potential fire hazards and near exits or escape routes inthe areas you plan to protect.

Inspection and Maintenance

Inspect extinguishers at least once a month. This includes checking tobe sure that each is in its recommended location, the pressure is up,the tamper seal is not broken, no damage has been done to the unit,and the hose or nozzle is unobstructed. Most units sold today arepressurized and have a gauge that shows whether the unit hassufficient stored pressure to discharge the contents. If, after aroutine inspection, the pressure gauge shows insufficient pressure,the extinguisher should be recharged or replaced immediately.Extinguishers also should be recharged after each use, despite theamount of chemical discharged. If in doubt about where you can get anextinguisher serviced or repaired, check the Yellow Pages under fireextinguishers.

Buying Tips

Remember to look for the UL or FM seal of approval. Be aware of therecommended size and type you want before you shop for a fireextinguisher. Be certain you are purchasing a unit that will give youmaximum protection. The hardware on an extinguisher can be eitherplastic or metal. Both types, if approved by a recognized testinglaboratory, should serve for their intended purpose.

Someextinguishers of lesser price may not be rechargeable. Read the labeland check with the dealer before purchase to see if the unit you areconsidering can be recharged after use. Although some non-rechargeableunits may be greatly reduced in price, it is usually economical topurchase a unit that can be recharged, rather than buying an entirelynew unit every time you use your extinguisher.

Have a Plan of Action for a Fire

The most important aspect of fire safety is to have a plan ofaction when a fire is discovered. This plan should cover the stepsrequired to save lives and property.

Step 1: Immediate Rescue - Check to see if anyone is in danger or inneed of rescue.


Step 2: Confine the Fire if Possible - If the fire is in the earlystage and poses no immediate threat to personal safety, make aneffort to prevent its spread by putting lids on burning containersand disconnecting electricity or removing combustibles from the area.For small cooking or electrical fires, throwing baking soda at thebase of the flames will smother the fire.


Step 3: Call for Help - Call the fire department or notify a telephoneoperator. In many areas, telephoning 911 will connect you with anemergency operator. Check to see if this service is available in yourarea.


Step 4: Contain or Extinguish - If you have the proper extinguisher,you may be able to contain or control the fire. This depends on thesize, type and location of the fire. Be certain that you leave a pathof retreat from the scene to guarantee your personal safety.

Helpful Hints

  • Powder in dry chemical units may have a tendency to settle.Periodic shaking will aid in performance.
  • Powder in dry chemical units will not damage equipment. Avoiddirect contact with skin and eyes.
  • Some carbon tetrachloride pump-type units are still in existence.This unit is extremely dangerous. Check with reliable sources, suchas your local fire department, for disposal recommendations.
  • Place the telephone number of the local fire department in allextinguisher locations.


A portable fire extinguisher is only a first-aid oremergency unit. It can be used on small fires only in the initialstages. Do not expect miracles from a fire extinguisher. Thedischarge time on most units is only seconds! Do not risk your lifeor the lives of others in fighting a fire that has grown too big forthe extinguisher. Saving lives comes first! Practice fire preventionmeasures in the home and on the farm to be safe. Hopefully you willnever need an extinguisher.

Size Range (lbs.) Location
First Unit, 2 1/2-5 Kitchen near exit door
Second Unit, 2 1/2-5 Basement near exit door
Third Unit, 2 1/2-5 Near wood stove
One Unit, 5-10 Near exit door
First Unit, 5-10 Near cab door
Second Unit, 5-10 On opposite side of cab at ground level
One Unit, 2 1/2-5 On structural member
One Unit, 2 1/2-5 Accessible to driver
One Unit, 5-10 In accessible location

Figure 1. Recommended sizes and locations of fire extinguishers. (Themultipurpose, ABC dry chemical extinguisher is cited in all examplesbecause it can serve as protection for all expected fires in alllocations listed.)

Acknowledgments to Michelle L. Wallingford for her contributions tothis publication.

Reviewed by Drs. Mike Lichtensteiger and Robert Gustafson, Dept. OfAgricultural Engineering, and Dr. Judy Wessel, Dept. of FamilyResource Management. Funded in whole or in part from Grant NumberU05/CCU506070-03, "Cooperative Agreement Program for AgriculturalHealth Promotion Systems," National Institute for Occupational Safetyand Health.



All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extensionare available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without regardto race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin,gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of May 8 andJune 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture,Keith L. Smith, Director, Ohio State University Extension.

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