I suspect that many of us worry, at least occasionally, that we might fall asleep or leave the house with the stove left on and have visions of the burner overheating and catching fire and destroying everything. I have on numerous occasions gone back into the house after leaving it, just to check the stove. But how bad could it really be? According to this article by Steve Rousseau, John Drengenberg, the Consumer Safety Director at Underwriters Laboratories, says that the manufacturers of stoves have taken this possibility into account.
“A stove is designed to run indefinitely,” says Drengenberg. “Do we recommend that? Absolutely not.” While it’s not the best idea to leave an open flame unattended, If you leave your stove burner on, your house will, in all likelihood, not burn down.
UL tests just about every stove that hits the market. Part of that testing involves ensuring they hit thermal stability. In other words, they turn the stove on, and check the temperature of the burner, and keep checking the temperature until it stops increasing — just to make sure the burner doesn’t ultimately set the entire stove on fire.
“If you leave it on, and there’s nothing on the stove or near the stove, it probably will stay running until you come back,” he says.
So nothing would happen. And yet, the leading cause of house fires is unattended cooking. So just what is going on here?
You see, the problem isn’t the burner itself, but rather what’s on top of the burner. Let’s say you start a nice ragu, and then leave it to simmer away while you go enjoy the park for a few hours. Maybe you left the heat on a smidge too high, and all the liquid boils off before you get home. Then baby, you got a kitchen fire going.
A pot with too much liquid could also set your home ablaze as well. Maybe you’re making a nice pot of pulled pork, and maybe that fatty greasy goodness boils over… while you’re outside chatting with a neighbor. That’s a kitchen fire.
But if you’re making yourself a cup of tea, and you might have forgotten to turn off the burner after pulling the kettle off the stove. (It happens!) Then, well, it’s not the end of the world. You should maybe just text your roommate just to be sure, though.
I am reassured, sort of. I will still likely go back to double check the stove if I can but if I think of it when I am far away, this article will help me to worry less.
I don’t have a great deal of knowledge about appliance design, I’ve mainly working in automotive where flammability specifications are critically important, but not in the same category as appliances.
However, it has always seemed to me that the most dangerous appliance in the house is the dryer.
Stoves are designed with heat-resistant materials and to keep heat away from areas, like a counter-top, which could be flammable and outside of the designers control.
Dishwashers also have a heating element, but if that starts to overheat you’ve also generally got an enclosed environment which not only has a limited ability to ignite (too much smoke can displace enough oxygen to prevent a fire, until an oxygen source occurs like opening a door). You’ve also got a water supply connected to the dishwasher, if too much heat is generated the hoses will break open and flood the place. (Not good for your kitchen, but not as likely to start a house fire).
Furnaces and water-heaters are designed like stoves. The ignition areas are well-defined and isolated from the outside world.
But the dryer is designed to heat and dry a material which is likely flammable and generates dust which certainly is flammable. When a dryer operates, it is deliberately creating a situation with increased flammability. The manufacturers are putting some more sophisticated detection systems in dryers for excessive heat, and too little humidity. But still, the function of the dryer is to add heat to clothing to remove water. This necessarily creates a more inflammable condition.
So always empty the lint-traps and never leave the house unattended with a running dryer.
Steven Floyd says
I have never worried that I left the stove on after leaving my home. I have, however, worried that I left the Bunsen burner on after leaving the lab on several occasions.
On one particular occasion, the worry started right as I was about to go to bed -- I couldn’t remember turning the burner off! I fought off the worry, assured myself that I was usually pretty good at turning it off, and went to sleep. In the morning, the building was surrounded by emergency vehicles! It turned out, one of our neighbors had caught their lab on fire, but there was definitely a moment of panic as I thought for sure I had accidentally burned the lab to the ground.
The only time I’ve ever been concerned about such a thing was last year. We had just got settled into the NoDAPL camp, and we were going to be there well over a week, before taking a break and stopping back home for a day or two before heading back.
We had just gotten all of our gear out, got everything settled, when I stopped and said, “fuck. left the coffee maker on.” Just went with hoping it wouldn’t burn the house down, and thankfully, it didn’t.
Pierce R. Butler says
In this university town, just about every year we see a batch of stories involving students --
* moving into a new apartment
* setting a pile of books or papers on the stove
* bumping a control knob or dial without noticing
* going away to bring another load of possessions
* having the electricity turned on in their absence
* coming back to a charred apartment and embarrassing conversations with landlord, firefighters, & reporter
Timely post, Mano. I did this just last weekend!
On Sunday morning I found that I’d left a burner going on my (gas) stove. It ran from dinnertime Saturday right through the evening and night.
There was nothing on the burner, and it was the smallest one set at its lowest setting. There were no consequences except the wasted gas.
I had never left a burner on like that before, although I did once ruin a pan when I forgot to put water in it before (not) steaming some veggies. Actually melted a hole in the stainless steel that time, but no fire.
Richard Simons says
Just before Christmas I put some bread in the oven. A few minutes later an alarm on the stove went off with smoke billowing out of the closed oven door. I switched the stove off at the breaker and turned all fans on but it took quite a while before I could open the oven door without setting off the smoke alarm. It seems that the heater element did not get the signal to turn off when the oven was up to temperature. Very alarming. While this was happening, my wife was getting emergency treatment at the dentist’s, a son phoned asking for firewood for a barbecue, a friend phoned to be taken to the Emergency with chest pains and we needed to be out of the house in 30 minutes to go to our granddaughters’ school concert. Altogether an interesting afternoon.
Dan Henschel AKA Leaford says
Just the other week I came home to find the stove burner on. The last time I had cooked had been breakfast the PREVIOUS morning, so it had been on for 36 hours! Oops.
I have ruined many kettles by leaving them on the burner until they were dry and red hot. Luckily, it was always water, so there was no residue to burst into flame.
What does worry me, though, is leaving the iron on. Once I returned from hours down the highway, just to check. But will a hot iron, standing upright, set fire to the fabric-coated ironing board? Do manufacturers test for that?
I don’t iron as much these days, so that’s one fewer worry.
Mano Singham says
Apparently many (but not all) irons now have an auto shut-off feature. The price difference to get that is not large (about $5) so it is worth looking for it when you buy an iron.
My feeling is that most household devices now are being made to be ‘idiot proof’ but one wonders how long before such requirements go away as a result of this administration’s zeal to cut regulations.
I can’t remember when I last ironed anything.
Considering many of the reasons for making things safer are not related to government regulations but industry standards and the impact of expensive lawsuits, I don’t think this administration will have much of an impact on consumer safety.
While there are government regulations on consumer safety, most regulations are things which manufacturers have already agreed are a pretty good thing, and will continue to do even if the regulation is removed. For example, there is a government regulation that the air-pressure in tires needs to be monitored by the vehicle. This regulation is a direct result of the Ford Expedition, when the tires were under-inflated, could over-heat the tires and burst, causing roll-over accidents in that top-heavy design. If that regulation was removed, would manufacturers stop putting tire-pressure sensors in their tires? Nope. That would be an easy target for a lawyer in a lawsuit. Even though it adds about $10 to the parts cost of the automobile (and about $150 to the selling price), a couple million-dollar lawsuits would wipe out any savings that removing the system would generate. And the customers have become used to this feature, and are willing to pay for it.
There are similar arguments to be made for most things which directly impact the consumer.
Where government deregulation will hurt is in worker health and safety, environmental and pollution standards, and monitoring for illegal activities in all areas of business (especially the financial sector).
When I’m going to leave town for any length of time, I try to remember to turn off the relevant (or possibly irrelevant) circuit breakers. Since I don’t use a stove or oven, I just leave that one off all the time.
Carlota Fens says
Could someone tell me if I leave the stove on for a hour or two is healthy ? Carbon monoxide poisoning ? Please I’m super scared ! I was cooking and made a omelette , ate it …. then I go to the kitchen only to find myself with a low but still on stove , can this affect your health ?
Mano Singham says
One thing that every home, and I mean every, must have is a carbon monoxide detector. Don’t try and guess. Just buy a detector like today.