Microwave ovens are in just about every home now, and in a lot of offices and other workplaces as well. They can make food preparation a lot easier but they can also be a fire hazard.
Recently we received this alarming email from a reader named Anne.
"Our microwave, we believe it was a Samsung, started a fire in the middle of the night. Our house is totaled. No loss of life except our two cats. Can we do anything?"
A request to Anne for a follow-up interview about the accident went unanswered, so we decided to look into our database of consumer reviews to see if anyone else has had similar problems. They have.
"I bought this microwave and it starts sending out sparks and is an extreme fire hazard," Emily, of Manteca, Calif., wrote about her Emerson microwave.
Emily said she called the company and was told the fire was probably because the inside of the unit needed cleaning. Emily isn't buying it, especially after finding other consumers who have reported similar experiences.
"I and most of the reviewers on this site have had experience with many microwaves over the course of our lives and have not had sparks flying out of our microwave," she wrote.
Earlier this year Consumer Reports published an in-depth study of reported problems with KitchenAid microwaves. Some of those problems have also been reported to ConsumerAffairs.
"Saturday the KitchenAid over the stove microwave/convection caught FIRE before my eyes," Stephen, of Leawood, Kan., told us. "Serviceman yesterday said the magnatron had burned holes within the machine and was not replaceable."
There have also been a few reports of similar problems with GE microwaves.
"I purchased the model (PEM31SM1SS) GE Profile in November of 2008," writes Pamela, of Duxbury, Mass. "Less than a year later it overheated and failed; since it was still under warranty, the repair was managed by the appliance vendor. The scorch mark on the rear wall of the oven was and is still there. During the past year, the paint on the interior roof began to bubble and peel. There is now a broad area of exposed metal and the paint around the interior door frame is also peeling."
A class action suit in 2009 alleged some GE microwaves were prone to bursting into flames without warning and had been defective since 2003. In a statement to an Ohio TV station at the time, GE said these incidents were rare and did not indicate any kind of systematic failure.
The really scary part of these reports is that some units appear to come on by themselves. But that problem doesn't appear to be limited to one manufacturer. An anonymous Emerson owner reports the same thing.
"I arrived home around 5:00 yesterday and my microwave was on," the poster writes. "There were no numbers being displayed but the interior lights were on. My house could've possibly burned to the ground had I not arrived when I did. The microwave was hot to the touch but I was able to open the door and close it. I was eventually able to unplug it from the wall socket. The microwave was over a year old, but I would expect that it would at least be safe beyond the warranty period."
Raihana, of Brooklyn Park, Minn., also has an Emerson.
"My kids were warming something in the microwave and started screaming, so I came down and found out that there were sparks flying in the microwave," Raihana writes. "My first reaction was, what did you put in the microwave? They had not put anything unusual in it and so I tried putting something in there and the same thing happened."
There are at least two issues in these reports. One is the appliance starting a fire while cooking something. That might be the more explainable.
The second, and more scary, is the issue Anne reported - the appliance coming on in the middle of the night, or when no one is home. It may be a rare occurrence but it's hard to know how rare. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) doesn't release a lot of information to the consumers whose safety it is supposed to protect.
In response to a Consumer Reports Freedom of Information filing, CPSC did release 70 reports about KitchenAid microwaves, with 41 of them describing fires that broke out when the oven started on its own or was not in use.
Microwave ovens produce heat by producing waves of electromagnetic radiation. These waves cause water molecules in food to vibrate, and it's the vibration that produces the heat. You can't put any metal in a microwave oven because the waves would bounce off, firing arcs around the interior and starting a fire at some point.
Consumers report manufacturers have told them that dirt and food debris on the inside of the oven are responsible for the arcing. But there has been no explanation offered that we are aware of for the ovens turning themselves on and catching fire.
What you should do
If you experience any abnormal activity with your microwave oven, you should unplug it and not use it until a repair person inspects it. Also, tell someone about your problem. Specifically, report it to the CPSC.
Consumers often wonder why a product has not been recalled. One reason is that the CPSC has to get a certain number of reports of a problem before it will take any action. There are other factors as well. CPSC works partly off of hospital records; unless a product defect has caused injuries, it may not be eligible for recall.
Frankly, between the slow pace at which the CPSC moves and the air of secrecy that surrounds its operations, consumers are in many cases better off relying on non-governmental sites for information. They are much less bound by onerous regulations than the CPSC and other government safety agencies.
Also, consumers should report safety problems to the manufacturer. Use a civil, businesslike tone. The company needs to know the scope of the problem it has on its hands.
Finally, don't forget to post a report on ConsumerAffairs. Other consumers can learn and benefit from your experience.