guide to fire extinguishers

Fire extinguishers save lives each and every day. They can prevent a small, controllable fire from becoming a deadly inferno. What’s more, they give their owners valuable peace of mind.

In this handy little guide, we’ll be taking a closer look at these fantastic devices. We’ll explore the history of this life saving invention. We’ll tell you how to use your fire extinguishers, as well as how to keep them in good working order. We’ll even explain which type of fire extinguisher should be used for which type of fire.

At the end, we’ll provide answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about fire extinguishers.

We hope you enjoy (and learn from) our in-depth look at the humble fire extinguisher.

What is a Fire Extinguisher?

You probably walk past a fire extinguisher on most days. In any case, though you may have barely noticed it, you’ve definitely seen one.

You will find fire extinguishers innocuously attached to the walls of offices, factories and shops. They are in every hotel, every school, every public building. They are found in university campuses and halls of residence, as well as old people’s homes, restaurants, hospitals and libraries.

In fact, you can find fire extinguishers absolutely everywhere.

So what IS a fire extinguisher?

Put simply, a fire extinguisher is a portable or moveable device that is used for putting out small fires.

They achieve this via diverse methods, including cooling the burning area, depriving the flame of oxygen or nullifying a chemical reaction that has resulted in fire.

Fire Extinguisher range

Fire extinguishers are designed to put out small fires, thereby preventing them from growing larger and threatening lives and property.

Most fire extinguishers consist of the same components. These include a cylindrical tank, which contains the extinguishing agent (usually water, CO2 or dry foam). There will also be a hose, topped with a nozzle, which sprays the agent. When not in use, the nozzle sits in the nozzle holder at the bottom of the device.

There will also be a valve assembly at the top and a pull pin that ‘unlocks’ the device, readying it for use. The part you hold, of course, is the handle, while the release lever is pulled to activate the fire extinguisher itself. A temper seal prevents the pin from being removed when the device is not in use.

The bottom part of a fire extinguisher is known as the boot, and is usually made from plastic. Not all fire extinguishers are identical, but all will contain most of these components.

How do Fire Extinguishers Work?

In order for combustion to occur, three things need to be present, these are oxygen, heat and fuel. If any of these three things are removed, the fire must cease. Fire extinguishers, then, work by removing one of these three conditions.

The most common type of fire extinguishers contain water and compressed air. The air acts as a propellant, spraying water over the fire, which removes the heat necessary for the fire to burn.

Carbon dioxide fire extinguishers contain carbon dioxide (CO2) in both gas and liquid forms. In order to remain in its liquid state, the CO2 must be stored in a high-pressure environment. When the pressure is released, the gas expands; creating white foam that both smothers the fire (removing oxygen) and absorbs heat as it reverts to its gas form.

A dry chemical fire extinguisher contains dry foam or powder and uses nitrogen as its propellant. The foam cuts off the supply of oxygen to the fire, which stops it burning.

When was the Fire Extinguisher Invented?

The history of the fire extinguisher dates back to about 200BC, when Ctesibius of Alexandria developed a basic hand pump capable of spraying water onto a fire.

That invention, for all practical purposes, was the first true fire extinguisher.

Later, in the Middle Ages, a device known as a ‘squirt’ was developed. Operating in a manner similar to a bicycle pump, these ‘squirts’ sucked water from a bucket, barrel, well or other receptacle and sprayed it in whatever direction the hose was pointed. Similar devices were still being used as of the Great Fire of London, in 1666.

In 1819, Captain George William Manby created a prototype for the fire extinguishers of today. Named the ‘extincteur’, the device used a copper tank and released pearl ash, using air pressure as a propellant. Along with many other inventions and achievements, Manby was also the first person to advocate for the existence of a fire department.

In 1907, a Scottish engineer developed the carbon tetrachloride (CTC) fire extinguisher. He was unable to find financial backing for his invention in the UK, so, like so many others of the era, he looked to America.

Finding investors, he established The Pyrene Company in Delaware, in 1909. The company later returned to Britain as The Pyrene Company Limited and did brisk business selling ‘pump’ extinguishers that used water, foam and soda acid (itself an alternate style of extinguisher, invented earlier in the 19th century).

Pyrene are a big part of the fire extinguisher’s story, supplying fire-fighting equipment throughout the Second World War and creating a type of chemical fire extinguisher that was used in cars for over half a century, along with many other successes. Although these fire extinguishers were highly effective, the chemicals used in them were also toxic – and some people died as a result of using them.

The Pyrene Company were purchased by Chubb & Sons in 1967, but continued using the name Pyrene until 1971, when Chubb Fire & Security Limited was formed.

Beginning in the middle part of the 20th century, modern style fire extinguishers began to be manufactured. These devices were similar to the ones we use today.

In 2011, Britannia Fire Ltd produced the first self-maintenance extinguishers. These do not require people to inspect them or maintain them, as they do not suffer from the old issues of corrosion, lining damage or pressure loss. They also do not require refills. These extinguishers are fashioned from composite plastics, Aramid and brass.

The history of fire extinguishers (and fire prevention in general) is a long and fascinating one. This is merely an overview. Nevertheless, we hope it was interesting to you.

Why are There Different Classes of Fire Extinguisher?

Fire safety experts divide fires into 6 different types. These are known as classes A, B, C, D, E and F. Essentially, the materials fuelling the fire determine the class of the fire itself.

Classes of fire extinguishers

Class A fires arise from solid materials such as wood or textiles.

Class B fires are caused by flammable liquids such as oil or gasoline.

Class C fires occur when a flammable gas, such as hydrogen, butane or methane is the cause of the fire.

Class D fires are fires caused by flammable metals, such as aluminium and magnesium.

Class E fires involve live electrical apparatus. Some places list this category for convenience, though it is not formally recognised by all.

Class F fires come from hot cooking oils, such as the kind found in deep fat fryers.

Accordingly, fire extinguishers are generally divided into 5 classes (more or less). The category of extinguisher depends on what type of fire it has been designed to put out.

Generally, these classes are known as A, B, C, D and E. There is also a K, but we’ll get to that later.

Classes of fire

Class A extinguishers are usually used to put out fires that might occur through everyday combustibles such as wood or paper. This type of extinguisher may contain water, foam, wet chemicals or dry powder.

Class B extinguishers are used for fires caused by flammable liquids, as well as gas fires. A class B extinguisher will contain foam, CO2 or dry powder.

Class C extinguishers are used for electrical fires. They will only ever contain dry powder, as liquids conduct electricity and are therefore extremely dangerous if used on electrical fires.

Class D extinguishers are used for fires involving flammable metals such as sodium or titanium. They contain L2 and M28 powders, which are effective against most flammable metal fires (except lithium-based fires).

Class K extinguishers, a separate sub-category, are used predominantly in kitchens. They contain kitchen fires via an alkaline-based process known as saponification, which traps vapours in order to extinguish the fire.

The distinctions between fire extinguishers are not based on the agent used to extinguish the fire, but by the type of fire it puts out. That’s worth remembering. A class A extinguisher, for example, may contain pressurised water or foam, but either would be effective against a class A fire.

What do Fire Extinguisher Colours Mean?

Until 1997, fire extinguishers in the UK came in several different colours, specifically red, cream, blue, black and yellow. These colours were used to differentiate between the different types of extinguisher.

This colour code is still in use today, only now it is relegated to one part of the extinguisher instead of the entire body. ‘Signal red’ was chosen as the default colour of all fire extinguishers because

  1. a) It is the easiest colour to see and is therefore easily visible in a crisis and
  2. b) Because in nature as well as human societies red often symbolises danger.

Today’s fire extinguishers are all red, but will usually feature a coloured stripe explaining what type of extinguisher it is. The colour code does not refer to what class the extinguisher is, instead describing what agent the extinguisher uses.

using the correct fire extinguisher

Red contains water.

Blue contains Powder.

Cream contains foam.

Black contains CO2.

Yellow contains wet chemicals.

In addition to the colour stripe, all fire extinguishers will include, in clear, easy-to-read lettering, the name of their extinguishing agent (e.g. ‘FOAM’ or ‘CO2’ and so on).

How to use a Fire Extinguisher

Most big, life-threatening fires start out as much smaller fires that are relatively easy to control. When a modern, well-maintained fire extinguisher is used quickly and correctly, even the most potentially dangerous fires can be brought under control (or else extinguished entirely).

So how do you use a fire extinguisher?

Fire extinguisher operation is designed to be efficient and user friendly. After all, when you’re faced with a fire, every second counts.

The first thing to do is ensure that the fire extinguisher you’ve picked up is suitable for the fire at hand. In most cases, extinguishers are situated to match the most likely cause of fire in that area (a class K extinguisher would probably be placed in a restaurant kitchen, for example).

Nevertheless, this does not entitle you to become complacent. Using a water extinguisher on an electrical fire, for example, will actually worsen the fire, as well as endanger your life. You MUST be sure that you have the correct type of extinguisher for the fire in question.

There are four basic steps to take if you want to use a fire extinguisher effectively. These correspond to the acronym PASS, as we shall see.

STEP ONE – Pull. Pull the pin at the top of the extinguisher. This will break the seal, freeing the device for use. The seal exists to keep the extinguisher from being activated by accident, which is an essential safety precaution. Once the pin is removed, push down on the handle in order to make sure that the fire extinguisher works and also to see how far the stream will actually travel (you don’t want to over or under-shoot your target!).

STEP TWO – Aim. Point the extinguisher nozzle in the direction of the fire, aiming for the source or base of the fire, not the flames. Maintain a safe distance from the flames at all times.

STEP THREE – Squeeze. Squeeze the handles together and spray the fire. To stop the spray, simply let go.

STEP FOUR – Sweep. Be sure to cover as much of the fire as you can by sweeping the nozzle from side to side and dousing it as completely as possible. Keep control of the extinguisher at all times.

Remain calm and don’t panic, simply cover the fire evenly and completely.

In the case of larger fires, one extinguisher may not be enough to put out the blaze, but it can help to keep it under control until the fire department arrives. In the case of smaller, more manageable fires, this should be enough to put it out entirely.

It also helps to ensure that everybody knows where the fire extinguishers are kept, as well as what the home/office/building’s fire safety protocols are. These simple steps save lives every day.

Legally speaking, there should always be a trained fire marshal in the building at all times.

Pay attention also to fire safety signs. Often, these will explain how and under what circumstances a particular fire extinguisher should be used, as well as how to respond in the event of a fire.

Finally, never underestimate a fire. If you are in any doubt about the size of the fire or your ability to contain it, get out of the building as quickly and as safely as you can. 

How to Maintain a Fire Extinguisher

It is not enough to simply purchase a fire extinguisher, place it at a convenient spot in your home/place of employment and forget all about it. To do so invites calamity. Fire extinguishers require proper upkeep and maintenance, so here are a few tips.

You should conduct a visual inspection of your fire extinguishers at least once a month. Typically, you should be looking for signs of damage or wear – anything that might impair safe usage.

Ensure that the seal is unbroken and check that the wall mountings are still firmly in place. Pay special attention to the pressure gauge on your fire extinguisher. If this drops at any point, you must immediately refer it to a specialist.

If the hose or nozzle is cracked, broken or blocked, this needs the attention of a professional. Likewise, if the locking pin is missing, or the handle is wobbly, you have a damaged unit that requires immediate repair or replacement.

The date stamped on the body of the fire extinguisher (sometimes on the neck) is the expiration date. Heed this date and replace the unit when its time is up.

You should also obtain the services of a trained professional to thoroughly inspect your extinguishers once every 12 months, as per British Standard BS5306:3.

Additionally, every six years, you should have your extinguishers professionally dismantled, then re-filled and put back together (or replaced if necessary). In the case of water or powder-based extinguishers, this should be conducted every 5 years. However, sealed powder and CO2 extinguishers will only require such complete servicing once every 10 years.

You will be able to see which extinguishers have been professionally inspected and when, as this will be written on the seals (or possibly an inspection tag), usually in black pen. If this is missing, book an inspection straight away.

Fire Extinguisher FAQs

Which colour of fire extinguisher should be used to tackle fires caused by ignited petrol?

The foam fire extinguisher is appropriate in this case. Foam fire extinguishers are red with a cream label.

Which fire extinguisher should not be used in confined spaces?

A carbon dioxide extinguisher (red with a black label) must never be used in an enclosed space, as it will starve you of oxygen. These types of fire extinguisher could kill you if used in this manner.

Which extinguisher type is suitable for virtually all fire risks?

The dry powder extinguisher (red with a blue label) is suitable for tackling the most types of fire. It can be used for fire classes A, B and C, as well as electrical fires.

Which extinguisher should you not use to put out a flammable liquid fire?

The wet chemical fire extinguisher (red with a yellow label) is not suitable for – and should never be used against – fires involving flammable liquids or gases, as well as metals or electrical equipment.

What is the advised distance from which to use a fire extinguisher?

The extinguishing agent needs to be able to hit the base of the fire. Most portable fire extinguishers must be used from a distance of 1.8 to 3 meters (6 to 10 feet) in order to be effective. It is important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding safe distance.

Which colour of fire extinguisher should be used to tackle fires caused by ignited paper and wood?

Either the water (red label) or the dry powder extinguisher (blue label) can be used to tackle fires caused by ignited paper, wood and other organic materials.

Which fire extinguisher should be used for an electrical fire?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) extinguishers (black label) are mainly used for electrical fire risks. They are usually the main fire extinguisher type provided in computer server rooms. They can also put out Class B fires.

What is the best fire extinguisher for home use?

There is not one single type of fire extinguisher that is suitable for every type of fire. You must consider the most likely causes of fire in your home and plan accordingly. If in doubt, contact an expert.

When should you not use a fire extinguisher?

You should avoid using a fire extinguisher if

  • You have not been formally trained to use one.
  • The fire is too large to be extinguished by the use of a single fire extinguisher.
  • You do not have the correct extinguisher to hand.
  • You have emptied one extinguisher’s entire contents onto the fire and it has not stopped burning.
  • You doubt your ability to safely extinguish or control the blaze.

We hope you found this guide useful and interesting. Thanks for reading and stay safe!

the reviews

FSS UK Premium Fire Extinguisher

The FSS Premium fire extinguisher is specially designed to be perfect for the kitchen, although its usefulness is certainly not limited to any one area.

First released in 2014, this fire extinguisher is great at providing peace of mind. If necessary, it can also supply some of the most efficient fire extinguishing action money can buy. 

The FSS Premium fire extinguisher can be used on A, B & C class fires resulting from materials as diverse as petrol, oil, gas, paint, furniture, wood, solvents and electrical equipment.

Smart and compact, the FSS Premium weighs only 2kgs, which makes it easy to lift, manoeuvre and use. Its neat, inclusive design makes it ideal for slightly cramped conditions, such as kitchens, garages, caravans and other small areas that may be vulnerable to fire.

Additionally, it also comes with a secure storage stand, as well as a fire blanket that can be used to smother small fires before they get out of hand.

This extinguisher/blanket set complies fully with regulations (BSI kitemark extinguisher and CE marked fire blanket). 

Clear, easy to follow instructions for use are also included with the purchase – these should be studied carefully before being stored alongside the extinguisher itself.

A recently introduced handle redesign has proven unpopular with some buyers, which would appear to be this fine product’s only major downside.

FSS Safety Essentials Kit

The FSS Safety essentials kit is a handy little bundle aimed at providing for several household needs in one affordable package.

The set includes a lightweight fire extinguisher, a fire blanket and a first aid kit. This is very convenient, as it saves customers from having to buy these items separately. All items included are well made and of relatively high quality.

The ‘FlameFighter’ fire extinguisher included is light and compact, weighing only 500g. It contains dry powder and is suitable for tackling class A, B or C fires. The extinguisher’s smaller design allows it to fit neatly into a variety of storage spaces, as well as making it ideal for use in smaller settings, such as boats, flats and kitchens.

The fire extinguisher also comes complete with a wall bracket, which provides the easiest and safest storage option of the many available (certainly the one we recommend).

The fire blanket (which is CE marked, along with the rest of the included items) measures 1 square metre, while the first aid kit contains everything one might expect to find in a domestic medical kit and comes neatly placed into a meticulously organised and easy to navigate bag. 

The set is ideal for kitchens, static homes, caravans and small offices, as well as any other smaller living or working space.

This potentially life-saving kit is practical, well made and offers great value for money. Every home should have one.

FSS UK Fire Extinguisher

A smaller, more manoeuvrable fire extinguisher, the FSS UK fire extinguisher is lightweight, compact and very handy to have around.

Ideal for kitchens, as well as smaller spaces like apartments, flats, boats, small offices, caravans, static homes and etc, the FSS UK fire extinguisher combines high performance with ease of use and versatility, making it an essential purchase for any home.

This fire extinguisher weighs just 1kg and comes with clear, easy-to-read instructions (which should be carefully read by all members of the household before being placed alongside the device itself). 

It also comes with a wall bracket for safe, reliable storage. As is the case with most extinguisher brackets, the screws are not included with the bracket – and will need to be sourced separately.

What is included with this fire extinguisher is a 1m x 1m fire blanket, which can be used to cover and extinguish small fires (before they have a chance to become big problems!).

Both the extinguisher and blanket comply fully with all current UK regulations. 

The extinguisher has a shelf life of 5 years and comes with a 2-year warranty.

All in all, this model is a great value for money purchase, offering peace of mind and safety, as well as high performance when used. 

FireShield Pro Powder Fire Extinguisher

The FireShield Pro powder fire extinguisher is lightweight, durable and very easy to use.

It weighs only 2kg and can be used to put out or control class A, B or C fires, as well as covering electrical fires. It is highly capable of tackling most fires that may occur in or around the home.

This extinguisher is also kitemarked to BS EN3 standards and is fully CE certified, bringing it directly into line with current regulations.

The FireShield Pro powder fire extinguisher also comes with a wall bracket, which allows the owner to store it in a safe, convenient space.

Included with the purchase, of course, is a set of clear, easy-to-read instructions (which the owner should familiarize him/herself with before storing alongside the device).

As an added bonus, this fire extinguisher also comes with a 5-year warranty for extra peace of mind.

This is an excellent little fire extinguisher for homes, kitchens, offices and just about anywhere else you can think of. As a smaller model, it is also great for use in cars, taxis, mini buses, boats and other small spaces. 

In the case of the FireShield Pro powder fire extinguisher, ease of storage is combined with versatility and high performance. This provides the owner with a top quality device that offers peace of mind and, if necessary, life-saving performance.

Kidde KS1KG Fire Extinguisher

First released in 2017, the Kidde KS1KG fire extinguisher is a smart, multi-purpose fire extinguisher that offers its owner a pleasing mixture of reliability and ease of use.

The Kidde KS1KG fire extinguisher has a rapid (8 second) discharge time and can operate over a range of 4 metres, which is very good for a smaller fire extinguisher.

It may be used to control or put out class A, B or C fires. It is, however, NOT to be used for fat-pan fires.

Additionally, the Kidde KS1KG is fully BSI certified and CE tested, meaning that it can operate totally safely and is in direct alignment with current UK regulations.

Weighing only 1.6kg, this fire extinguisher is lightweight and easy to handle as well.

The addition of a pressure gauge is another useful feature, as it allows the owner to quickly check that the pressure is where it should be. If it isn’t, the manufacturer must be alerted immediately. 

This fire extinguisher comes complete with a wall bracket, making it easy to store and reach if and when it is needed. 

Also included is a set of basic instructions that, after being read and remembered, must be stored along with the device itself.

The Kidde KS1KG is a neat, portable, well-designed extinguisher that would be an asset to any home, office or vehicle.