By Terri Williams | May 29, 2018
Appliances make household chores so much more tolerable. Dishwashers clean dirty glassware and eliminate the need for scrubbing. Ovens help you make dinner in minutes flat. Dryers … well, you get the gist. They’re incredibly helpful and will last for years—decades even—when used and maintained correctly.
But did you know that appliances can also burn your home to the ground?
Not to be overly dramatic, but appliance fires are a real concern to those who operate household appliances, especially those that generate heat, like dishwashers or space heaters.
So let’s take a look at appliances that could start a fire—and what you can do to reduce your chances of becoming a statistic.
Older appliances are more hazardous, but modern devices can have problems too
Modern home appliances are safer today than they were a generation ago, according to Kenneth Kutchek, PE, CFEI, a Detroit-based electrical engineer at Robson. “Older appliances can pose a fire hazard because they may lack modern safety protections, such as over temperature protection, over current protection, auto off controls, self-regulating heating elements, and anti-tip switches.” He also says that older appliances may have been heavily used during their lifetime.
However, Kutchek acknowledges that problems exist even with modern, popular brands. “Foreign manufacturing and foreign component suppliers have had increasing quality problems associated with extremely rapid growth,” he explains.
What causes the fires?
There’s no single culprit responsible for appliance fires; it’s a mixture of design flaws and improper use, aka human error. Dryers, for example, can catch fire because of common electrical malfunctions, according to Kutchek.
But stove fires are most common of all, and usually happen when someone is being negligent while cooking. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fire departments all around the United States respond to an average of 466 home cooking fires each day. “Forty percent of home fires are related to cooking, and unattended cooking accounts for one-third of these fires,” says Kutchek.
Which appliances can catch fire?
So, which appliances do you have to watch out for? All of them, but mostly kitchen appliances. Kutchek offers this (lengthy!) list of household appliances that have the most potential to go up in flames:
- Garbage disposal
- Microwave oven
- Exhaust hood
- Coffee pot/coffee maker
- Toaster and toaster oven
- Hot plate
- Slow cooker
- Pressure cooker
- Waffle iron
- Can opener
- Clothes washer
- Clothes dryer
- Air conditioner
- Space heater
- Box fan/oscillating fan
- Ceiling fan
Causes of appliance fires
These issues can affect all electrical appliances in your home. To give you a clear picture of the causes of appliance fires, we broke these lists up by product defects and user errors:
- Lack of safety protections
- Poor manufacturing quality
- Overheating due to poor wiring design
- Poor heating insulation
- Poor-quality components
- Failure to use the product according to the manufacturers instructions
- Continuing to use a worn or damaged product
- Failure to keep combustible items, clutter, and debris away from appliances
- Failure to clean and maintain appliances
- Buying cheap, low-quality, off-brand products from foreign countries that do not meet U.S. safety standards
- Overheated extension cords that are too small, too long for the purpose, or are hidden under rugs
How to avoid appliance fires
Some of the causes of appliance fires provide clues for how to avoid them. “Most people do not follow the recommended installation, use, and care of their appliances,” says Ken Canziani, IAAI-CFI, senior fire investigator at Unified Investigations & Sciences, Inc. in Sacramento, CA. “Many issues or fires can be prevented if people are aware of and follow the manufacturer’s recommended guidelines.”
Many fires originate from dryers, which is why it’s important (and easy!) to keep the lint filter clean and emptied. “Lint builds up in the dryer, and not all of it is captured by the lint filter tray,” he says. “A buildup in the exhaust duct or base of the dryer can come into contact with the heater and ignite.” He also advises against putting cloths or rags with chemicals or oils on them in the laundry, since these items are combustible.
It’s also a good idea to check the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s list of recalls to see if your appliance is on it. If a product has been recalled, you should stop using it immediately.
Kutchek provides these additional tips to keep your home safe and fire-free:
- Replace frayed or damaged power cords. Power switches can also become worn or damaged over time. Repair or replace appliances if worn or damaged.
- Take the time to read the appliance owners manual, and use the appliance according to the manufacturers instructions.
- Do not operate appliances unattended. This includes ranges, ovens, dishwashers, clothes washers, dryers, slow cookers, dehumidifiers, and space heaters. Yes, this may be inconvenient, but its better to be safe than sorry, because too many fires start during the night, or when no one is home.
- Keep combustible objects clear of heat-generating appliances. This includes curtains, towels, paper towels or napkins, cookbooks, and paper bags.
- Keep appliances clean. Clean grease and other flammable debris from stovetops, range burners, and range hoods. Clean and vacuum under and behind refrigerators and ovens. Clean and vacuum under and behind clothes washers and dryers. Clean crumbs from toasters. Clean dryer lint traps regularly. Clean lint out of the vent pipe and outlet at least once a year (or more often if you notice that clothes take longer to dry). Clean air intakes on air conditioners, dehumidifiers, and space heaters.
- Unplug small appliances when not in use.
- Do not use extension cords with your appliances. But if you must, be sure to use the proper size of extension cord (with proper current rating). Inspect extension cords for damage before each use.
- Verify that a smoke alarm is installed on each level of your home and in every bedroom. Test and verify that all smoke alarms are operational. Replace all smoke alarms every 10 years.