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Don't get burned by hazardous appliances

Appliances can pose a fire hazard even when they are not in use, according to a recent investigation by Consumer Reports.

While human error can play a role, especially in fires involving cooking appliances and clothes dryers, CR's in-depth analysis of federal fire data revealed that only about half of all appliance fires could be attributed to human mistakes. Many of the rest appear to be caused by problems with the appliances themselves.

To learn more about the occurrences and causes of appliance fires, CR analyzed data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), which is maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); fire reports; court documents; records from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC); and reports from CPSC's public database SaferProducts.gov, where consumers can report product safety problems.

Here are some key findings:

*In the past five years, more than 15 million appliance units have been recalled by the CPSC and manufacturers for defects that could cause a fire. Of those, 7.3 million of the recalled units were dishwashers. Almost four of every five recalls in CR's analysis involved products made outside of the U.S., the majority in China.

*The biggest recall in the analysis was for 2.5 million GE dishwashers in May 2007, with 191 reports of overheated wiring due to a short circuit.

*In March 2009, 1.6 million Maytag refrigerators were recalled because of electrical failure in the relay, the component that turns on the compressor.

*NFIRS data from 2002 through 2009 (the latest available) showed more than 69,000 fires in which the appliance was the primary cause; most incidents were attributed to ranges, followed by dryers, air conditioners, refrigerators and dishwashers. CR found at least 15,700 fires (23 percent) that were clearly linked to problems within a product.

*Since March 2011, consumers have logged more than 850 instances of appliance fires on SaferProducts.gov.

CR encourages consumers to take the following precautions:

*Register new appliances. The large number of recalls is a sobering reminder of how important it is for consumers to register their products with manufacturers in order to be notified in the event of a recall.

*Check for recalls. Consumers can sign up for alerts at recalls.gov. Those who move into a home with existing appliances should record their make and model and check company websites for any recalls or review customers' experiences with those products at SaferProducts.gov.

*Install fire-prevention equipment. Each level of a home and every bedroom should have a working smoke alarm. CR recommends that smoke alarms have both photoelectric and ionization sensors to provide the fastest response to any type of fire. Also, keep one full-floor fire extinguisher (rated 2A-10B:C or greater) on every level, plus a smaller supplemental unit in the kitchen.

*Inspect power cords. Check for frayed power cords and never route electric cords (including extension cords) under carpeting, where they can overheat or be damaged by furniture.

*Check home wiring. The electrical wiring in older homes cannot always handle the demands of modern appliances. Systems should be inspected by a qualified electrician.

*Practice kitchen safety. Unattended cooking is a common fire-starter, whether using a range or microwave oven. Consumers should unplug their small appliances, including toasters and coffeemakers, when not in use and or when planning to be away for long periods.

*Clear range hoods. Grease buildup in range hoods is another fire hazard, so be sure to clean the vents regularly.

*Keep dryer vents clear. Clean the lint screen in the dryer regularly to avoid buildup, which has been listed as a factor in many fires.

By the editors of Consumer Reports at www.consumerreports.org.