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When you have only seconds to put out a kitchen fire, you want an extinguisher that’s easy to use and effective. We were shocked at how many aren’t.
Unattended cooking is the primary source of fire-related injuries and household fires in America; more than $1.1 billion in property damages are claimed each year. Neglecting a pan of hot oil or leaving a dish towel too close to a burner are all-too-easy ways to find yourself suddenly facing fire. And fire spreads fast—experts say you have less than 2 minutes before a fire will be out of control.
That’s why it’s wise to always keep a fire extinguisher within easy reach of your stove. But the big trouble with most fire extinguishers is that you can’t practice with them or give them a test run in the store; once the trigger punctures the pressurized canister, they can’t be used a second time. So how do you know which one is the best for the job—one that will be absolutely easy to use, even with no prior experience, and will work fast when seconds count?
To find out, we bought eight models of home fire extinguishers and drove to a firefighter training facility west of Boston to test them on staged cooking-related fires. Under the supervision of Deputy Chief John F. Sullivan and Captain Robert Hassett of the Worcester Fire Department, we set up shop in the department’s “burn building,” a blackened concrete structure behind the fire station. With a stack of 10-inch skillets, a dozen cotton dish towels, portable electric burners, and a jug of vegetable oil, we set a series of typical kitchen fires and went about trying to put them out.
The fire extinguisher market offers a bewildering array of products designed to combat specific types of fires, whether they start in a restaurant deep fryer, in a tractor-trailer, or on a boat. For home cooks, the choice is a little simpler. In this category, fire extinguishers break down into two main types. Those with an “ABC” rating are known as “multipurpose” extinguishers, meaning they can tackle (A) cloth, wood, and paper; (B) flammable liquids and gases, such as grease and gasoline; and (C) electrical fires. “BC”-rated extinguishers cover only the latter two categories. Both types work similarly: When you squeeze the trigger, a chamber inside the pressurized canister is punctured and a spray of fire-suppressing material is propelled. (For more information, see “How to Use a Fire Extinguisher.”) For our testing, we chose two ABC and two BC models. The ability to extinguish cloth fires (dish towels, potholders, etc.) is a priority, but BC extinguishers are often sold as “kitchen” extinguishers, which implies that they are still up to the task. Plus, a BC extinguisher took first place in our previous testing. We stuck with the smallest size since bigger isn’t better—you want something most people can easily lift and use.
Since manufacturers also offer solutions beyond traditional extinguishers, we tried a variety of these, too, including two sprays sold in aerosol-style cans, a fire blanket meant for throwing over and smothering fires, and one “automatic” extinguishing system called the StoveTop FireStop Rangehood, which resembles a pair of Sterno cans that attach via magnet or adhesive to your hood or to the bottom of a cabinet or microwave over your stovetop. When they detect fire, the company claims, the cans automatically burst open, spraying your rangetop with fire suppressant—hands-free, no experience necessary. If that proved to be true, we reasoned, it could be a great solution.
For our first round of tests, we started a grease fire by encouraging a flame to burn in a skillet filled with 1/4 cup of vegetable oil. As soon as the flames spread over the pan, I picked up a fire extinguisher and, working as quickly as I could, figured out how to use it and shot it toward the flaming pan. For the second round of tests, we left a cotton dish towel next to an electric burner with one corner just touching the coils. As soon as it caught fire, I went into action.
It took anywhere from 11 seconds to 27 seconds to figure out how to use the products in our lineup. An odd cap on one traditional extinguisher slowed me down. Another can-style model was so covered with colors, busy images, and words that it was impossible to scan quickly for the essential information. A third model’s trigger was unmarked. The fire blanket may have been simple—remove from pouch, unfold, walk toward fire, and drop it on—but it was a little scary to get so close to the fire. Our favorite extinguishers had unambiguous, clearly marked, exposed triggers or buttons that we could find and operate without losing time (or getting too close to the fire). As for the automatic canister, our only job was to wait and watch. And wait, and wait. In fact, when used as instructed, this model never went off, despite flames nearly reaching the canister.
Once we had the extinguishers going, effectiveness varied dramatically from model to model. It took anywhere from just 2 seconds to 1 minute and 22 seconds to put out fires. When weak spurts of drippy foam from one can hit the fire, the flames suddenly became a tower several feet high. Though this was terrifying, I stood my ground and kept spraying until the flames finally subsided. One model shut down both types of fire instantly with a powerful, controlled spray, but it filled the room with a choking cloud of chemicals that sent us running for the exit. A few models seemed to put out the fire, but then, seconds later, the flames flickered back to life. One seemingly promising extinguisher quickly and easily put out the grease fire, but when we picked up a fresh copy to put out the burning dish towel, it completely failed to operate. Some models (including one of the BC extinguishers) worked well on grease but didn’t fully extinguish the burning towels. The biggest disappointment was the StoveTop FireStop system. Meant to attach to your hood and hang at least 27 inches above the burners, the canisters simply didn’t work until we lowered them to a mere 15 inches above the pan and flames literally touched the canisters to ignite the wick, which turns out to be the mechanism for setting them off. At this point, the fire is likely to have spread well beyond the stovetop.
After we evaluated each extinguisher’s effectiveness on both grease and cloth fires, taking into account how intuitive it was to use and how quickly it put out the fires, we were surprised—and disappointed, given the stakes—that we had only one extinguisher we could highly recommend. The rest we could recommend only with reservations or not at all. Our winner, the Kidde ABC Multipurpose Home Fire Extinguisher ($25.99), was fast and thorough. Its design was simple and obvious, with a basic trigger and nozzle and easy-to-read pressure gauge that clearly shows if your canister is ready to keep you safe. While it created a cloud of fumes (like many other models) and left residue that was a bit harder to clean up than some of the others, we can live with that. It left no question that the fire was out, every time.
We tested eight fire extinguishers, including four traditional pressurized canisters, two aerosol sprays, one fire blanket, and a self-operating canister that attaches to the hood over a stove. In two separate rounds of testing, we allowed vegetable oil to catch fire in a hot skillet and a dish towel to ignite from touching a lit burner. We deliberately broke with our usual testing protocol by not reading the instructions before using the extinguishers, in an attempt to simulate real-world conditions. We used the extinguishers to put out these fires, timing the results and rating the extinguishers on ease of use, performance, and, to a lesser extent, cleanup. Scores from both tests were combined to reach our final ranking. Information about fire suppressant material in extinguishers was provided by manufacturers. Models were purchased online and appear in order of preference.
TIME TO UNDERSTAND OPERATION: Time elapsed between when we picked up the product and when we began using it.
TIME(S) TO PUT OUT GREASE AND TOWEL FIRES: Time elapsed between when we started spraying/smothering the fires and when the fires were extinguished.
EASE OF USE: We evaluated how simple and intuitive the extinguishers were to operate, taking into account that we were working quickly, under pressure, with no preparation (to simulate a real fire emergency).
PERFORMANCE: Models that extinguished both types of fire quickly and thoroughly rated highest.
CLEANUP: Extinguishers that produced less mess and fumes rated higher, although we gave more weight in our ranking to their performance and ease of use.