Answer Man

Life of old fire extinguisher likely has burned out

Fire extinquisher should be tested regularly.
Fire extinquisher should be tested regularly.

Q. You recently told someone how to dispose of old pepper spray. Here’s something that’s been on my mind: I have a small fire extinguisher in my kitchen that is probably 20 years old. Should I be replacing it? What can I do with the old one?

— S.D., of Belleville

A. Did you ever dream of being a firefighter as a kid? Well, now’s your chance, because at 20 years old, your extinguisher may be at best a good paperweight.

“It’s probably a dead soldier,” Anna Rowden, the business office manager at Fire Appliance in Mascoutah, told me, laughing. “It doesn’t even make a good boat anchor.”

To get rid of it, you can have a little fun (but be careful, please). Just head out to your backyard and pretend you’re battling a five-alarmer.

“If it’s a metal fire extinguisher, she can go outside and practice her fire extinguishing skills,” Rowden said. “After emptying it, she can recycle the metal or throw it away.”

Otherwise, you can buy a new one at Fire Appliance (121 W. Main St., 566-7373), and they’ll be happy to empty your old one and recycle the metal.

Here’s the deal: If you bought that extinguisher for a business, a licensed inspector would have to examine it once a year to make sure it is in working order for the safety of your employees and customers. At the six-year mark, it would have to undergo additional testing, during which it would be taken apart, the gases and other ingredients topped off and resealed. Then, at 12 years, the extinguisher would have to be completely disassembled, all of the contents removed and the canister examined for structural integrity.

“You have to make sure that everything’s all right — that it’s gonna work and that that cylinder still can handle all that pressure,” Rowden said.

Of course, home extinguishers don’t fall under those fire codes, so the homeowner should remember to keep checking them periodically himself.

“What I tell people to do is this: When you change the batteries in your smoke detector, look at the gauge on your fire extinguisher and make sure it’s in the green,” she said. “If it’s in the green, usually you’re good to go.”

Usually, but not always, she says. Fire Appliance, for example, sells made-in-the-USA extinguishers with all-metal parts. However, she knows some stores sell imported models with plastic parts that can become brittle, allowing the gas propellant to escape. It’s a scenario that could have disastrous consequences.

“The extinguisher would be full because all that powder’s in there, but in a fire, you couldn’t get it out because the gas is gone.”

In any case, you’re probably long overdue to buy a new one. (If it’s less than 10 pounds — the weight of the material inside — one of those 12-year refurbishments is not economically viable.) Generally, you’ll probably want a multipurpose Class ABC extinguisher, as certified by the National Fire Protection Association — “A” for ordinary solid combustibles, “B” for flammable liquids and gases and “C” for energized electrical equipment. You could go with a 2 1/2 -pounder ($40, including hanger and tag), but that’s a bare minimum.

“If you like your stuff, we recommend a 5-pounder ($59),” she said. “That’s the kind that police officers run around with in their squad cars and ambulances have in their units. They have a good amount of firepower. If someone has a basement or an upstairs-downstairs situation, what we say is you want enough stuff in that fire extinguisher to blast a path safely to get out of that residence.”

That’s why Rowden has stocked her own ranch home with a 5-pounder and a 10-pounder ($89).

“If I wanted to jump out the window, I’d probably break my leg, so at the other end of the house, I’ve got that 10-pounder,” she said. “It’s in a rural area, so that goes into the mix, too. You really want to make sure you can get you and your kids out of the building safely.”

And even if you think you’re never going to encounter a blaze you can’t handle without an extinguisher, remember there’s more than one type of “fire” you can put out with it.

“They also can be good for home defense,” said Rowden, whose business’s website can be found at “If you have somebody who breaks in and you shoot off one of these in their face, they’re going to choke and puke. It’s not going to kill them, but they’re not going to be very comfortable.”

Today’s trivia

Who is often credited for inventing the first modern-style fire extinguisher?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: When Commodore Matthew Perry was fighting to open the trade doors to Japan in 1853, he had a member of a most distinguished military family to command his flagship, the Mississippi: Sidney Smith Lee.

The brother of Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee, Sidney Lee led a distinguished naval career himself, first for the United States and then for the breakaway Confederacy. He served as one of the early commandants of the U.S. Naval Academy, which was established in 1845, and also as commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

But on April 17, 1861, he resigned from the U.S. Navy, and was immediately accepted as a Confederate naval commander. Three years later, he became chief of the Confederate Navy’s Bureau of Orders and Detail. At the same time, his son Fitzhugh was a Confederate major general. After the Civil War ended, Sidney Lee died in 1869 while Fitz went on to lead a volunteer regiment in the Spanish-American War.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or call 618-239-2465.