Everyday fires in your home can start in an instant, whether it’s from hot oil or frayed electrical wires. Naturally, you might panic to find a way to put it out and come across your fish tank, open and ready to scoop water from.
Can water from a fish tank stop a fire? Yes, but it shouldn’t be your first choice. Certain kinds of fires are worsened by water, so unless you know exactly where the fire started, call the fire department to extinguish the fire as quickly as possible to save the lives of your family and your fish.
To understand how a fish tank’s water could put out a fire, you need to understand the different kinds of fire and how they should be handled.
Types of Fires and Their Sources
The biggest factor in whether water from a fish tank can stop a fire is the source of the fire. Sometimes it’s easy to know where it came from. For instance, you might knock over a candle or see sparks flying out of your wall. But other times, you might wake up in the middle of the night to a room full of smoke.
Fires are split into categories based on their cause and what can be used to extinguish them. Let take a closer look at those classes:
Class A Fires
Class A fires are the most common in homes and involve solid materials like wood, plastic, or fabric. They can happen when something like a candle or a match accidentally (or purposefully) lights them on fire. If you’ve ever dealt with a lot of candles, matches, or cigarettes, you’ve probably witnessed at least one class A fire, even if it was small and brief.
Luckily, these fires are easily extinguished with water, like the kind from your fish tank, or with a commonly-used household foam fire extinguisher.
Class B Fires
These fires are started with flammable liquids like oil or gasoline, but notably, not cooking fires. Using water on class B fires can make things exponentially worse, as water can spread the area the fire touches and doesn’t extinguish the flames. It’s literally oil and water trying to mix – it just doesn’t work.
These fires need to be put out with powder, foam, or carbon dioxide extinguishers. These extinguishers put out fires by cutting off the oxygen that feeds the fires.
Class C Fires
Class C fires are electrical fires, which you may worry about the most because of the electrical wiring that many fish tank parts have. (We’ll get into the fire safety of fish tank parts in a moment.)
These fires are best extinguished by unplugging the appliance if it’s safe to do so and putting out the fire with a powder or carbon dioxide extinguisher. Do not use water to put out class C fires if you can’t unplug the appliance! Water conducts electricity, which will only feed the fire. Foam extinguishers will also make the issue worse.
However, if you’re able to unplug the offending appliance, class C fires can become class A fires. If you’re able to unplug your appliance, you can use water to put out the fire.
Class D Fires
You’re not likely to deal with a class D fire in your home, as they occur when metal ignites. Most things in your home won’t get hot enough to ignite metal unless you have alkali metals like aluminum, potassium, or magnesium in large quantities around. The right forms of these metals can burst into flames if exposed to water or air.
Don’t use water to put out class D fires – only use powder extinguishers that cut the oxygen supply to the flames.
Class K Fires
Class K fires are fires that are caused by cooking liquids or fats. Just like class B fires (which they’re sometimes lumped in with), adding water to a class K fire will only spread it and make it splatter over you and the rest of the kitchen.
Remove the pan from the heat and use a wet chemical extinguisher if possible. Since they tend to be expensive, a fast and easy way to put out a small grease fire is to pour baking soda or salt onto it. They’re probably closer than any fish tank and are inexpensive to replace.
What Are Common Causes of Fires at Home?
Since fish tanks can go into any room of your house, it’s important to know which things in a room are most likely to cause a fire.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, the most common causes are:
- Heating devices like space heaters
- Electrical devices
As you can see, many fires caused by these items are readily preventable. The Red Cross has some simple ways to prepare in the event of a fire, such as installing the proper number of fire alarms for the size of your home, having a communication plan, and holding fire drills for you and your family, especially if you have children.
The full list can be found here. If a fire happens to start, remember to “get out, stay out, and call 911.” Having a plan in place can help you save your family and possibly prevent your fish tank from being damaged. Don’t take the time to grab your fish, as most people only have two minutes to escape a fire.
Can My Fish Tank Cause a Fire?
As with anything that involves electricity, you might wonder if your fish tank heater’s wiring and parts can cause a fire. After all, water plus heat plus an electrical socket usually doesn’t bode well.
Luckily, fires like this are fairly rare if you take a few precautions. Though it’s anecdotal evidence, in this Aquatic Plant Central forum post, long-time fish keepers have stated that they’ve never had an issue with fish tanks catching on fire.
On the opposite side, some fish owners have stated that they’ve had a number of close calls with their electrical equipment. They noticed a burning smell before anything started and reevaluated their set-ups.
Most electrical fires are caused by faulty wiring, appliances, extension cords, or space heaters, but there are several ways in which you can avoid anything around or in your tank catching fire.
1) Buy High-Quality Appliances
Cheaper appliances usually get poorer results, and fish tank heaters or other parts are no different. Choose the highest quality you can afford that’s the best fit for your tank. Here’s a post on choosing the right heater for your tank, as heaters have all the ingredients to create a potential fire.
2) Install a Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter
These outlets add another layer of safety by reducing the risk of electric shock. If an outlet is running too hot, it automatically trips the circuit and prevents more overheating.
You can install one yourself with proper instructions, but if you’re worried about dealing with electricity, an electrician can do it for you.
3) Protect Your Outlet from Water
This one seems obvious, but a little extra precaution never hurts anyone. Humidity and stray moisture from tanks can get into electrical sockets and cause fires. An inexpensive outlet cover like this can save you a lot of trouble down the line, and they’re easy to install.
4) Don’t Overload Your Outlet
Make sure that you don’t plug too many things into your outlet. Having too many things in one power strip or wall outlet can easily cause a fire for any appliance or electronic, fish-related, or otherwise.
What If a Fire Breaks Out Near My Tank?
But even if it’s unlikely for your tank to catch fire or for anything around it to burst into flames, you’re probably curious as to how fish tanks fare in fires.
There are a few documented instances of fires being extinguished by tanks that shattered or melted because of the fire’s heat, but there are just as many instances where a fish tank’s owner had to deal with a fish who either died from the fire or suffered from smoke damage.
Let’s get into a few case studies of times where fish tanks went through fires to give you a clearer picture of how these situations can play out.
Case Study #1: A Christmas Candle Causes Destruction
The Whitehall family, based in the UK, woke up to the sound of something exploding in their house – something no one ever wants to hear. But in their case, hearing this explosion saved their lives. They realized that their lounge was on fire, called emergency services, and got out of the house safely.
The exploding item was their twenty-two-gallon glass fish tank, which shattered from the heat of the fire. The water from the tank put out much of the flames, which likely prevented the family’s home from being damaged any further. Thirteen fish died, but two miraculously survived in the small amount of water left behind.
The fire started from a Christmas candle that someone forgot to blow out before everyone went to bed, meaning this was a class A fire – one that can be put out with water.
In this instance, pure luck saved their home from being destroyed, though it was at the expense of thirteen of their fish. If they had an acrylic fish tank, the tank might have just melted, and the water might not have put out enough fire in time. The glass exploded because of the fire’s heat, which ended up saving the day.
This case study shows that oftentimes, stopping a fire with fish tank water can just be a matter of luck. Had the fire started far away from the tank, the fire could have damaged everything before getting close enough to the tank to shatter it.
Takeaway: While it’s possible for a glass tank to shatter and extinguish a fire, the fire can still kill your fish and cause significant damage.
Case Study #2: The Sick Fish Who Survived a Fire
The owners of an Oscar cichlid called veterinarian Dr. Loh, who runs the YouTube channel The Fish Doctor, when the fish had started exhibiting symptoms of HITH – “hole in the head” disease, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Luckily, they were able to get the fish on a treatment plan to fix the problem, but then another potential health risk struck – the owner’s house suffered a fire.
The fire started in the owner’s dishwasher, which quickly spread into the rest of the kitchen. The fish’s tank was in the same open floor plan as the kitchen, meaning that the fish was at risk. When the owner saw the fire, the smoke was so bad that he couldn’t see the tank and assumed the fish was gone.
He saved his other pets – a cat and a dog – and called the fire department. Once the fire was put out and he was able to go back in, he saw that his fish had survived, just barely. He did a 50% water change in the tank, and Dr. Loh was able to help him heal the damage from the fire.
In this instance, the owner did the right thing. Rather than trying to put out the fire himself, which would have only made the electrical issue worse, he called the authorities to put it out using the proper means. If he hadn’t done this, his fish might not have survived.
Takeaway: Always call the fire department as soon as you notice a fire, and don’t attempt to put it out yourself with tank water because it could make things worse.
Case Study #3: A Melted Acrylic Tank
In 2003, a member of the fish keeper forum Reef Central named AqCons posted photos of her devastated fish tank set-up – a fire had melted her acrylic tank, but thankfully, that also helped to put out a little bit of the fire.
The fire ruined most of her house while she was gone, including the entire population of her tank. She lived far out in the country, so the fire spread before the fire department could make it. Her neighbors lived somewhat far away as well, so they weren’t able to call 911 until the fire had engulfed much of the house.
AqCons said that her power strip, a Coralife Power Center (an appliance that acts as a power strip and an aquarium device timer), was the cause. The fire department said that they’d seen a lot of fires come as a result of power strips near fish tanks.
AqCon’s Coralife Power Center was faulty, though the fire department wasn’t sure if it was a matter of user error or something with the appliance itself. AqCon knew that she hadn’t gotten the device wet or overloaded it. She also noted that it wasn’t plugged into a GFCI outlet.
Other users said that they’d had similar electrical issues with their Coralife centers and that this situation prompted them to reevaluate the electrical load on their set-ups.
This is another instance where fish tank water helped put out a fire to some degree, but at the expense of the lives of AqCons’ fish. Thankfully, even though it was an electrical fire, the water didn’t cause more damage than it could have.
Takeaway: Take care to check over your tank’s electrical attachments. If you smell anything burning, a fire could break out like it did in this case.
Recovering Your Fish from a Fire
Even if your fish tank happens to put out a fire, you’ll likely have some sick fish on your hands after. Next, let’s talk about how to recover your fish from a fire if they survive it.
The incident that Dr. Loh handled is an excellent demonstration of how to help your fish post-fire. The owner had the right first instinct. Once they were able to get back into their home, they did a 50% water change to their tank. Even though this helped, there was still a lot of soot in the water, and the fish was still cowering in the corner of the tank.
The owner called Dr. Loh back in. Since the water was contaminated with melted plastic, soot, and other things in the air, Dr. Loh knew that the tank needed chemical filtration. He used activated charcoal in a filter along with a poly filter like this one. The filter was replaced until the water was clean again.
In summary, here’s what to do if your fish survives a fire:
- Replace damaged parts of the tank
- Replace the water and clean the tank
- If your fish is still having difficulties, call a vet who handles fish
With proper care, you can save your fish’s life without sacrificing your own.
Fish tanks can and sometimes do put out fires, but those instances are fairly rare. In most cases, fish don’t survive, and the damage is still significant. For that reason, it is important to take reasonable precautions to ensure that your home is as fire-safe as possible.