/ Home & Energy

Do you leave your appliances running unattended?

Washing machine

Do you leave your washing machine running when you go out, or pre-programme a dishwasher cleaning cycle to kick in while you’re asleep? And more to the point – should you?

The recent fire risk furore involving faulty Beko fridge freezers has put the spotlight back on home product safety.

Refrigeration appliances are of course designed to be left on at all times. But what about other kitchen electricals like washing machines, washer-dryers, tumble dryers or dishwashers – is it ok to leave these devices running without you being around?

Absent from our appliances

With delayed starts or programmable timers on lots of appliances these days, you don’t even need to be in the neighbourhood to start your products up, let alone be around for the entire duration of a wash or dry cycle.

In fact, around half of the 125 tumble dryers, two-thirds of dishwashers and more than 80% of the washing machines we’ve tested include a ‘time delay’ function.

These can come in useful if you’re running a busy household – and can be a good money-saving aid if you’re on an energy plan where the cost of electricity is cheaper at night, such as Economy 7.

Is there a safety risk?

But you could argue that this type of functionality implicitly encourages the use of appliances without you being present – despite official government guidance to ‘never leave electrical appliances on at night, unless they are designed to be left on’.

So should we heed this general advice – or make the most of manufacturers attempting to make our hectic lives easier?

A new appliance is unlikely to break down in the first couple of years (even less likely if it’s from a brand that scores well in our member-wide reliability survey) – but they can get less reliable over time.

Catastrophic breakdowns, which cause fire or burst pipes, are very rare but there is some small risk attached to using any high wattage appliance.

Some items appear to be more hazardous than others. Regional fire authorities routinely issue stern fire risk warnings against leaving tumble dryers unattended, for example.

Reducing the risk

You shouldn’t let fluff build up in your tumble dryer, so regular maintenance is a must. Clean all lint filters every time you use the machine to maintain good airflow, wipe the drum with a damp cloth regularly, and check the vent outlet and hose of vented dryers.

The heat exchanger in condenser models needs washing out about five times a year, more often for heavy users. Some machines have a light that shows when this needs doing.

Meanwhile, a lot of today’s appliances are controlled by electronic software designed to turn off a machine if it detects something is wrong, such as overheating. You can also choose washing machines and dishwashers fitted with devices that cut the water supply if it breaks down – reducing the risk of you being greeted by a flooded kitchen.

And you should always have working – and regularly tested – smoke alarms.

Clearly it’s not practical to baby-sit our appliances. I’ve been known to pop out to the shops during the middle of a washing cycle. But when do you use yours? Are you comfortable leaving your appliances to run their course while you’re sound asleep in bed or out and about?

Chris says:
3 August 2012

I usually put my dishwasher on before going to bed.

Last night I had more than the usual number of dishes so stayed up to clean some by hand while the dishwasher was on

5 minutes before I was about to go to bed my dishwasher caught fire.

No explanation yet, but what could have happened if I hadn’t needed to wash the extra dishes? I dread to think!

At no point did my fire-brigade filed smoke alarm go off – a bit more testing I think!

You say refrigeration appliances are supposed to be left on at all times but I wonder about those that are built in. Rather than catch fire because they do not have enough ventilation – do they just stop running. Whatever may be specified by the manufacturer regarding ventilation doesn’t mean that the builder is going to provide that. Most people don’t seem to read nowadays anyway.

The ventilation requirements that kitchen fitters and householders often ignore are mainly intended to help remove heat generated by their operation, often from the heat exchanger at the back. With inadequate ventilation, the compressor will have to run more of the time the fridge (or freezer) will use more electricity. The compressor is sealed and even if there is a fault it should not get hot enough to start a fire.

Since fridges and freezers are left running unattended and surrounded by flammable material if built-in, it would make sense to design them using non-flammable materials. Perhaps the recent fire incidents might help manufacturers to use commonsense. As fridges have become more complicated (e.g. self-defrost timers and heaters, internal and external fans) there is more that could cause a fire. There is not much we can do. A kitchen fitter might be able to surround appliances with fire-resistant panels.

Perhaps the best solution is to have one or two smoke detectors in the kitchen, sited so that they don’t go off every time the grill is used, and with mute buttons to silence them if they do.

If any tradesman ignores instructions then they should have the opportunity to rectify the work and learn that instructions are there for a purpose. Many are members of some trade association that could be worth contacting if there are problems.

tahrey says:
10 August 2012

“Never leave them on, unless they’re designed to be left on”

I would posit that both fridge freezers, and any device which includes some kind of time delay, is “designed to be left on” (unattended). As are all manner of other things – including conventional ovens, which are far more dangerous most of the time than a fridge or washing machine, because they’re perfectly capable of setting things on fire. So what exactly is the official or practical advice in this case? Where do we stand? And what, exactly, is a device that is NOT “designed to be left on”?

Let’s not lose track of the fact that the Beko fridges caught on fire *because they were faulty*. You could be in the bath, or asleep, and it could light off (or so could your washer), and the first you’d know would be the smoke alarm, by which point it’d be touch and go as to whether you could deal with the situation without the emergency services. Evacuation would be the best first step… so then you’re out of the house anyway.

I set my washing machine to run a cycle just in time for me to get home quite often. Never had a problem. And, if it’s properly engineered, there’s no reason why there should be, any more than with any other device I use that’s continually powered.
(Clocks, PC, router, cable box, induction hob, microwave, night light, illuminated switch for the shower…)

My tesco kettle was switched on at 4 am in the morning by my hubby, fortunately he didn’t sit down and fall asleep. He stayed in the kitchen, a strange smell made him turn and look at the kettle, flames were coming from the switch and an acrid smell filled the house, I spoke to tesco they said they couldn’t do anything as I hadn’t kept the receipt, I explained I wasn’t interested in the money (it was about 14 months old) it was the fact that there might be a manufacture defect, didn’t make any difference they still needed a receipt. Lets hope nobody dies because of a faulty kettle.
Model JKR 17 rapid boil kettle telco’s own.

Tesco should not have ignored this. I suggest you contact Trading Standards, which which deals with reports of potentially dangerous domestic goods.

I fail to understand why it is legal to sell kettles and fan heaters with plastic cases.

Mark says:
26 January 2013

The same thing happened last night to our kettle and ours is only around 6 months old, will be reporting incident to trading standards.

Deacon Homeworks says:
12 October 2012

I found these comments and figures very helpful, as we have recently fitted a new Beko dishwasher to the office. After asking around, we decided it was better (safer) to start the cycle when the first person arrives, rather than leave it on overnight in an empty building. On a slightly different note, after reading about the tumble dryers, mine is a washer/dryer and I believe the system is slightly different. The washer works as normal, but if a separate dry cycle is required, the fluff is washed out of the machine before the actual drying starts. This flush also occurs through the pipes before the machine fills with water for the wash cycle. There is no fluff filter as such.

Julie Beestin says:
22 July 2014

My sister left her dryer on overnight on a timer switch this got stuck so the dryer kept on going and overheated and set fire to the clothes causing major damage and they nearly lost their lives as they had no fire alarms. I have fitted fire alarms and never would leave my dryer or washing machine on overnight and would always advise others to do the same as I have seen what happens and what potentially could happen be safe