What Type of Fire Extinguisher Do You need?

Fire extinguishers are something that no home should be without.  In my experience I have seen small fires turn into big ones for the simple lack of an extinguisher.
There are many different types of extinguishers,  but today I plan to discuss only the ABC extinguisher.  They are by far the most versatile and my personal choice.

ABC – This is the multipurpose dry chemical extinguisher. The ABC type is filled with monoammonium phosphate, a yellow powder.  The chemical is non-conductive and can be mildly corrosive if moisture is present. In order to avoid corrosion, it is necessary to scrub and thoroughly cleanup the contacted area once the fire is out.

An ABC extinguisher will work on the three most common types of fires (see below)

  • Class A extinguishers are for ordinary combustible materials such as paper, wood, cardboard, and most plastics. The numerical rating on these types of extinguishers indicates the amount of fire it can extinguish.
  • Class B fires involve flammable or combustible liquids such as gasoline, kerosene, grease and oil. The numerical rating for class B extinguishers indicates the approximate number of square feet of fire it can extinguish.
  • Class C fires involve electrical equipment, such as appliances, wiring, circuit breakers and outlets. Never use water to extinguish class C fires – the risk of electrical shock is far too great! Class C extinguishers do not have a numerical rating. The C classification means the extinguishing agent is non-conductive.

When you purchase an extinguisher check to be sure that it is UL listed (Underwriters Laboratory).  The extinguisher will also be marked with a rating for example a standard 5lb extinguisher will normally be rated 3-A-40-BC.  This tells you how much fire the extinguisher should handle.  If these are not shown on the label do not purchase the fire extinguisher, it is probably cheaply made overseas and may not be reliable.

How much fire will your extinguisher handle?

Below you will find tables that show how much wood or flammable liquid the unit should extinguish to obtain their ratings.

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To achieve a Class “A” rating, the extinguisher must be capable of putting out the wood crib, wood panel and excelsior (shredded paper) tests. Ratings are based on the size of the material that can be repeatedly extinguished. To achieve a class “B” rating, the extinguisher must repeatedly put out a flaming liquid fire. Ratings are based on the size of the fire. To achieve the Class “C” rating the extinguisher and contents must pass certain electrical conductivity measurements in accordance with UL711 and UL299.

Where to place an extinguisher and how to use it.

Always place your extinguisher near an exit.  If it fails to function or is insufficient to extinguish the fire you want an escape route.   Be familiar with your extinguisher prior to ever having to use it. Know how to pull the pin to activate the extinguisher.

If you need to extinguish a fire, point the extinguisher at the base of the flames, squeeze the lever sweeping the extinguisher from side to side.  If the fire is not put out, get out don’t be a dead hero.  If the fire is out, check carefully for hot embers.  If you can wet everything down.


By law in most if not all states an extinguisher in a commercial establishment needs to be serviced annually.  I don’t know about your home.  The reason an extinguisher needs to be serviced is because the powder compacts and settles to the bottom.  If this happens you will not get a proper flow of powder.

Fire extinguishers have become so inexpensive, that instead of servicing them every couple of years I buy a new one.  I usually don’t throw the old ones away too quickly, but I shake them to try and keep the powder from compacting or forming lumps. But I can’t guaranty that this will work, do it at your own risk.  Beware of extinguishers that have been in vehicles.  The motion causes the powder to compact quickly.

More on different types of extinguisher in near future.




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7 thoughts on “What Type of Fire Extinguisher Do You need?”

  1. A very useful post. I would be inclined to buy fire extinguishers that can be recharged. I noticed that Lowes and I think Home Depot now carry them. Many of the extinguishers have plastic valves making them non-rechargeable. Look for ones that have metal valves.

    I recently threw away a fire extinguisher because the guage showed it should be replaced. I tried it outside and was surprised at how much powder still came out. I should have let my wife and two children practice taking out the pin and trying to operate it.

  2. Remember to get a fire extinguisher for your car too! In over 30 years with the fire department I have never saved a car which caught fire along the roadway. The only vehicles saved were ones where the fire was controlled by the driver or passerby with a fire extinguisher.

  3. I always keep garden hoses connected in front and back of my house(except in freezing temps during winter). These are good quality hoses of 5/8″ min diameter and at least 50′ in length. Nozzles are connected or kept nearby. These can control or confine fires in the house which get beyond the fire extinguisher stage. Also excellent in case of wildfire threat. Often firebrands will land on or near a house and can be extinguished if water can be immediately applied.
    I once defended a home in a forested area from a huge wildfire. Power was out so the water system did not work. Despite the presence of hundreds of fire engines, water dropping aircraft and large bulldozers, we found our most useful tool to be a 5 gal. backpack extinguisher. We could quickly get to small sparks and control them before the fire spread to the home.

  4. MD DC VA Fire Protection

    This is an awesome post with a lot of great information. @Paul S, your fire extinguisher wasn’t malfunctioning, even if it showed low pressure when there was still extinguishant inside. You should have your fire extinguishers recharged even if you’ve opened them a tiny bit and only used a few CCs of pressure.

    Even a little bit of lost pressure can hamper the operation of your fire extinguisher, and while it may not render it COMPLETELY ineffective, it’s better to be 100% safe.

    That said, letting your family practice on it would have been a great idea. Next time!

  5. There is nothing better than live fire extinguisher training at the burn pan of your local fire training academy to reinforce the limitations of a portable extinguisher. A portable bottle of 10 pounds or less is intended only to facilitate escape, not to fight the fire! If you have ever had to use a portable extinguisher to attack a fully involved motor vehicle or aircraft fire, you will understand what true fear is, with pressurized tires and oxygen bottles exploding around you. This is not a game, leave fire fighting to the profesionals, and use your portable only to create a window for escape!

    1. This one I have to disagree with. Having spent many years in the fire service. I have seen many fires both in homes and cars that were extinguished with a small extinguisher. But you are right about a fully involved vehicle or plane.

  6. To fight a small, early stage fire, with your back to a clear exit, while somebody else is ensuring everybody gets out safely and is calling the fire department, I will agree. People need to be trained in the proper use of portable extinguishers, PASS method, and to know the limitations of the unit they have.

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