Dishwashers are catching fire across the country, charring kitchens and filling homes with smoke, a Scripps Television Station Group investigation has found.
In interviews with families from Baltimore to San Diego, a dozen homeowners described how their malfunctioning appliances started billowing smoke or flames.
"You think: 'It's got water, how can it catch on fire?' " said Ken Logan of Kansas City, Mo.
Yet on Thanksgiving morning last year, Logan's kitchen was consumed with smoke and flames before firefighters arrived and stopped the blaze. Inspectors have not attributed the fire to any cause, but Logan told NBC Action News in Kansas City that the blackened remains of his kitchen show his dishwasher was to blame.
Logan's not alone. Federal officials have received over 1,000 complaints over the last five years about dishwashers causing fires or smoke, according to records Scripps obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Officials at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which receives the complaints and uses them to work with companies to craft fixes, said they are "investigating thoroughly" cases of dishwasher fires.
"To date, most of the fire or smoldering incidents were contained inside of the dishwasher, where the lack of oxygen and combustible materials prevented a larger incident from occurring," commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said. "In the past two decades, we have announced 15 voluntary recalls of dangerous or faulty dishwashers."
Affected homeowners are speaking up.
Late one night in December 2009, as Karin Peterson sat at her Denver kitchen table preparing Christmas cards, she heard sizzling coming from her KitchenAid dishwasher, purchased in 2002.
"We saw flames probably 10 or 12 inches high, and then just a billow of black toxic-smelling smoke," Peterson told ABC 7 Denver. The couple used a nearby fire extinguisher to stop the flames.
"This dishwasher went from working perfectly fine to a fire," Peterson said. "That's what is extremely concerning -- there were no warning signs."
Richard Steffer, of Boca Raton, Fla., said he also had a KitchenAid dishwasher that malfunctioned last February. "You didn't see any flames or anything, but it was a lot of smoke," he told Contact 5 Investigators in West Palm Beach, Fla. "As soon as you walked in the house, it was overpowering."
"I didn't feel safe with the product in the house anymore," Steffer said. It's "clearly not a quality product."
The flames shooting from Michael Hayden's KitchenAid dishwasher "looked like what you would see from a benzene torch," said the Florence, Ky., resident. Hayden told WCPO Cincinnati that his appliance caught fire last November.
Baltimore attorney Charles Fax has filed suit against KitchenAid's parent company, Michigan-based Whirlpool Corp. Fax represents 11 people who say dishwashers made by Whirlpool have caused serious damage. Along with compensation, Fax's clients want a recall for what they say is a product flaw causing "the wires inside to overheat and eventually burn," Fax said.
A Whirlpool spokesman said the company builds dishwashers with a component to turn off power, in the unlikely event that a control board overheats, to limit damage.
"We are currently investigating incidents that have been brought to our attention and, as always, working closely with the appropriate agencies in doing so," the company told Scripps reporters.
Bill Mariano, of Escondido, Calif., a suburb of San Diego, said he also has a malfunctioning dishwasher. As Mariano sat in his living room one night watching television, he smelled burning plastic from the Kenmore Elite dishwasher running in his kitchen. "The next night, same thing," he told 10 News San Diego.
Mariano said the dishwasher hasn't caught on fire, but he's convinced the appliance's circuit board is to blame. The wires feeding into the circuit board "overheated so much they melted deeply into the plastic," Mariano said.
The dishwashers have "got to be recalled. This is a fire hazard," he said. "People are in danger and there's so much evidence pointing toward the problem."
General Electric, another major manufacturer of home dishwashers, also issued a response to the Scripps investigation.
"GE investigates reported safety issues and initiates corrective action when appropriate, including notifying consumers in cooperation with appropriate agencies," Kim Freeman said on the company's behalf.
Freeman said many of the incident reports have not been verified by the CPSC or other government agencies.
Jackie Schanz, of Cincinnati, was straightening up her kitchen when she whiffed a "rancid, burning smell," she told WCPO.
Smoke was pouring out, filling the entire downstairs. "It was making a hissing and whistling sound," husband Tom Schanz said.
Jackie Schanz said she thinks the faulty dishwashers should be recalled. "Will it take somebody losing their life over this?" she said. "Luckily we were home ... But if we were sleeping -- I don't know what could have happened."
For more information, contact:
Consumer Product Safety Commission, at cpsc.gov, for a list of recalled products. To report safety problems, see SaferProducts.gov.
General Electric at geappliances.com/recall. Or, phone the GE dishwasher hotline at 1-877-275-6840.
Whirlpool Corp. at whirlpoolcorp.com. Or, phone 1-800-422-1230.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Hargrove and Isaac Wolf of Scripps Howard News Service.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)