They’ve caused hundreds of house fires with millions in damages and figured in last month’s first-ever criminal charges under a federal product-safety law.
But despite a national recall, thousands of dangerous, defective dehumidifiers remain in people’s homes, often running 24/7 in basements where overheating can go unnoticed, experts say.
With the warm weather, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission is urging consumers to check their make and model against several announced recalls for dehumidifiers made by Gree Electric Appliances, GD Midea Air Conditioning Equipment Ltd. and LG Electronics Tianjin Appliance Co., all in China.
The recalls cover about 6.8 million dehumidifiers that were sold as late as 2013 at major stores including Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s, Menards, Sam’s Club, Sears, Ace Hardware, Walmart and Amazon.com.
The defective dehumidifiers have been linked to approximately 500 fires that caused a total of more than $25 million in damage, according to the federal consumer agency. The bulk of those were with Gree dehumidifiers.
The recalls were announced and reissued over the past few years, but fires keep happening. It’s not known how many units are still in people’s homes. In general, consumer response to recalls averages about 6 percent.
“People need to know these things are really dangerous,” says Richard Schuster, a Wisconsin lawyer who has handled numerous insurance cases involving fires with recalled dehumidifiers, including several in Illinois.
Many consumers don’t know about the recalls and are running defective units continuously during warmer weather, causing fires, Schuster says. “It’s not going to stop,” he says. “There’s going to be more and more claims unfortunately.”
To check your dehumidifier, search on CPSC.gov for “dehumidifier” to bring up information on the recalls.
“It is troublesome that we are continuing to see fires with recalled dehumidifiers because what that means is people are unaware about the recall,” CPSC spokeswoman Patty Davis says.
Even if their unit is not on a recall list, consumers should turn off dehumidifiers whenever they leave the house or go to bed, Davis says.
“Never turn on a dehumidifier and forget about it,” she says. “Keep your eye on it just like you would any other small appliance.”
Leon Jackson of downstate Normal and his family were lucky to survive last September, when a dehumidifier they didn’t realize had been recalled caught fire, causing extensive damage to their home. His family was asleep when the unit, in the basement, apparently overheated and caught fire sometime before 5 a.m.
The home is being gutted and rebuilt. Jackson says he hopes they will be able to return in mid-May — eight months after the fire.
“We haven’t been back since the fire,” Jackson says. A smoke alarm was “pretty much the only thing that kept it from being a tragedy.”
Normal Fire Chief Mick Humer says the units can smolder out of sight in a basement for hours before fire spreads.
“It just looks like a molten glob when it’s all over,” he says. “It does an incredible amount of damage through the house because of the smoke.”
The dehumidifiers were sold under about 60 names, adding to the confusion. Some were familiar brands like Frigidaire, GE, Kenmore and Sunbeam. Others were essentially the same product but sold under a different brand.
In March 2016, Gree agreed to pay a $15.45 million civil penalty for failing to report known problems with the dehumidifiers to the U.S. government.
Last month, the Justice Department announced federal charges against two executives of a company that imported and distributed the defective Gree dehumidifiers, accusing them of failing to report known defects and continuing to sell unsafe units to retailers.
After a dehumidifier fire last August killed her dog Bubba and caused extensive smoke damage to her family’s home, Sophie Meranda of Cedarburg, Wisconsin, started a Facebook group — “Bubba Barks Back” — to spread the word about dehumidifier recalls.
Meranda says her family’s dehumidifier ignited one morning when everyone was out of the house, but the dog was still inside. The fire was contained to the basement, but smoky dust carried by the air-conditioning spread through the home, even covering items inside drawers and cabinets.
Her father was the first one home. “He was calling and calling for Bubba, and no response,” Meranda says. “That was so devastating.”
The family found out after the fire that their dehumidifier had been recalled. After Meranda started the Facebook page to honor her dog, she says about 45 people have told her they’ve checked their dehumidifiers and found they’d been recalled, too.