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There are largely five classes of fires for which extinguishers are designed, Class A, B, C, D and F. Each class represents a particular type of fire. The label on an extinguisher states for which of these classes the extinguisher can be used. Usually, a number is also added in front of the letter. This number represents the size of fire in this class the extinguisher can successfully put out. The higher the number the bigger the fire the extinguisher can put out.
Class A fire extinguishers are for solids such as wood, paper and cardboard.
Class B extinguishers are for burning liquids, such as petrol, diesel etc. They are NOT suitable for burning grease and fat, though!
Class C extinguishers fight burning gases such as LPG and natural gas.
Class D extinguishers can extinguish burning metals, such as aluminium and lithium shavings.
Class F extinguishers deal with burning grease and fat.
Class A, B and C fires can be extinguished with powder extinguishers. Powder extinguishers are great 'all rounders' and are safe for applications where there might be live electricity involved. However, powder extinguishers should ideally be avoided indoors, as the powder could be inhaled and might worsen visibility in the building. Powders would therefore be used mainly for machine rooms, workshops and vehicles
Foam extinguishers and water extinguishers are commonly used on all A Class fires and are used in offices and homes. Where the extinguisher has been tested for use on live electricity (35000 Volt dielectric test) the foam or water can be used on electrical equipment. Otherwise, there should be a separate CO2 extinguisher to cover specifically any electrical equipment.
Where there is mainly a Class A fire risk, water extinguisher are a cost-efficient and environmentally-friendly solution.
Class B fires are best extinguished with foam extinguishers, as the foam lays a cooling blanket over the burning liquid, cutting off the oxygen supply.
CO2 extinguishers (short for carbon dioxide extinguishers) are these days mainly used on live electrical equipment, as CO2 gas is non-conductive. While they can also fight Class B fires (flammable liquids), this is rarely applied, as it takes a lot of skill to extinguish a liquid fire with CO2. Foam extinguishers do a much better job for liquid fires. C02 extinguishers do not leave any residue, however, the CO2 gas disperses quickly and allows the fire to re-ignite if there is any heat left in the embers.
Class D fires (burning metal shavings) are very difficult to put out and can only be extinguished by specialists Class D fire extinguishers.
Wet chemical extinguishers are used for Class F type fires, such as burning fat and grease or deep fat fryers
If in doubt, ask our friendly advisers which extinguisher to choose. We can also carry out site surveys and install the extinguishers if you do so wish.
Water fire extinguishers with their red identification label are used for Class A fires and are great for offices and the home. They are easy to refill but also to dispose off and recycle at the end of their useful life. Care must still be taken if the water extinguishers are potentially used on live electrical equipment. It is best in such cases to use water extinguishers that have been tested with the 35,000 Volt dielectric test.
Foam fire extinguishers (cream coloured label) are also used in offices and homes but are more powerful, as they form a foam carpet on the fire that cuts off the oxygen supply. They share the same limitation as water extinguishers with regards to live electricty but again there are versions available that have been tested with the 35,000 Volt dielectric test and can be used near live electricity. Please note that the foam has to be carefully destroyed when the extinguisher is disposed off, as the AFFF foam used can damage water courses and contains harmful substances.
CO2 or carbon dioxide fire extinguisher types (black label) contain inert CO2 gas which suffocates fires. It, however, does not cool down the fire and cannot soak into fabrics or embers. CO2 extinguishers are therefore mainly used for electrical items, where the gas causes minimum damage and leaves no harmful residues. CO2 also does not conduct any electricity, so there is no risk of electrocution.
Powder extinguishers (blue labels) are the most powerful extinguishers and are used on engines, machine plant, outdoor fires and vehicles. They cause a lot of residue and careful cleaning is required after their use. These days powder extinguishers are not normally used indoors any longer, as the powder can easily be inhaled and reduces visibility in the rooms where they are discharged. Specialist powder extinguishers are required for burning metal fires (Class D).
Reviewed: 01/02/2020 (doc:494 V1.0). Our articles are reviewed regularly. However, any changes made to standards or legislation following the review date will not have been considered. Please note that we provide abridged, easy-to-understand guidance. To make detailed decisions about your fire safety provisions, you might require further advice or need to consult the full standards and legislation.