Here's a scary thought: Your microwave can suddenly turn itself on and set the house on fire. It happens! A couple told ShopSmart, the shopping magazine from the publisher of Consumer Reports, that they were left with more than $18,000 in damages after their microwave caused a fire when they were away from home.
Another surprising problem is dishwashers bursting into flames. A homeowner ShopSmart talked with said that he felt lucky he was still awake when his machine filled with smoke and sparks one night.
Almost a quarter of all appliance fires are clearly caused by the units themselves as opposed to human error — say, leaving a pan of bacon unattended. That's what ShopSmart found when it analyzed data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System. It identified more than 69,000 fires from 2002 to 2009 in which an appliance was the main cause. Of those, about half could be linked to a mechanical, electrical or design flaw.
The following six appliances accounted for the bulk of the fires. The good news is that these incidents are rare given the millions of appliances sold, and there are ways to protect yourself:
• Register new appliances to be notified of service problems.
• Check for recalls at recalls.gov. More than 18.6 million appliances have been recalled in the past six years for flaws that could cause a fire.
1. Ranges. Number of fires: 16,824
Burning issues: Burners that turn on by themselves and delayed ignition on a gas oven's bake and broil function.
Play it safe: Look for unusual error messages on the range's digital display. Stay in the kitchen when frying, grilling or broiling food. Keep flammable items, including oven mitts, away from the cooktop. Maintain a kids-free zone of at least 3 feet.
2. Clothes dryers. Number of fires: 8,717
Burning issues: Lint blockages on all dryers and gas leaks on those that run on gas.
Play it safe: Clean the lint filter before each load. Dryer vents should be checked annually for clogs. Turn the dryer off before going to bed or leaving home. If you have a gas dryer, install a carbon monoxide alarm near the laundry room to warn you of leaks, which are poisonous.
3. Microwave ovens. Number of fires: 1,705
Burning issues: Units that turn on by themselves and glass doors that shatter unexpectedly.
Play it safe: Look for unusual error messages on digital display panels. If your oven goes on by itself, try to turn it off by hitting the off/cancel button. Know where it's plugged in and which circuit breaker controls it in case it won't turn off. Don't store food or other items in the microwave.
4. Refrigerators. Number of fires: 1,514
Burning issues: Electronic components that short-circuit, control boards that overheat and lightbulbs that stay on when the door is shut.
Play it safe: Be aware of unusual error messages on the digital display (if your fridge has one). ShopSmart recommends checking that the lightbulb turns off by pressing the switch, which is usually inside the fridge where the door closes.
5. Dishwashers. Number of fires: 1,015
Burning issues: Circuit boards and heating elements that can catch fire, and liquid rinse aids that can leak into circuitry, creating a fire hazard.
Play it safe: Don't run the dishwasher when you're asleep or not home. Call for a repair if the rinse-aid dispenser needs constant refilling. Know which circuit breaker cuts power to the unit in case it starts smoking or goes up in flames.
6. Toasters and toaster ovens. Number of fires: 902
Burning issues: Units that turn on by themselves. Another potential hazard is when a mechanism jams while toasting.
Play it safe: Remember to unplug toasters when you're not using them. Inspect them for frayed power cords. And don't toast anything larger than what can easily fit in the slot.