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Plastic-backed fridges must be removed from sale

product safety

We all expect manufacturers and retailers to only sell products that are safe. And for the most part they do. But we’ve found hundreds of potentially unsafe fridges, freezers and fridge-freezers currently available in shops across the UK and we’re calling for them to be urgently withdrawn from sale.

In September last year, we published the first round of our research into the safety of fridges, freezers and fridge-freezers. Following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower in June, we looked hard at the products we review and what we would need to adapt to identify possibly unsafe appliances that could be on the market.

We delved deeper into safety testing of refrigeration appliances, in particular, the material used to cover the back of the product. Some backs are made from metal, some plastic – and there are many varieties. Last year, we discovered that there were plastics with two properties, some flammable, others supposedly flame retardant.

At the time, we didn’t have the evidence to counter the claims from manufacturers that these so-called ‘flame-retardant’ plastics were safe, but we asked them to stop producing refrigeration models with non-flame-retardant plastic backs.

Refrigeration backings

We then went away and dug deeper. We carried out a programme of testing and research that looked at 555 models of fridge, freezer and fridge-freezer. Our research has shown that so-called ‘flame-retardant’ plastic is nothing of the sort.

These samples of flame-retardant backing, along with all other plastic materials used in backings, did not survive our testing. When we applied an open flame to them, they all melted or burned, meaning they could expose the highly flammable insulation that the backing is there to protect. In contrast, metal and aluminium laminate samples were able to withstand the flame.

New Don’t Buys

We have found hundreds of models currently on sale in shops across the UK that use backing material we now consider to be potentially unsafe. As a result, we’ve taken the decision to make all plastic-backed models we’ve reviewed (whether labelled as flame retardant or not) Don’t Buys and add safety warnings to our reviews.

The industry has had many months to get its act together and withdraw models that they know to be a fire risk. The types that we requested they remove from sale in September are still on the shelves.  And now there are many more that should be removed.

Which? has since labelled 250 models Don’t Buys and is recommending consumers steer clear of buying plastic-backed refrigeration appliances.

Fire statistics

Thankfully, fires due to refrigeration faults are rare. Recent Which? research (March 2018) looking at UK fire statistics showed that only 8% of fires caused by faulty appliances were caused by fridges, freezers or fridge-freezers.

Even so, we’re calling on manufacturers to make product safety a priority and immediately stop making refrigeration products with plastic backing. A number of manufacturers have already committed to replacing plastic backing on refrigeration appliances, but this must be done immediately.

Retailers should also immediately stop selling these products to keep them out of people’s homes and ensure consumers aren’t unknowingly spending hundreds of pounds on potentially unsafe appliances.

Do you support our call on manufacturers to immediately cease production of refrigeration products with plastic backing?

Comments

Malcolm you must know Janie talks perfect sense but your complete denial of her comments are extraordinary to say the least.

Also your gas v induction price analogy is totally disproportionate to the facts and I would suggest you provide the evidence that you frequently request others to do before quoting your figures, Boiling a quart of water on an electric induction hob takes significantly less time than gas and therefore consumes less BTU’s of energy – ie: (992 BTU’s for gas, 430 BTU’s for electric induction). Evidence can be supplied but I predict it will be hotly disputed so there is no point supplying it,

When a sensible debate starts to border on the ridiculas it loses all credibility so I will not be responding further on this particular topic.
I would however suggest that you carry out your own instructions to Janie and look at comments in other appliance conversations.

Beryl, rather than getting into an exchange on whether I (” it would be only be someone who is working for this company”) work for Whirlpool/Hotpoint, I referred Janie to contributions I have made in other Convos on this topic.

I think it is insensitive to bring Grenfell Tower into these Convos when so much is unknown and speculative. I’d prefer to see the outcome of the inquiry before condemning anyone or anything.

I try to post objectively and if that is contrary to someone’s own belief then fine; it is the essence of a conversation. What seems extraordinary to me is the response, having simply pointed out in my comment that we don’t know the cause of the fridge failure, that there are other manufacturers independent of Whirlpool, and that a multi-storey building should resist a fire emanating from one room.

I have not questioned whether induction hobs are more efficient than gas at boiling water, simply pointing out that the energy used costs more – based on your figures about twice as much at typical gas and electricity unit costs.

I’m not sure we should avoid mentioning the Grenfell Tower fire, Malcolm. A Hotpoint fridge-freezer was identified as the cause of the fire long ago: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/23/hotpoint-tells-customers-to-check-fridge-freezers-after-grenfell-tower-fire Whirlpool invited owners to contact them.

Fires can start in electrical equipment for many reasons, but perhaps if appliances were designed to contain fire this could make our homes safer. You don’t need to discuss this tragedy but consider the possibility that those who have lost loved ones or their homes might actually be glad that some people do want to discuss ways of putting an end to appliance fires.

I am, wavechange, as I have said elsewhere naturally in favour of improving the safety of appliances. But in relation to multi-storey buildings, where fires can start in many more ways than appliances, my immediate concern is that they should contain a fire and not allow it to spread. I hope that the inquiry will lead to other inadequate buildings being remedied.

Do you know what caused the fire in the fridge freezer? I don’t. As far as I am aware there is no evidence it was a general fault in the model.

I accept that there are more common causes of fire than white goods but I want to focus on improvements in design in order to prevent fire spreading.

You have pointed out that metal fridge backs can rust, but I’m not aware that this is a problem.

You said: “We should choose the right material for use in particular situations, and there are appropriate plastics that can, and probably are, used in domestic appliances. We need to ensure the tests used to determine their suitability are appropriate and that the correct materials are use. Not all plastics are the same.” Have you any evidence that plastics used in the cases of appliances ARE suitable? My ad hoc tests showed that the plastics used in the casings of all my own white goods are flammable, and the photos I have posted in this and other Conversations show examples of casing plastics that have burned or melted. I don’t mind you criticising my suggestions but perhaps you could provide some evidence to support your criticisms.

Like you, I have seen no information about why the Hotpoint fridge-freezer resulted in the Grenfell Tower tragedy. I don’t believe that we can prevent electrical appliances going on fire but I have little doubt that they could be designed to prevent fire spreading.

I gave information on steel and its post-treatment, not specifically to fridge backs, as a comment on cost. If a prepainted (cheapest) steel panel were used as a fridge back, in a humid situation, it would be likely to rust because the edges are unprotected. Better protection needed (and available).

Ad hoc tests are not what meaningful evaluation of materials is about – they are not necessarily accurate nor repeatable. Standards are very specific about test conditions and procedures to ensure consistency and relevance. In many cases I believe a performance specification is what is required – for example in fire – with the performance being determined by appropriate, strict and repeatable tests and only materials that pass those tests would be suitable. the standards set the criteria to be met, but should not specify the material.

The key is to determining the likely conditions to which the components might be subjected or exposed, in normal and abnormal operation, and apply standard tests that reliably mimic those conditions. This is what standards set out to do. It is the designer’s job to choose materials that are capable of dealing with those conditions.

I would like to see some evidence that steel fridge and freezer backs rust at the edges. As I explained, the heat produced by the condenser will help remove moisture. As far as I am aware, steel has been used for years without problems.

Once an ad hoc test has established that a plastic can burn then you can carry out a needle flame test under standard conditions. Do you have evidence that this has been carried out on appliance fascias, for example?

The standards list the details of a whole range of tests for flammability and fire resistance using different techniques and temperatures designed for different applications. The many parts of IEC 60695 (Fire hazard testing) deal with this. For domestic electrical appliances. BS EN 60335-1 gives the tests currently applied to non-metallic parts (includes plastics).

As I said regarding steel, I gave general information, not specific to fridges. However, if an untreated steel edge were used where it is damp I would expect it to rust. Zinc coated or pregalvanised steel gives much better protection.

You can quote all the standards you want but the problem remains that white goods still set homes on fire. If BSI was to take some examples of white goods and investigate why this happens they could come up with standards that are fit for their purpose.

BSI is open to anyone to contact them with information and views relevant to standards. As they are the UK organisation that deals with international standards if the views have substance they can be raised through their committee.

I will say once again that BSI, and other standards organisations, have working groups that, as far as I know, are currently working on fires in domestic appliances. Any suggestions that might help that work would no doubt be well received.

I would hope Which? would accumulate useful ideas from Convo contributors, together with results from its surveys and testing, and discuss them with BSI; they are listed as belonging to the appropriate committee.

It’s not just a UK problem. Here is a photo of a dishwasher from a US website:

http://www.servprowalthamwestonwatertownwayland.com/blog/post/72455/fire-smoke-damage-restoration/dishwasher-fire-in-natick-mass

Incidentally, I have a Bosch dishwasher and a sample of the plastic fascia burned producing smoke. It’s hardly surprising to see the photo above. How do you explain the photos I have posted, Malcolm, if plastics are tested for flammability and fire resistance?

“I would like to see some evidence that steel fridge and freezer backs rust at the edges”

Over a lifespan of perhaps 20 or 30 years, the steel back of my parents old deep freeze rusted away completely, allowing all the rear insulation to fall away and causing the compressor to work much harder than needed.

This failure was apparent from energy consumption monitoring, i.e. using a “clip on ammeter” smart meter.

Also, this was a freezer in an outhouse. In the kitchen, I doubt that there would have been sufficient damp to allow the complete removal of the steel back to have ever occurred.

A plastic back could never have done that.

Then again, our outhouse never caught fire.

You win some and you lose some…

Fair enough, but I wonder how common this problem is. My Electrolux chest freezer survived for 34 years in the garage and the only obvious rusting was at the back of the lid where there was obviously a cold bridge because condensation could sometimes be seen.

Flammable plastics are lethal and have no place on domestic appliances. I wholeheartedly support your cause Wavechange, but I can only engage with participants who put people’s lives before company profit margins.

Thank you Beryl.

I doubt anyone would disagree that we should not use flammable plastics in situations where there is a fire risk. Hence the requirement to use plastics that do resist ignition and the spread of flame. These are required generally in appliances and elsewhere. Over 50% of a modern airliner is made of “plastics” materials (adjacent to electrical devices and highly volatile fuel) , much is used in clothing, carpets, upholstery, your car, lights in your office, electrical wiring……..

If there is a requirement that plastics resist ignition and the spread of flame, how do you account for the melted and burned plastics in the photos I have posted in this and other Conversations? Either the standards are inadequate or there is a compliance problem, possibly both.

Regrettably I do not know whether there is a compliance problem in particular manufacturers’ products. The incidence of such damage generally seems very very low. However, the point I continually make is that there are many types of plastics with different properties for use in different situations. No doubt the points raised in these Convos, among others, are also being discussed in the working groups I mentioned above.

I am totally in favour of improving the safety of domestic electrical appliances and having both standards improved where necessary and compliance policed properly.

Lorraine Jenkins says:
10 April 2018

I totally agree that plastic backing on fridge freezers are banned. My Nephew had a fire in a flat he lets out and it was proved faulty the plastic made it far worse than it should have been. Hence it costing a lot to repair on the damage it caused.

Tony says:
17 April 2018

I have brought one of your listed fridge freezer with plastic backing and telephoned zanusee on this matter they went on to say that they can supply a EU pass certificate . I have produced your comments from the GMTV web sight . So worried now and living on a knife edge. Help what can I do to protect my home?
Very worried person

Tony, Which? say “If you own a plastic-backed appliance, we don’t want to frighten you. Please be assured that refrigerator fires are rare. Our March 2018 research into government data found that only 8% of fires caused by faulty appliances were caused by fridge freezers, fridges or freezers. And although flammable plastic backing accelerates the spread of flames, it’s not the cause of fire itself.”

Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/04/revealed-the-10-most-expensive-fire-risk-fridge-freezers/ – Which?

Fires, from any cause in Fridge-freezers (fault, abuse, misuse, supply) amount to 0.001%.

It is a pity they have inflamed this situation, spawned frightening headlines in some of the press, when it was not necessary. Fridges etc. not already so equipped will be safer still when they have metal or other backs with appropriate fire resistance, but those on sale currently are not unsafe – otherwise the many millions of fridges bought over the years would have to be withdrawn from use. I think a sensible case, that has been addressed internationally but I think could still be improved, has been marred by irresponsible attention-seeking reporting.

DerekP says:
18 April 2018

I agree with everything malcolm had said here. I’m afraid that Which? often seems to follow the “1st rule of journalism” – “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story”.

Tony – I suggest you have a smoke or heat alarm nearby, to give you warning in the unlikely event of a fire.

If Which? had not taken action I expect that they would have received criticism, and I am grateful that improved product safety is one of their current campaigns.

You should have a smoke alarm in your kitchen anyway – particularly as cooking cause 8 times as many fires as tumble dryers, fridge/freezers and dishwashers combined.

I have both a heat alarm and a smoke alarm, though the latter gets put in the dining room if set off by cooking. From my own observations, many kitchens and utility rooms have no alarms or the batteries have been removed because of nuisance. Those living in rented accommodation will benefit from legal requirements for safety equipment and annual servicing.

The risks of cooking can be mitigated in many ways. For example, I have only ever used my chip pan to make soup. Of course, thermostatically controlled fryers now provide a safer alternative.

Sadly, there is not much we can do to mitigate the increased risk from use of inappropriate materials in appliances.