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When one of your appliances starts showing signs of disrepair, you might think the trouble is confined to that appliance only. But that’s not necessarily true — there are some ways in which a faulty appliance can send surges of electricity into your home’s electrical system, and the resulting damage can range from a tiny bit of wear and tear on other appliances to a destructive electrical fire.

With these consequences in mind, it’s important to discontinue use of an appliance if you suspect there’s a real problem. Seek out a repair professional who can fix the underlying issue and give you the all-clear to plug it in again.

What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

When a fizzling appliance sends a significant burst of electricity into your electrical system, your circuit breaker should trip. If you weren’t expecting this, a tripped circuit breaker may be your earliest sign that something is wrong.

It’s also an important safety mechanism designed to prevent further electrical damage, so you shouldn’t just flip the breaker back on while ignoring the root cause. Doing so will only create more opportunities for electrical damage.

Even with the protection of your circuit breakers, malfunctioning appliances can potentially cause you problems in three ways: surge damage, physical damage and fire damage.

Surge Damage

Chances are that you use a surge protector in conjunction with your home computer, and possibly with your television and other home theatre electronics. Perhaps you even have whole-home surge protection installed. This technology protects sensitive microprocessors that can be easily damaged by power surges, which can originate with lightning strikes or power outages.

But those surges can also take place internally, and this happens every day — appliances like air conditioners and refrigerators typically use an excess of energy when they initially switch on, sending small surges of power to other appliances on shared circuits. Faulty appliances can sometimes send much larger surges.

When this happens, microprocessor-based electronics can receive permanent damage in an instant. They may also experience cumulative damage over time from smaller surges, which can reduce device lifespan.

Physical Damage

Large surges can literally burn some electrical components, such as the delicate connectors in light switches and electrical outlets. When these components are replaced after this type of damage, you can often see the telltale scorch marks and melted plastic.

It takes only a fraction of a second for a flash like this to render a switch or outlet inoperable, and damage can occur even if your circuit breaker trips. You should always consult a licensed electrician to help you replace damaged components and track down the source of the surge.

Fire Damage

In the worst-case scenario, a malfunctioning appliance will cause an electrical short that sparks a fire. These may be tiny fires that flare out on their own inside metal appliances, but depending on where they occur, they can ignite insulation, wallpaper, curtains or other materials that may allow them to spread quickly. This is why it’s so important to address appliance failures at the earliest signs of malfunction.

Besides proactive repairs, your best defence against this disaster is a combination of working smoke detectors, accessible fire extinguishers and fire safety education.