How to avoid buying an appliance that’s a fire risk

by Warren Reynolds on April 13, 2012

The last thing you’d expect to have to worry about when you buy a new kitchen or laundry appliance is whether the machine will catch fire or experience another major malfunction that endangers your home and family.  But serious safety defects, while still relatively rare, have become increasingly common with new appliances according to Consumer Reports.

In a recent exposé on the state of modern appliance manufacturing, the respected consumer watchdog group documents a slew of recent problems with new appliances including fires in dishwashers, dryers and microwaves, appliances starting on their own or failing to properly turn off, exploding glass doors on ovens, and refrigerator lights that stay on with the door shut, creating a surprising fire hazard.

Appliance fires a growing problem

Consumer Reports says that the Consumer Product Safety Commission found there have been more than 69,000 residential fires in the US from 2002 through 2009 in which an appliance was the proximate cause of the incident.

These blazes were directly attributable to a defect in the affected appliance.  The fires did not originate from human error, such as unattended cooking or failure to clear dryer lint, nor did they arise from natural causes such as storms or animals.

Why so many problem appliances?

The worrisome number of appliance fires due to product defects isn’t surprising, according to Andrea Gabor, a quality-management expert  quoted in the Consumer Reports article.  “We’ve seen a race to the bottom in terms of cheap parts and disposable products,” she says in the piece.

Here’s what Consumer Reports says lies behind America’s new appliance problems:

♦ Innovations in controls and function make today’s appliances more versatile and easier to use, but the added complexity is creating unexpected safety problems.

More intricate electronics in appliances lead to short circuits, electrical failures, and overheated wiring that start fires inside the unit.

♦ The increased fire risk that comes with design complexity is being exacerbated by fraud and short cuts by overseas manufacturers.

Consumer Reports says that US companies are losing control over the production of their products by using overseas manufacturing plants, primarily in China.  Chinese subcontractors and suppliers sometimes deviate from design specs without authorization.  They secretly substitute inferior materials and cut corners with the components.  This fraud heightens the risk of malfunctions that spark fires.

♦ To save cost and reduce weight, appliance designers have increasingly resorted to using flammable plastic parts in lieu of non-flammable metal.

Once the electrical components in an appliance catch fire, the fire feeds on all the plastic in the machine, fueling the blaze and spreading the fire throughout the appliance.  Even refrigerators now can present a serious fire risk.

How to avoid an appliance fire

Below are some steps identified by Consumer Reports to reduce your chances of having a fire in your home due to an appliance:

1. Check for recalls and consumer complaints before you buy

You can use a search engine such as Google, Yahoo or Bing to see if there have been complaints or recalls on the specific appliance brand and model you are considering buying.  But that might leave you open to oversight or error; your search might not pull up some important information.

To help you quickly identify troublesome appliances, the Federal government has created two very helpful websites you can use to find product safety recalls and access a central database of consumer reports of fires and other safety problems with a wide range of consumer products.

SaferProducts.gov

This site gives you access to complaints made by consumers about the appliances they own. Created in March 2011, the site posts consumer complaints after notifying the manufacturers involved and giving them a chance to respond. Thousands of complaints exist on the website, including more than 850 related to appliance fires.

Recalls.gov

This is an umbrella site that links to recalls of many types of products including vehicles, appliances and other consumer products, food, medicine, boats and cosmetics.  The site will send you to a variety of other sites maintained by agencies of the Federal government.  You’ll be taken to the FDA website for food and drug safety issues, the EPA website for recalls of environmental products and the Consumer Products Safety Commission website for consumer product recalls.  Navigation between the sites can be a bit cumbersome, but Recalls.gov is a very helpful clearinghouse site for recalls and problems affecting a very wide range of products.

2. Register new appliances

Consumer Reports states that few buyers of new appliances bother to register their purchase with the manufacturer. If you fill out and return the registration card, you should be notified promptly if a product is recalled. So be smart, register your purchases so you will know about safety recalls if they occur.

3. Be careful with the household appliances you own

Failing to clear lint from dryer hoses and vents and leaving cooking items unattended is a common way to have a fire. Don’t leave coffee brewers, microwaves, stoves, ovens and toasters on unsupervised.  Maybe think twice about running your dishwasher over night when you are asleep in bed.

Another smart move is to unplug small appliances such as re-chargers, coffee machines, blenders and toasters when they are not in use.  When you are out of the house for extended periods, you might want to unplug your TVs, computers and video equipment.

Please check online to see if any appliances you currently own (or are about to buy) have been recalled or are receiving complaints posted about them.  If you do your due diligence and use common sense when you use your appliances, you’ll be doing everything you can to ensure the safety of your home and family!

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