Spontaneous Appliance Fires
Appliances caused 69,000 fires in the US from 2002 to 2009. Most were caused by people misusing the appliance but, Consumer Reports, found that at least 23% were caused by the appliance itself. As many as 50% may have been caused through no defect in installation nor operation. Many fires started during the night, or when no one was home.
Owners of brand name microwaves, and ranges, report the appliances turning themselves on. Some can’t be turned off unless unplugged. Whirlpool has admitted that their ranges may be turned on by personal digital devices. Stuart Lipoff of, IEEE, says that most appliances made these days have some kind of microcomputer. The wiring can become an antenna picking up electromagnetic interference that may cause the appliance to turn on. This includes appliances as small as blenders and toasters. Some sources of electromagnetic interference include: blue tooth device like phones, mp3 players, computers, home entertainment systems, etc; radio transmitting devices like baby monitors, WI-fi, two-way radios, garage door openers, radio car/airplane controllers, etc; power transformers; and natural phenomena like thunderstorms.
These kinds of problems can be caused by manufacturers that allow lax testing and quality standards. Chinese factories have had increasing quality problems associated with extremely rapid growth. Chinese, and other foreign made appliances are sold by most brand name manufacturers. Problems exist with even those brands that have traditionally meant quality products. With more appliances being made internet ready, it would seem that the problem will only increase.
Part of the challenge in dealing with these problems is that manufacturers typically pay off victims of their poorly manufactured, or designed, products while requiring them to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of receiving a settlement. This silences victims and keeps the defects from becoming general knowledge. Legislation to force disclosure of these problems has been talked about for the past 18 years. The US government put up a website, SaferProducts, in 2010 to provide a place for consumers to share experiences about defective products. Appliance owners rate appliances and tell their stories according to their first hands experiences. Manufacturers have tried to discredit it. They say that since the experiences posted are not verified that all are suspect.
Forty percent of home fires are started by cooking equipment. This includes ranges, ovens, cook tops, microwaves, toasters, coffee makers, electric skillets and others. Rare instances have been discovered where fires were caused by ranges, ovens and microwaves that turn themselves on. Most fires are caused by user error, deferred maintenance, or improper installation like: wrong or improperly mounted/vented stove hoods; gas leaks; overloaded electrical circuits; installation too close to flammables.
Another thirty percent of home fires are started by space heaters. Some fires are caused by defective appliances, most are caused by use too close to flammable materials and overheated extension cords that are too small, too long for the purpose or are hidden under rugs.
- Ranges caused the most fires between 2002-2009 . Most were started by cooking left unattended or spontaneous turn on.
- Second were clothes dryers with the most common causes – blocked vents or gas leaks.
- Microwaves were third with the most common cause – running with nothing inside. Some of these may be caused by spontaneous turn on.
- Refrigerators were next with relay switch shorts the most common reported cause.
- Toasters and ovens were next with the most common reported causes – spontaneous turn on and jammed mechanism.
- Dishwashers were next with the most common reported causes – control panel problems and liquid rinse aid leaking into circuitry.
- Washing machines were next. The leading cause of fire was water leaking into circuit boards.
There are some things you can do to decrease the odds of appliance related fires.
- Make sure you have a tip bracket installed to prevent unintended movement.
- Check to see that your breaker box has a dedicated 220V breaker for the range. Check the manufacturer’s website, or appliance manual, for proper amperage (typically 30-50 amp). If you have any doubts, call a licensed electrician.
- Check the electrical cord for wear, or fraying, and the outlet for loose mount, or broken housing.
- Check gas connections for visible wear. If you smell gas, turn off the nearest valve and call an appliance repair person. If gas cannot be turned off, call the fire department or you gas provider.
- Clean grease from vent filter.
- Be certain that the hood for gas stoves, and others that are meant to vent outdoors, are properly vented to the outdoors. Venting in the attic is unacceptable.
- Hoods for gas stoves must be at least 30” above the burners.
- Clothes Dryers
- Clean vents and hoses regularly.
- Replace plastic hoses. They are fire hazards.
- Replace corrugated metal hoses that trap lint with smooth metal ducting. Dryer lint is highly flammable and can be explosive under the right conditions. Vent hose blockage is a leading cause of dryer fires.
- Make sure vents exit outside. Water filter lint traps are available. Many people swear by these devices, but they must be cleaned after every use to avoid bacterial growth.
- Microwave Ovens, Toaster Ovens, Toasters, Coffee Makers and Other Electrical Cooking Devices
- Keep these devices clean and unplugged when not in use.
- Run only when someone is present.
- Don’t operate while sleeping.
- Washing Machines
- Install an automatic water shut-off valve that will stop water flow at the source if leakage is detected.
Be certain that all 220V appliances have dedicated circuits in the breaker box. Each electric stove, oven, dryer, air conditioner or kiln needs its own 220V circuit breaker of the proper amperage. If there is not a labelled, 220V circuit breaker for each 220V appliance, call a licensed electrician.
Register each new appliance with the manufacturer so you will be notified of recalls.