Appliance design has come a long way from the days of pilot lights, rotating dials, and push-button controls. You’d be hard-pressed to find a gas range today without electronic ignition or a microwave oven that doesn’t have touchpad controls. Those innovations make appliances easier to use, but the complexity can also lead to other problems.
“If you compare a first-generation blender that had only an on/off switch with one today that has 14 speeds and a data-storage center [microprocessor], there’s a lot more that can go wrong with the newer unit,” says Stuart Lipoff, vice president of publications at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
That point is echoed by fire investigator Jack Sanderson, president of Fire Findings, a forensic engineering laboratory in Benton Harbor, Mich. He says that more refrigerators are ending up in his labs for analysis. “It usually has to do with components associated with new compressors,” he says. “I can’t tell you what the problem is exactly, but manufacturers have obviously made a design change that’s having unintended consequences.”
People don’t normally think of refrigerators as posing much fire danger, but Sanderson says they have heaters and draw plenty of current. And once the electrical components catch fire, he says, plastics in the rest of the appliance provide more fuel.
In fact, in one of the biggest appliance recalls in our review, 1.6 million Maytag refrigerators were recalled in March 2009 because of an electrical failure in the relay, the component that turns on the compressor. The biggest recall in our analysis was for 2.5 million GE dishwashers in May 2007, with 191 reports of overheated wiring because of a short circuit. In 12 cases, fire spread beyond the dishwasher.
There were several cases of devices that could turn on by themselves, including the October 2010 recall of 122,000 Electrolux-manufactured cooktops and ranges that could unexpectedly auto-start if liquids pooled under their control knobs. The 70 reported incidents included three fires resulting in property damage and three that caused burns. Hamilton Beach toasters were recently recalled because they could turn on when first plugged in.
The NFIRS, which is maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, provides more extensive information on fires and their causes, collecting fire reports from about 23,000 departments nationwide. We sorted through 1.6 million fire records from 2002 through 2009 to analyze more than 69,000 appliance fires in single-family and multifamily dwellings. When we excluded human error and natural conditions, such as damage from storms or animals, we found up to 35,297 cases that could be due to electrical, mechanical, or design problems. More than 15,700 fires were clearly attributable to those problems, and much of the remainder probably were because the appliance was identified as the primary source of ignition, with contributing causes listed as “none” or “undetermined.”
The most incidents were attributed to ranges, followed by dryers, air conditioners, refrigerators, and dishwashers. The NFIRS is the largest national database of fires, but participation is voluntary and varies yearly, so it was not possible to use that data alone to determine national trends over time.
The safety concerns arise as more appliances, or their components, are manufactured abroad. Almost four of every five recalls in our tally involved products made outside of the U.S., with the majority coming from China. John Drengenberg, safety director with Underwriters Laboratory (UL), which tests and certifies appliances and other products, says there can be a “distance barrier and a language barrier” between U.S. producers and
foreign suppliers. “We investigate every recall,” he says. “Very often the problem can be traced back to a substandard part that’s coming from an outside supplier.”
Gabor, the Baruch College professor, who wrote a biography of quality guru W. Edwards Deming, says, “The best manufacturers work very closely with their suppliers on everything from the design of components to their implementation in the final product.”
Industry officials insist that standards are the same whatever the parts’ origins, whether made domestically or in China. Whirlpool, which bought Maytag in 2006, says in a statement, “The same safety system applies regardless of the source of our products or components.’’