Dec 05, AU Edition
ALL THOSE BURNING FRIDGES
A former appliance serviceman claims a bad fridge design could burn someone’s house down, another finds a string of safety faults in other brands of appliance. Is there a big problem or just a series of smaller ones? IAN WISHART investigates
John Rogers grimaces in the glow of a 60 watt tungsten bulb doing its best to illuminate a small suburban dining room, and is failing miserably at the task. He pauses at the question, as if tumbling it over in his mind, glancing across at his wife Kerry. In their eyes you can see the thought writ large, as if in the neon light that decorates the home of this former appliance repairman turned neon artist: oh God, here we go again. Moments later, that unspoken thought takes wing.
“I must admit, when I got your call, Kerry and I thought, ‘do we really want to do this again?’ After all the publicity on TV four years ago when we blew the whistle on Fisher and Paykel’s dishdrawers…”
He stops for a moment, then lifts his gaze from a spot on the table to lock with mine.
“It wasn’t dealt with back then, maybe somebody will deal with it now. We don’t want to be responsible for someone losing a life because we kept quiet.”
It’s been four years this month since Rogers folded the tent on his long time company, JK Appliances, and walked away from a lucrative business as an authorized Fisher & Paykel service agent.
“I was an appliance serviceman for about 30 years, and we’ve been in business together for about 15 or 16 in West Auckland and we fixed roughly 42,000 appliances in that time. I put through seven apprentices and we did mainly F&P service work. So we did refrigeration and all types of domestic appliances.”
Rogers vividly remembers the day that changed it all, the one that tipped him off his perch.
“It was early in the morning, a job in Glen Eden. I walked into the kitchen, the family were all there in their pyjamas, the husband was there and there were two buckets of water beside the fridge. The front of the fridge was absolutely black from smoke and flame damage. They’d woken up in the middle of the night and smelt the smoke, turned it off and started throwing buckets of water in there to put the flames out.”
The immediate danger having passed, Rogers regrets not dialing the Fire Service. “I wish I had, now.” In hindsight, it would have been his smoking gun, in a manner of speaking. But instead, he rang F&P who promptly sent a truck with a brand new fridge, and took the near-new burnt one away.
Rogers was mystified, but thought little more about that incident until he was called to another fridge a week or so later, and again, some evidence of fire damage.
“I saw another one which wasn’t so bad, and again they changed it over. Then I saw three in one week and two at another service company, and I thought ‘this is getting out of hand’, because there’s no way of repairing them because the whole cabinet is burnt.”
Stripping the panels away, Rogers found the evaporator and defrost elements were set too close to the internal plastic casing of the freezers and, in the right conditions, they were overheating and melting the appliances. None of which was visible to the homeowner, who’d usually called him in for something else.
“It was usually another fault – cracking noises, or noises from the fan or something like that, but it wasn’t because of the burning. They hadn’t seen it, and not until I took the whole thing apart and they saw the big holes burnt in the base of the freezers. That’s when I explained to the customers very politely that it had a fault and we’d organize a new refrigerator for them.”
Rogers decided to make a habit of checking every freezer he was working on, and reckons 20% to 30% of them showed varying signs of meltdown. In all, some 15 to 20 units in his West Auckland patch alone, over the space of three months.
It wasn’t all fridge/freezers.
“Only the electronic ones. Anything with an electronic panel on the back wall. The majority of the problems come in the ones with a bottom freezer. I have seen one top freezer one with burning but it wasn’t as bad. It was just a one-off. Whether it was going to escalate I don’t know.”
Why was the problem not appearing in fridges over the previous 20 years?
“The freezers and fridges prior to that were made of steel. This model, the interior of the freezer is made of plastic, and they’ve still got an element in there that glows red hot when it goes into defrost and it’s so close to the plastic lining that the heat transfer causes the problem.”
Rogers felt he was on to a major public safety issue, but he also knew as an authorized Fisher & Paykel repair agent that his business depended on F&P’s continued goodwill. And if John Rogers had been a cat, he probably felt he’d already used his quota of lives after months earlier spilling the beans on a major fault with F&P’s flagship range of dishdrawers. The drawers were rusting out after only a few months use.
“They were offering customers who had rusty dishdrawers a normal dish drawer plus they had to pay an extra $500. So once we blew the whistle on it, things changed and they had to replace the dishdrawers.”
But ‘blowing the whistle’ involved calling in TVNZ’s top rating consumer programme Fair Go and bringing considerable public opprobrium to bear on the corporate that employed him. So to say that John Rogers was chuffed that he was the mug to find a problem with the new fridges would also be a serious overstatement of his mood.
He says he tried to deal with it internally, alerting F&P’s technical team about the growing number of burnt or partially burnt fridges he’d discovered.
F&P tried to brush him aside, he claims, telling him to “leave it alone”. But the company’s reaction got more strident when Rogers began contacting other F&P agents to inquire about their experiences with the problem.
“I talked to another service company over the North Shore about it. And he was concerned as well and he contacted F&P, and so at that stage F&P came storming in – there were about three of them – and they got really stuck into me.”
In Rogers’ mind, he was reporting a major safety hazard to one of country’s leading technology companies, and nothing was being done. Wondering whether he was overreacting, he sought a second opinion from registered electrical inspector Bruce Gosling, an independent analyst who’s main investigations are on behalf of large companies and the Electrical Workers Registration Board.
Gosling drafted a one page report to the Energy Safety Service (ESS) in Wellington, the Government agency tasked with regulating electrical appliance safety for the public. His report was headed, “Potential Fire Hazard issue” with the Fisher & Paykel E402B fridge/freezer.
“JK Appliance Services (John Rogers) have located this immediate fire damage in two of the above freezers and four others have had potential fire hazards existing,” he wrote on November 11, 2001. After personally inspecting one of the units, he told EnergySafe:
“This freezer unit has a potential fire hazard due to the incorrect fixing/installation of the evaporator/defrost heating assembly. This fire hazard, created by the manufacturer, breaches NZ Electricity Regulations 1997….the element touches and heats up the plastic lining until eventually catching fire.”
Under “Conclusion” he wrote: “This model of fridge/freezer needs to be modified.”
According to both Rogers and Gosling, EnergySafe never formally replied to their complaint, and no product recall of Fisher & Paykel fridges was ever made.
As part of their contract, authorized F&P agents were required to guarantee their work for 12 months, says Rogers.
“We had to guarantee these appliances once we’d repaired them and I couldn’t. I couldn’t guarantee that this wouldn’t happen two months down the road.”
“What was the newest fridge you found it on?”
“Three months old.”
After a long discussion with his business partner and wife, Kerry, Rogers decided to toss it in.
“It got pretty ugly from then on. They appointed another service company to take over from us, and we said we’d had enough and closed down. We didn’t want to work like that, we couldn’t work like that. It was at this time we got the phone call from Energy Safe in Wellington to say they couldn’t do anything. They needed proof from the Fire Service or the Insurance Council on loss of life or property before they could force F&P to make any modifications.”
As part of the process of investigating this issue, we approached EnergySafe’s senior technical advisor, operations: Bill Lowe.
Lowe admits that to some extent his hands are tied on the issue of public safety.
“We wouldn’t become involved unless there is injury or damage.”
“Isn’t that closing the door after the horse has bolted?”
“That’s the way our powers are, if they’re handling things internally.”
Fisher & Paykel, says Lowe, controls its own repair team and can control the information that gets released to government agencies like his. If the company chooses to keep a problem close to its chest, he says, it takes the commercial risk associated with that – the risk that one day a house might burn down and all hell will break loose.
But having said that, he adds, no house fire has ever been attributed to a Fisher & Paykel ActiveSmart fridge.
“Electrical fires, if they cause damage to the structure of a house, would be reported to this office. The few that we’ve had have been Westinghouse product, a bug problem literally. The defrost relay had some ventilation slots and a cockroach infestation, and the little beasties get up there and eventually get cooked. And in another one the guy poured brake fluid around to kill the roaches and it caught fire.”
Lowe concedes his agency did receive Gosling’s report on the fire hazards in November 2001, and felt it was serious enough to raise with F&P. Unfortunately, however, because the person handling the investigation left ESS soon afterwards, there’s no evidence that Fisher & Paykel ever responded to EnergySafe’s request for more information, or that ESS chased it up.
“We’ve [now] asked F&P to check their records as to what changes if any were made at the time to the design to address that potential fire risk,” Lowe told Investigate.
“So you’ve got no record in your office of anything being advised to you by F&P?”
“Not that I’m aware of, a quick check hasn’t revealed that.”
For their part, Fisher & Paykel have been critical of John Rogers.
“Mate, we’re open to suggestions, but we want it supported with facts,” says general manager of Customer Services Brian Nowell down the phone. “We asked the guy for information and he just did not deliver it. It’s been high on rhetoric, short on fact, all the way through.”
And Fisher & Paykel global CEO John Bongard is equally skeptical:
“We have never had a fire with the model refrigerator that he has supposedly ‘tested’ so we are at a loss as to what we can say about his ‘issue’. Perhaps you can supply some factual information that we can refer to?
“Surely if these claims are true the ESS would have been able to confirm them. Have they done this? Could you tell me what the ‘specific’ problem is?”
Over at the ESS, we threw the curly questions back at Bill Lowe: is it true that there was no incident, no information supplied?
“Well we know of the two initial problems, so the allegation is a littler higher than that. Actually in the case of the F&P fridge we did consult with their engineers, possibly two of them. There will be a record somewhere but we’ve asked F&P for that information.”
Lowe believes his office may even have sent a formal notification to their counterparts in Australia via an electrical product safety incident report while they waited for F&P to report back, a report that apparently never came and which EnergySafe apparently failed to chase.
For their part, F&P insist that a fax from Investigate is the first time they’ve seen Gosling’s technical report to EnergySafe, despite requests in an exchange of lawyers letters in 2001 and 2002 asking Rogers for more data.
For his part, serviceman John Rogers accuses Fisher & Paykel of trying to avoid an embarrassing product recall on its ActiveSmart fridge line by “hushing up” the smouldering fridges and ensuring authorized repair agents towed the company line.
“I think the authorized service agents have been told to keep everything under wraps. I know they have.”
“Who’s told you?”
“Other service companies. They were told to keep quiet about it, and just put all the information back to F&P.”
Fisher & Paykel’s Brian Nowell says suggestions that New Zealand’s leading home appliance brand, with a strong presence in Australia, the US and UK, is anything less than responsible are ridiculous.
“We take a hell of a responsible attitude to these sorts of things. We view all of these sorts of things seriously, but people’s views on potential hazards vary from individual to individual, and we try and work through them as responsibly as we can given that we have authorities involved from time to time.
“And hell, we wouldn’t have been around for 70 years if we’d been as flippant as some people would have us believe.
“It doesn’t matter what the nature is of a problem that we come across, we sit down and we work through what we should be doing about it, whether it necessitates things like recalls, whether it needs modification and if we deem it needs modification how we confront that sort of thing. So if we deemed it to be of a high risk nature, we’ve done things like product recalls in the past.”
He also points out that no house fire has been attributed to this problem in a Fisher & Paykel fridge.
“Yeah, that’s a very valuable point. We from time to time come across appliances that cause smouldering, which might generate a bit of heat. If the Fire Service is called out to an incident of any nature where they think an appliance is involved, whether it’s ours or someone else’s, they get hold of us. We treat things like that pretty seriously. We’ve had clothes dryers for example, and people who use towels with hairspray all over them and they don’t clean lint filters and things like that.”
EnergySafe’s Bill Lowe nonetheless feels the fridge issue needs a closer look.
“I would say they’ve certainly got a design problem there because it’s not failsafe, however modern product is also manufactured to fire safety requirements in terms of materials and self quenching plastic and so forth. They will burn until such time as their source of energy is removed.”
And, says Lowe, the close working relationship between EnergySafe and F&P is a bonus, not a problem.
“I won’t say we treat them any better than other suppliers because we do work with Westinghouse and some of these other suppliers whose product is not made in NZ, but the fact that they’ve been quite open with us providing information – possibly selectively – but we work closely with F&P on the standards committee and we would expect them to be a responsible company.”
Meanwhile, the electrical inspector who kicked off the bunfight claims Fisher & Paykel can’t be left to take the rap for what is increasingly an industry-wide problem as regards appliance safety. Bruce Gosling says he’s made up to twenty reports to EnergySafe about unsafe appliances, and heard diddly-squat back about any of them.
“The Energy Safety Service, as far as I’m concerned, are a law unto themselves. Rarely can I get an answer from them, and one time I recall trying to get an answer, either yes/no or just a simple written reply from the ESS over a very serious safety issue – the only way I finally got an answer from them was threatening to go and see my local MP at the time, and my local MP is Helen Clark!”
An example of safety issues, he says, is an upmarket brand
“We still have an ongoing problem with Tuscany rangehoods that are brought into the country by Mitre 10, and again we could only go so far and we had to hand the complaint and the hazard over to the ESS. Again, we would have thought the ESS would have taken them off the market until they’ve been improved,” Gosling told Investigate.
“What’s the problem?”
“People getting electric shocks from these new rangehoods that have been installed, due to the design faults within them. They’re Italian manufactured, a very nice looking stainless steel rangehood, but the one we investigated, I was there on behalf of the Electrical Workers Registration Board as an investigating inspector. And we totally disconnected and removed that particular rangehood from service and we wrote a report, again, to Wellington to both the EWRB and we sent a copy to the ESS.
“That saga went on for well over a year for the customer, who was left without a working rangehood – he was contacting the ESS monthly because he wanted to get a new rangehood, obviously, and he was hoping Mitre 10 might supply him with one. I was totally blown away at the length of time they left that customer in limbo, but at the end of the whole thing we finally got – I’m pretty sure I’ve still got the written reply from the ESS – and they were saying again that there’s been 250,000 sold in Australia and they hadn’t had a problem over there, so why should they worry about one problem here in Ellerslie, Auckland.”
“How live were they when you measured the voltage and
“It was a hundred volts from the leakage current back to earth potential, because the stove was directly below and the person was touching it. These sort of things are a bit of a freak scenario, but in saying that it could well happen again in NZ.
“Anything above 50 volts AC becomes dangerous to humans. Yes, that was the measurement we took at the time, and the person getting the shocks had been doing cooking on the stove at the time and had wet hands, so it’s a very serious electric shock situation.
“But whether the ESS have contacted the Tuscany manufacturers back in Italy and told them to improve their design, I’ve got no way of knowing. But that’s what I stated in my report: the design needs to be improved, the electrical safety leaves room for improvement. But I bet nothing’s happened.”
According to EnergySafe there has been some movement, but not much. The Tuscany rangehoods were initially approved for sale in Australia and therefore became automatically approved for sale in New Zealand. Despite the 100 volt electric shocks, EnergySafe’s Bill Lowe says he hasn’t ordered the product to be withdrawn from sale here because Mitre 10 is refusing to agree to a recall.
“No, the product recall process is not simple, it’s a complex legal and technical process and we’re working through one at the moment with another product but we have to be very careful with regard to litigation, and that only becomes a problem if it’s not done voluntarily by the supplier. 99% of them are voluntary recalls.”
“Did Mitre 10 voluntarily take it off sale?”
So in other words, this Investigate article is the first that most people will have heard about a possible safety fault with an Italian rangehood that’s now been on sale for more than a year in both New Zealand and Australia.
Ironically, the fact that a homeowner has been given 100 volt belts by the rangehood is not enough to force a compulsory product recall. That can’t happen in the main unless someone is first seriously injured or killed.
Bruce Gosling says he’s found serious safety faults in other appliances as well – portable residual current devices that are supposed to protect DIYers and workmen from being electrocuted while using tools outside.
“From memory, about 10 of these brand new devices failed out of 20 that were purchased.”
“How did this come to your attention?”
“From a company in Penrose, and Alstom out at the Otahuhu power station – they purchased 10 and they do ‘test and tag’, the same as this company in Penrose, a Fletcher Challenge company.
“What happens is that as soon as they buy an RCD personal protective portable device we test and tag them before they go into service, so as electrical people we take them out of their brand new packets and put them through the appropriate tests, and 10 of these devices out of 20 failed.
“And I can tell you for a fact that the guys out at Alstom were only buying one at a time, because they only wanted one, and it failed so they sent it back and swapped it with another one. Five times they did that before they got one that could be tagged as safe.
“It was just ironic that about two weeks prior to that we’d had a major problem at this factory in Penrose. They’d purchased at least 10, and five of them failed the performance test that we do. Some of them didn’t even trip at all, brand new out of the packet and wouldn’t even physically trip on the pushbutton – you know, they all have a little pushbutton that every user must test before they use them – and even that pushbutton didn’t work.
“So that was totally unsafe, and yet when we complained to HPM in Sydney they just said ‘nah, it must have happened in freight, in cargo, because we test every one before they leave the factory’. And we know for a fact that that’s B/S, absolute. But they still turn around and make those statements, and no one can prove them wrong, so in the end we dropped that issue. That’s the tactics these manufacturers are using,” says Gosling.
It is, to use a bad pun, absolutely shocking. And Investigate’s discovery of faulty RCD devices has made EnergySafe sit up and take notice.
“RCDS are on the declared article list and they require approval from this office before they go on sale in NZ,” says Bill Lowe of the ESS. “And why we get very nervous with RCDS is we specify them as a safety device and I look at them like a parachute when you jump out of a plane. Where you’ve got a device to protect a person and it doesn’t work because it’s defective we’ve really got some concerns, yeah.”
On the strength of Investigate’s information, he’s contacting HPM in Sydney to ask some hard questions. It’s not the first time the Australian company has supplied faulty RCDS. But the real question is why Australian and NZ authorities are not picking these things up before the products go on sale?
Fisher & Paykel’s Brian Nowell would like an answer to that one too. He says there’s a big problem with imported appliances where regulators make assumptions that the product complies with safety standards, rather than force suppliers to prove it before the product goes on sale.
“Rather than showing that you do comply, the system appears to be that if somebody comes across an incident you have to show that you are capable of complying. It’s more or less left to people to grizzle here. Let’s put the ambulance at the top of the fence, not the bottom.”
As to the safety or otherwise of Fisher & Paykel’s fridges, the arguing continues. Investigate spoke to another appliance serviceman about his experiences.
“I can mainly only comment on the earlier ones I saw, they would catch on fire, basically. The heating systems in the back of the defrost system would not cut out on the defrost timer and so then they’d just melt out the whole inside, they’d literally have a fire in the back of them.”
“How many of those did you see?”
“Mainly when I was with John, probably upwards of eight or ten I suppose. Then when I went back out on my own again I probably saw another three or four. The last one I saw was quite recently, no more than about 12 months ago. It was well melted out inside in the freezer compartment. Just an ActiveSmart, I can’t remember which model exactly.”
“I believe John perhaps ran foul of F&P for being someone who was prepared to stand up and say something, and I really honestly admire him for doing that because all these other guys just pushed it under the rug and didn’t want to jeopardize their authorizations etc. And he got bitten on the backside for that, big time.”
“So you were aware of other people who were aware of it?”
“Absolutely! No question, we all used to go to Service School for latest product ranges and that and we’d be talking about all kinds of stuff.”
“They talked about the fridges?”
“More the servicemen would be talking about while they’re all together at Service School. The F&P people would say ‘yeah, we’ve got a little issue and we’re sorting it out’, but in my opinion they never did.”
To which Brian Nowell’s response is, “rubbish”:
“We’re obligated to provide EnergySafe with information and we certainly do. We’re pretty self conscious about those sorts of things because we’ve got authority guys working in this country that influence the thinking and safety standards not only in NZ but also Australia and around the world. We’re actively involved with those guys all the time. We certainly wouldn’t send guys off to meetings with instructions to be ‘mum’ about an event that jeopardized our reputation. We work very openly with these people.”
Fisher & Paykel’s technical team were unavailable to Investigate, and the appliance company hasn’t got any data immediately to hand on whether it has swapped any burnt out fridges for customers under warranty.
We did approach one customer whose fridge was the subject of a report to EnergySafe, and she told Investigate that after John Rogers had highlighted the problem, F&P sent a new service team out to her who reassured her Rogers and Gosling were “panicking” unnecessarily and that her fridge would be alright. That was four years ago, she still has that fridge, but its freezer she says “doesn’t defrost properly” and is leaking water. “Do you think I got fobbed off?” she half mutters to herself.
Fisher & Paykel, meanwhile, are standing on their record. Yes, they say, there are occasionally defective units – which is why they have service agents. But the company rigorously denies that it would put public safety at risk.
In the meantime, EnergySafe and F&P are now liaising on the fridge issue again, and EnergySafe is preparing to further investigate the faulty RCD devices. And John Rogers? Well, he’s given up appliance repairs and now exhibits and sells neon art at home shows. “It’s much less stressful,” he says.