/ Home & Energy

Take fire-risk appliances off the shelves immediately

We want people to be better protected from flammable plastic-backed fridge-freezers. Do you back our call for retailers to take fire-risk appliances off the shelves?

First of all, it’s important to say that the sale of flammable plastic-backed models that pass the current safety standard is legal and that the backing itself is not the cause of fire.

However, our call comes in response to a growing body of evidence, including from the London Fire Brigade, Electrical Safety First and our own testing indicating that plastic-backing can rapidly accelerate the spread of flames in the event of a fire in your home.

Check your appliance with our tool

It is worth stressing that if you already own a flammable plastic-backed model, the risk of fridge-freezer fires is extremely low.

However, if you’re thinking of buying a new appliance, we’d urge you to make sure you’re getting a metal-backed (or other flame retardant) model. If you’re unsure about how to check, the free-to-use Which? fridge-freezer checker tool can help.

In September 2017, we urged manufacturers to stop using flammable plastic-backing in their fridge-freezers, while in April of last year, we took the unprecedented step of making 250 fridge-freezers Don’t Buys.

In response to this, a number of brands committed to stopping the production of these appliances by January 2019.

Last month, when we followed up with manufacturers, we were encouraged to find that almost all have now stopped producing flammable plastic-backed models while most confirmed to us that they no longer distribute these appliances to retailers either, marking a win for our campaign.

Your turn, retailers

Off the back of this, we looked into whether the UK’s four biggest fridge-freezer retailers (AO.com, John Lewis & Partners, Argos and Currys PC World) are still selling plastic-backed models.

Of the four, only John Lewis told us that they do not currently sell any plastic-backed models, and haven’t done so since April 2018. We’re now calling on AO.com, Argos and Currys to follow suit and remove all flammable plastic-backed models from sale immediately.

A fridge-freezer lottery

When carrying out our research, we found there was huge confusion about whether models were metal or plastic-backed, with a significant proportion mislabelled, making it difficult for people to have confidence they are not purchasing a fire-risk fridge-freezer.

I’d be interested to know if you’ve found similar when buying a new appliance?

That’s why we’re also calling on manufacturers and retailers to provide people with greater clarity by clearly listing model backing type so customers know what they’re buying.

This uncertainty demonstrates the need for reform of the standards system – people should be able to expect more transparency and consistency across the industry.

If you’ve recently bought, or are thinking of buying, a new fridge-freezer, I’d be really keen to hear about your experience. Were you able to find out the backing type of your model? Did you have difficulty locating this information? Let us know in the comments.

Comments
Member

It might be apposite at this juncture to see how the Office for Product Safety and Standards is getting on with making people’s lives safer by promoting the use of safer materials and improving the design of domestic appliances to reduce risks.

I did hear that the OPSS had designed a new compliance mark for products to substitute for the CE mark in the event that the UK exits the EU without a formal withdrawal agreement [otherwise known as “a deal”]. That is, of course, most reassuring.

Member

The Office for product Safety and Standards is now over a year old. It was charged with an important safety task – that of establishing an effective product recall system. I don’t recall seeing any movement of consequence reported on this. Fortunately the necessity for product recalls seems quite rare but, as we saw with Indesit dryers, when a clear problem becomes apparent a proper and effective system is essential to protect consumers. So where is it?

Member

I presume that plastic back fridges are available throughout Europe, (and probably the rest of the world). Have European consumer groups been just as concerned as Which? Seems to me that on products common to us all, getting all consumer groups through the EU to put pressure, when it is deemed appropriate, on the regulators, manufacturers and standards bodies would be more sensible than one association going it alone. But perhaps Which> have?

Member

That’s a good suggestion, Malcolm. It seems highly unlikely that the white goods on sale in the UK are different from those sold in Europe.

To start with it would be useful if the problem with plastic-backed fridges etc is recognised elsewhere in Europe.  It was the London Fire Brigade that first raised awareness of the issue in the UK, some time before Which? published the results of their investigations. Do any of our contributors subscribe to any of the European consumer organisations?

Obviously there is no need to put pressure on those manufacturers that have stopped producing this type of appliance but perhaps those that never did are worthy of commendation. I agree that it pressure should be put on regulators, manufacturers and standards bodies, but would add retailers. It is very easy to stop stocking questionable products. From the introduction we have learned that AO stock 173 affected models whereas John Lewis still stocks three. Let’s hope JL returns them to the appropriate manufacturer.

Member
rob savill says:
14 February 2019

Is it not the purpose of HSE to oversee some factors like this ? Should they not be calling on all retailers, suppliers etc’, to put a stop on these dangerous items being sold, leased or available ? Perhaps Which need to raise this with some of the tabloids &get a campaign launched to raise awareness of the general public, such that they do not purchase any of these items. If we as the public stop buying them, maybe the retailers will be forced to stop selling them as well ? Nothing like a retailer finding they have something no one wants on their hands ! Lets tell the papers about them & get the public behind this campaign (when it happens), lets get the campaign started NOW !!

Member
DerekP says:
15 February 2019

Rob, with regard to the duties of HSE, I think you are theoretically correct.

However, the basic intent of UK Healthy & Safety Law is that, whilst at work, everyone has a duty to minimise all risks, but only so far as is reasonably practicable.

So this begs the philosophical challenge that, if the public want to buy cheap fridges with plastic backs, and if those fridges comply with all current BS/IEC/ISO safety standards, why shouldn’t retailers sell them?

Currently all compliant fridges can be counted as being *safe*.

But, for that context, the meaning of safe is illustrated by:

If I regularly enter the UK National Lottery, it is safe for me to plan my life on the basis that I’ll never win a major prize.

Member

It is reasonably practical to produce fridges with steel backs. We have done it in the past and although manufacturers are dragging their heels, we are heading towards all fridges having either steel backs on ones that are deemed fire resistant.

One of my concerns is how use of plastic backs and other case parts were approved in the first place.

Member
DerekP says:
15 February 2019

wavechange, I also agree that is is reasonably practicable to produce fridges with steel backs.

Indeed, such products are currently available to those who wish to buy them and that Which? is providing freely accessible weblinks to help guide such purchases.

So, from the competing viewpoints of safety principles versus customer choice, is there any need for compulsion here?

For the sake of argument, if a customer is about to spend £200 on a plastic backed fridge, how might they be persuaded to spend a bit more, to get a steel backed one?

Member

It would be interesting to know how much extra it costs to produce a steel-backed fridge. When Which? first looked at this issue I had a look to see if it was only the cheaper models that had plastic backs, but it’s not that simple.

Cars are tested for safety, but I’m not sure how many people take that into consideration when buying a car. My top priority was finding one with a spare wheel. Although some of us are very well aware of the plastic back issue, few of those I’ve spoken to know about it and I doubt there is any information at the point of sale.

Fridge and freezer design has taken several steps away from safety, in my opinion. Apart from the thermostat and interior light, which are unlikely to start a fire, the other component was the compressor, and that was sealed in a metal case, making it very difficult to start a fire. Most fridges and some freezers are auto-defrost, so there will be a defrost timer and possibly an electric heater. In my fridge, the defrost timer appears to be next to the compressor, but rather than encasing it in metal, there is a plastic cover that could easily have been steel or aluminium instead.

I don’t know for sure but suspect that manufacturers have used plastic backs to achieve higher energy efficiency ratings, and since these are shown at the point of sale they do influence choice.

If I lived in a tower block or flat I’m not sure I would be happy if people downstairs were buying cheaper and less safe appliances. But as I said above, I don’t see evidence that it’s just cheap ones that use plastic.

Member

A zinc coated steel back would probably not cost much more than a plastic one. I doubt cost is a real issue. Fire retardent plastic could be used for the back. As I’ve said elsewhere, many formulations of plastic are available for different jobs and thus a material should not be condemned simply because it has the generic name “plastic”. Standards should (and do, I believe) specify the result required, not the means of achieving that result. Otherwise innovation is suppressed. The tests specified to ensure the required result is achieved should ensure the material used is appropriate.

Member

I have no problem with alternative materials being used provided that they are fit for purpose, but have a look at the 2013 video in my link below. We don’t know which make and model of appliance the plastic was used in but it is clearly highly unsuitable.

Innovation is generally portrayed as positive but that’s certainly not always the case.

Member
DerekP says:
15 February 2019

My guess is that, if it cost less to make fridges with steel backs and steel enclosed compressors, then they’d all be made that way.

Member

It would be interesting to know for sure. Compressors (essentially an electric motor and pump) are always enclosed in steel, at least in household equipment.

Member

It seems a long time since I first saw the London Fire Brigade’s video showing how quickly fire could spread when the plastic back of a fridge-freezer was set on fire. I cannot find the exact date but the video (January 2013) at the top of this page may be the first evidence that there was a problem: https://www.itv.com/news/story/2013-01-04/fridge-most-dangerous-appliance-in-fire-says-brigade/

Six years later, manufacturers can legally manufacture products with plastic backs. While acknowledging that the risk of fire is small, I think it’s disgraceful that action has not been taken sooner.

In the case of fridges, plastic backs (and other casing parts) may have been introduced to provide better insulation and running cost, but who considered it safe to switch from metal to plastic and what tests were carried out before the change was made?

Member

Hi Wavechange, many thanks for your question – it’s a really interesting point. There has never been a requirement on manufacturers for backs to be made of metal – so there’s never been a switch per se. The plastic-backing was introduced as appliances became larger and more structural rigidity was needed.

In terms of testing, the plastic passes the current standard requirements, which involve applying a glow wire test to the material. However as you point out in recent years concerns have been raised about the flammability of the material. In Which?’s testing, we use the more rigorous needle flame test to inform our recommendations.

Member

Hi Daniel – Thanks for pointing this out. I have not paid much attention to the construction of older fridge and freezers or when plastic backs came in. It would be interesting to know the reasoning behind use of the glow wire test and not the use of the needle-flame test.

I do wish that Which? would look at the use of plastic parts in the casings of appliances. The photo I posted on the first page of this Convo shows how plastic can burn or melt, allowing flames to spread.

Member

Which? could tell is about the latest IEC standard (IEC 60335-2-24) – I understand it does involve a needle flame test – and the EU’s probable amendments to the EN which should further strengthen safety requirements. I asked about this a long time ago but no mention is made in these Convo intros and campaigns.

Incidentally there are a number of glow wire tests at different temperatures depending on the application. Standard for assessing flammability.

As I have said before there are many different types of plastic with differing performances depending upon the application. Simply condemning “plastic” is misleading. Aeroplanes and cars…… I wish Which? would explain that there are international working groups looking at fire in domestic appliances with a view, no doubt, to revising safety standards.

Information like this should not be suppressed if a balanced discussion is to be carried on.

Member

For more information about product safety in general and to sign the petition demanding a change to the product safety regime, please see our campaign pages and share with anyone you think would be interested.

https://campaigns.which.co.uk/product-safety/

Member

It would be helpful to some if, when Which? introduce this kind of topic, campaign, or whatever they both present the whole case and give the other parties involved the opportunity to give their side of the story. Here, then, the manufacturers, standards organisation for example. It would be informative and reduce some of the speculation.

@ddalton, Daniel – Back to an earlier point I raised. Do Which? collaborate with consumer organisations elsewhere with issues like this one? Did they in this particular case?

Member

The responsibility is with the manufacturers still trying to sell old stock or still producing plastic backing fridges and freezers. So step up and protect us consumers so that we can trust the brand. Also retailers step up and ensure the relevant information is available for your staff to advise customers appropriately. More education and training I do believe.

Member

If I may say so, this is a much more sensible statement from Which?

While every fridge freezer available to buy in the UK meets current safety standards and the risk of a fridge freezer fire remains low, our tests have found that plastic fridge freezer backing can be highly flammable and can accelerate the spread of flames in the event of a fire in your home. Every product that we’ve identified as having flammable plastic backing has been made a Don’t Buy and given a score of 0%, regardless of how well it performed in our chilling and freezing tests. Products with flammable plastic backing will fail to meet new safety standards due to be introduced this year, so why would you opt for one when fridge freezers with flame-retardant backing are readily available at every price point.
Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/02/you-dont-need-to-spend-a-fortune-to-get-a-reliable-fridge-freezer/ – Which?

It also finally mentions a revised standard; it would be useful if it gave us details of how it improves safety.