Your washer, dryer may cause a fire - and higher insurance costs

Your washer or dryer may be a fire waiting to happen.

Every year, about 9,600 American families experience fires that were sparked by household appliances. The national Fire Incident Reporting System estimates 25 people are killed and 525 people are injured every year in appliance fires, resulting in $211 million in lost property.

“Most homes have a multitude of electrical appliances, ranging from small kitchen items such as toasters and microwaves, to major appliances like clothes dryers and dishwashers,” says Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. “While appliances make our lives much easier, they also pose significant risks -- including fire -- if not maintained properly.”

home insurance appliance fires

An appliance fire also can result in a claim being filed with your homeowner's insurance or renter's insurance provider. That, in turn, can drive up your insurance premiums. Worters points out that several factors affect homeowner's and renter's insurance rates, including the type of structure, the location and the occupant's claim history.

Lint is big culprit in dryer fires

One of the biggest categories for home appliance fires is a bit surprising, experts say. While most people might think stoves or ovens are the riskiest, the worst fire offenders among appliances actually are found in the laundry room.

The National Fire Protection Association says 17,700 U.S. home fires started with washers and dryers between 2003 and 2006, causing 15 deaths and more than $194 million in property damage. Of those fires, 92 percent were caused by dryers. The biggest reason the dryers ignited was because the lint traps hadn't been emptied. In nearly one-third of the blazes, clothing inside the machine caught on fire.

Gas dryers are slightly more dangerous than electric models, according to the National Fire Protection Association, but keeping either kind clean is critical.

State Farm Insurance spokeswoman Heather Paul says you should clean the lint catcher following each drying cycle and regularly check the dryer motor and dryer duct for a build-up of lint. Too much dust or fibers also can create problems. Cleaning underneath the dryer is important, she says, as lint can collect there as well.

The National Fire Protection Association advises homeowners to check the outside air exhaust vent to be sure it opens when the dryer runs, and to clean it once a year. If you have a gas dryer, make sure the gas line is inspected periodically for cracks or tears.

Paul says washers should be checked for frayed cords, damage to the insulation around the drum and cracked belts.

Worters, the Insurance Information Institute executive, recommends that homeowners also:

• Report major changes (such as new wiring) to your home insurance company.

• Install smoke alarms throughout your home and change the batteries twice a year.

• Install fire extinguishers, especially in kitchens and garages.

Use only as directed

Wendell Hull, owner of Wendell Hull & Associates, whose specialties include fire investigations, advises that an appliance should be used only as described in the owner's manual.

“We see fires that happen when appliances are used in a way that, from a strict standpoint, may be against a manufacturer’s instruction, but not in an uncommon way,” he says. “An example is heating pads -- people go to sleep on them and get burned, and those can start fires. We see it happen with anything from heating pads to electric blankets to portable heaters and toasters.”

Hull suggests regularly checking product recall lists as a way to help avoid appliance fires. Those lists can be found on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website (www.cpsc.gov).

“Sometimes certain products will have substantial issues ... and potential defects that can cause fires,” Hull says. “In some cases, they lead to recalls; in some, they don’t.”

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