Consumer Alert: Microwave fire danger

February 18, 2013 8:05:42 PM PST
In the Queen Anne condominiums in Seattle, Washington, tenant Joe Lyons is afraid for his safety. He's one of 10 residents who, according to the condo board, has had problems with their KitchenAid microwaves. They have started on their own, and in at least one case caused electrical arcing.

At another development, in Florida, a fire started in a microwave that was not in use, according to the official fire report. Both of those incidents, reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, involved the same microwave, the KitchenAid KHMS155LSS.

A Consumer Reports investigation looked at thousands of pages of CPSC documents in its investigation of appliance fires, including many obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

More than 40 of the CPSC reports involved KitchenAid microwaves that turned on by themselves, some causing fires. Whirlpool, which owns KitchenAid, initially told Consumer Reports it had not been able to verify a single report of a self-starting microwave. It now acknowledges malfunctions are possible and has offered a free repair to anyone with model KHMS155LSS.

Consumer Reports also examined 82 similar reports involving some GE microwaves, six of which involved serious fires. The reports listed various models, but 30 complaints involved the GE Spacemaker line of over-the-range microwaves. GE told Consumer Reports that it "has investigated unverified reports of 'self-start' and found them to constitute product quality, not product safety, concerns. Many have been determined not to be 'self-starts' at all."

None of those microwaves has been recalled. And the problem is not limited to those two manufacturers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission told Consumer Reports it has "an open investigation into the safety of kitchen appliances, including microwaves."

If you have a problem with your microwave, unplug it and have a technician look at it. And it's a good idea to know which circuit breaker turns off the microwave in case of an emergency. It you're experiencing a problem with a microwave or any appliance, Consumer Reports recommends notifying the manufacturer immediately. And report the problem to

GE statement:

GE microwaves are subject to rigorous design, manufacturing and safety requirements and testing to ensure compliance with applicable government, industry and GE safety requirements. GE microwaves are safe, quality products that millions of consumers use every day. Through product innovation and engagement with the voluntary safety standard body, GE strives to improve the safety and performance of its microwave ovens. Despite GE's best efforts, products and components can malfunction. In the rare occasion of a product failure, GE microwaves are designed with safety features to ensure any malfunction will not result in an unsafe condition to the consumer.

Kristine Vernier, Whirlpool Corporation spokesperson, statement:

KitchenAid brand microwaves are safe and reliable because of our award-winning safety processes and product design. Our microwaves are designed with built-in safety features and tested to ensure potential heat damage from rare events like self-activation is contained inside the appliance. For example, all KitchenAid brand microwaves manufactured for the past several decades, are equipped with several safety features, including a thermal cutoff switch. This feature cuts off power to the unit if the temperature reaches a certain point and eliminates the risk of fire or flame escaping the cavity of the microwave. However, we don't stop there. We have a testing protocol that meets and exceeds standards. Each microwave model faces what is called "forced failure testing" that simulates unlikely events like a self-activation. Finally, individual microwaves, before leaving the factory, are tested to make sure that every critical component is working properly. These rigorous, self-imposed safety standards are among the highest in the industry, and represent Whirlpool's commitment to our customers.

We have determined that it was possible for certain keypads in this specific model microwave to develop unintended electrical paths, which could cause the keypad to beep, or very rarely, start the microwave oven. We conducted rigorous safety evaluations, and determined that this issue does not present a safety concern for consumers because of the built in safety features designed to contain potential heat damage inside the unit. We evaluate every report that is brought to our attention, and have not verified a single instance where a microwave self-activated and caused heat damage outside the unit. We have reviewed this situation with the appropriate U.S. and Canadian government safety agencies, including the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Ontario Electrical Safety Authority. We are offering owners of this model microwave the option of a free repair, even if the unit is no longer under warranty. We encourage consumers with concerns to contact us directly at 1-800-422-1230.