As you must have imagined, I have a home office. It isn't much to look at, merely a comfortable corner of a dry basement, but since I created it in June, I've produced a book, my weekly columns for Real Estate-Realtor Times and countless articles for newspapers and magazines.

It isn't pretty, but it works. Advice to real estate agents: Emphasize to buyers that their needs for home work space can often be satisfied without extensive and expensive renovations. The chair, the desk and lighting are where you should spend your money, once you've decided on a computer and how you want to connect to the Internet.

It has been cold in the office lately. Since the basement is not connected to the heating system and the office is on the other side of the unheated crawlspace under the kitchen, the temperature is about 55 degrees. That's fine for a basement; too chilly for a workspace.

The solution: an oil-filled electric heater. Since I've used all the electrical outlets in the office for the computer, printer, TV, and VCR I had to run a heavy-duty, 15-amp, 125-volt electric cord from an outlet to the heater so I could use it in the office.

I thought there would be no problem. After all, it was heavy-duty and rated for 15 amps. Well, as anyone smarter than I am knows; and that's just about everyone, it might have been able to handle 750 watts, but not hours of a 1,500-watt demand, at least as far as I would later determine.

Since I only use the heater when I'm in the office, I soon detected that telltale odor of melting plastic. I immediately shut off the unit and removed the plug from the outlet. When I tried to remove the heater plug from the extension cord, it wouldn't budge. Tugging for a few minutes, I separated the two, and realized that the cord receptacle had melted slightly.

Of course, I was lucky that I'd been there and there hadn't been a fire. I felt pretty stupid, justifiably so. The extension cord went into the trash.

I can't imagine a world without electricity. This little incident was a reminder, however, that it needs to handled with care. Not every story has as happy an ending as mine.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has pinpointed the top electrical safety hazards as electrical fires caused by aging wiring and misuse of surge suppressors, and electrocutions from wiring systems and large appliances. Commission research indicates that each year we can expect more than 40,000 electrical fires, which result in hundreds of injuries and deaths. Electrocutions associated with wiring and consumer products cost hundreds of lives annually.

The Electrical Safety Foundation Institute has provided some suggestions about keeping ourselves and our houses safe. One is to make certain that all appliances and equipment are approved by an independent testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Canadian Standards Association (CSA), or ETL-SEMKO (ETL).

Another is to use appliances and equipment according to the manufacturer's instructions. Replace damaged electrical equipment or have it repaired at an authorized repair center. Replace frayed cords, broken plugs or cracks that could cause hazards; cut and throw out damaged cords.

Use ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection when working where water is near electricity, in areas such your kitchen, laundry room, bathroom or outdoors, to protect against electric shock.

When using a generator, plug appliances directly into the generator or use a heavy duty outdoor-rated extension cord that is free of cuts and tears and has a three-prong plug. Never try to power the house wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet, a dangerous practice known as back-feeding. If you must connect the generator to the house wiring to power appliances, have a qualified electrician install a power transfer switch in accordance with local electrical codes.

Be alert for hazards of old wiring. Flickering or dimming lights can be signs of electrical wiring problems. Have wiring in homes 40 years old or more, or those over 10 years old that have had major renovations, inspected by a licensed electrical inspector.

Add protection by installing a new electrical safety device -- an arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) -- to detect and stop electrical arcs that can cause fires. Arcs are not detected by most breakers and fuses.

Finally, make sure power strips and surge suppressors are designed to handle the loads for their intended use. Avoid overloading circuits by plugging too many items into the same outlet.

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