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Investigation of Appliance Fires: Many Caused By Products Themselves

Millions of appliance units recalled in the past five years for defects that could cause a fire; Eight ways consumers can protect themselves

Consumer ReportsYonkers, NY – Appliances can pose a fire hazard even when they are not in use according to a recent investigation by Consumer Reports.  While human error can play a role, especially in fires involving cooking appliances and clothes dryers, Consumer Reports’ in-depth analysis of federal fire data revealed that only about half of all appliance fires could be attributed to human mistakes – much of the rest appear to be caused by problems with the appliances themselves.

“We identified a variety of causes for these fires, including faulty refrigerator compressors and defective control boards in dishwashers,” said Dan DiClerico, senior editor at Consumer Reports.  “In some cases, cooking appliances were even turning on by themselves.  Incidents may seem low, but the risk is very high.”

To learn more about the occurrence and causes of appliance fires, Consumer Reports analyzed data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) which is maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), fire reports, court documents, records from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and reports from the agency’s public database www.SaferProducts.gov.

The full report on appliance fires, which includes eight ways consumers can protect themselves, is available in the March issue of Consumer Reports and at www.ConsumerReports.org.

Here are some key findings

  • In the past five years, more than 15 million appliance units have been recalled by the CPSC and manufacturers for defects that could cause a fire; 7.3 million (almost half) of the recalled units were dishwashers.  Almost four of every five recalls in Consumer Reports’ analysis involved products made outside of the U.S., with the majority coming from China.
  • The biggest recall in Consumer Reports’ analysis was for 2.5 million GE dishwashers in May 2007, with 191 reports of overheated wiring due to a short circuit.  In 12 cases, fire spread beyond the dishwasher.
  • In March 2009, 1.6 million Maytag refrigerators were recalled because of electrical failure in the relay, the component that turns on the compressor.
  • NFIRS data from 2002 through 2009 (the latest available) showed more than 69,000 fires in which the appliance was the primary cause; most incidents were attributed to  ranges, followed by dryers, air conditioners,  refrigerators,  and  dishwashers.  Consumer Reportsfound at least 15,700 fires (23%) that were clearly linked to problems within a product.
  • Since March 2011, consumers have logged more than 850 instances of appliance fires on www.SaferProducts.gov, a site maintained by the CPSC that allows consumers to report product safety problems.

Spotlight on Safety Standards

The majority of safety standards for appliances are voluntary, developed through groups like UL, ANSI or ASTM, by consensus or representatives including consumer groups, government agencies, producers, retailers, and suppliers.  The CPSC is required by law to consider adopting these voluntary standards as federal regulation and the agency can also call on these bodies to set tougher standards.  If the CPSC determines that the voluntary standard or the process is insufficient, it can independently move forward setting federal, mandated standards.  When it comes to appliance fires, experts question whether the current standards are rigorous enough.

Whether appliance parts are foreign or made domestically, industry officials insist that compliance with the standards are the same.  But Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes that the large number of appliance recalls warrants a comprehensive examination of appliance fires by the CPSC.

In the meantime, the CPSC maintains a public consumer complaint database, www.SaferProducts.gov, that allows consumers to report product safety problems with a variety of products. The site has proved to be a useful forum for sharing safety concerns, but it has encountered resistance from companies that contend the information publicly posted is unverified.  Consumers Union supports efforts to protect and promote the website as a way to publicly provide early warning of potential product problems.  Consumers should be encouraged to share their experiences with unsafe products on the site to provide real-life experiences that can contribute to safety.

Eight Ways Consumers Can Protect Themselves

Consumer Reports encourages consumers to take the following precautions to help protect themselves against potential appliance fires.

  1. Register new appliances.  The large number of recalls is a sobering reminder of how important it is for consumers to register their products with manufacturers in order to be promptly notified in the event of a recall.  Consumers concerned about their privacy or junk mail need only provide manufacturers with their name, contact information and the appliance’s model number.
  2. Check for recalls.  Consumers can sign up for alerts at www.Recalls.gov.  Those who move into a home with existing appliances should record their make and model and check company websites for any recalls or review customers’ experiences with those products at www.SaferProducts.gov.
  3. Install fire-prevention equipment.  Each level of a home and every bedroom should have a working smoke alarm.  Consumer Reports recommends smoke alarms have both photoelectric and ionization sensors to provide the fastest response to any type of fire.  Also, keep one full-floor fire extinguisher (rated 2-A:10-B:C or greater) on every level, plus a smaller supplemental unit in the kitchen.
  4. Inspect power cords.  Check for frayed power cords and never route electric cords (including extension cords) under carpeting, where they can overheat or be damaged by furniture.
  5. Check home wiring.  The electrical wiring in older homes cannot always handle the demands of modern appliances.  Systems should be inspected by a qualified electrician.   An upgrade to wiring may cost several hundred dollars, but is likely worth the added expense.
  6. Practice kitchen safety.  Unattended cooking is a common fire-starter, whether using a range or microwave oven.  If small children are home, maintain a kids-free-zone of at least 3 feet and use back burners when possible.  Consumers should unplug their small appliances, including toasters and coffeemakers, when not in use and or when planning to be away for long periods.
  7. Clear range hoods.  Grease buildup in range hoods is another fire hazard, so be sure to clean the vents regularly.
  8. Keep dryer vents clear.  Clean the lint screen in the dryer regularly to avoid buildup, which has been listed as a factor in many fires.  Use rigid metal dryer ducts instead of flexible ducts made of foil or plastic, which can sag and let lint build.  Check ducts regularly and remove any lint buildup.

For the full report on appliance fires, which features a breakdown of the number of fire and common problems reported is available in the March issue of Consumer Reports and at www.ConsumerReports.org.

About Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website and other publications.   Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.


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