Diatribe: Surge Protectors Recalled Ten Years Later.
Last week the lights in our house started flickering. Not the lamps or any other electrical item that was plugged into wall outlets but just the ceiling fixtures, the majority of which are antique chandeliers. Each of these chandeliers has an identical dimmer switch, also known as a rheostat, that allows us to adjust the level of lighting in each room depending on the mood or the task at hand. I take great pride in these fixtures and enjoy them all the time.
But not when they flicker. For several days I worked to find the source of the flickering. I thought that, perhaps, the bulbs were slowly burning out or that there might be something wrong with the dimmer switches that we had used but these were not the source of the problem. When we thought we smelled something electrical in the front of the house I thought I’d solved the mystery as the electrical odor was coming from the direction of a fancy high-tech surge protector that we’d purchased with our new washing machine.
Surge protectors are devices designed to protect electronics from potential damage resulting from an unexpected increase in voltage above the norm. A standard surge protector passes electrical current along from the outlet to a number of electrical and electronic devices plugged into the power strip. If the voltage from the outlet surges or spikes, the surge protector diverts the extra electricity into the outlet’s grounding wire. This protects the electronics from possible damage from the excessive damage. Surge protectors are sold just about everywhere and are recommended for most computer and television systems not only because they help to protect the equipment from damage but because they simply make it easier to plug everything in.
Yesterday, Schneider Electric announced a recall of fifteen million of its SurgeArrest surge protectors (series APC7 and APC 8) that were manufactured before 2003. The company warns that they can overheat, smoke and start a fire. In the ten years since these surge protectors were manufactured the company has reportedly received:
- 700 reports of overheating and melting;
- 13 reports of injuries, including smoke inhalation, and burns from touching the overheated device;
- 55 reports of property damage, including a house fire that caused $916,000 in damage and a fire in a medical facility that caused a loss of $750,000.
The surge protectors involved in the recall were made in China and the Philippines. They were sold at Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA and other stores in the U.S. from 1993 to 2002.
Why did it take ten years to recall these surge protectors? While seven hundred reported problems seems like a lot, the company allegedly says that these “rare incidents” took place in “certain unusual circumstances” in less than 0.01 percent of the product models included in the recall. So they sold a LOT of these things.
Ultimately, our new surge protector had nothing to do with our flickering chandelier problem. I finally got frustrated (and a little bit frightened) enough to call an electrician who simply replaced a breaker that had become loose and the problem was solved. But now that I’ve studied this recall and understand that surge protectors … like any other electronic products … can fail, I believe it’s time to start replacing them in my house.
Nearly half of all fires in the U.S. involve some type of electrical malfunction so be alert for the warning signs of a possible problem. If you smell something or feel something that’s extremely hot, stop using it and find out what’s wrong. And if you’re chandeliers start flickering … they’re trying to tell you something.
Do you use surge protectors? Have you ever considered replacing them as they age?
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