Britain’s biggest electrical retailers are continuing to sell more than a hundred plastic-backed fridges, freezers and fridge freezers even though this type of backing has been shown to pose a fire risk, a Which? investigation has revealed.
Tests by the consumer champion have found that the plastic backing used on fridges and freezers can be extremely flammable and, in the event of a fire in your home, can dramatically accelerate the spread of flames. Following the latest research, Which? is calling on all retailers to immediately remove the potentially unsafe products from sale.
The London Fire Brigade and Electrical Safety First have also warned about the dangers of flammable plastic backing and an electrical fire expert stated in a report for the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that plastic casing is combustible and will contribute to the spread of a fire.
After warning over the safety of flammable plastic backing last year, Which? launched an investigation into how many of the products were on sale across AO.com, Argos, Currys PC World and John Lewis, which are the four largest retailers for this type of appliance.
On 21 January, AO.com’s website was displaying 173 plastic-backed models – more than any other retailer.
Argos listed 137 plastic-backed products, Currys PC World had 56 and John Lewis & Partners had three.
All four retailers said that they now have fewer plastic-backed products on their websites than they did on 21 January. Some of the retailers said this was down to the fact that products listed on their own websites were incorrectly listed as plastic, when they were actually metal backed.
The confusion caused by retailers incorrectly listing their products highlights concerns that some are not providing customers with accurate information about the backing of their appliances – making it difficult for consumers to know if they are buying a fridge that could pose a risk to themselves and their families.
However, even with the updated listings, it is estimated that there are still between 148 and 241 plastic-backed products available, with the largest number on sale at AO.
After being approached with the results, AO committed to stop selling the potentially unsafe models by July. However, Currys PC World and Argos did not commit to a date that the products would be removed from sale.
John Lewis & Partners said two of the three it had on sale were incorrectly labelled as plastic, with the other listed in error and subsequently removed. In a win for Which?’s campaign, the company said that it hadn’t sold a plastic-backed refrigeration appliance since April 2018.
While plastic-backed fridges, freezers and fridge freezers for sale on the market pass existing standards, Which? believes current safety tests that the products must undergo are not fit for purpose and do not come close to replicating a real house fire.
Which? wanted a stronger standard to be introduced earlier, that uses a real flame and requires the backing of all fridges, freezers and fridge-freezers to be made of non-flammable material, but now doesn’t expect to see it come into force for several more months.
Since details of the new standard were announced, positive steps do appear to have been taken by some manufacturers. A majority of the most common brands on sale across the four retailers said that they had already stopped making and supplying plastic-backed fridge freezer models to UK retailers.
However, Hisense, Hoover and Lec did not confirm that they had stopped supplying UK retailers with the products. Which? is now urging these companies, along with any other remaining manufacturers that are still supplying UK retailers with plastic-backed appliances, to stop doing so immediately.
Yet, even when the standard is introduced, retailers will still be allowed to continue selling these plastic-backed appliances to get rid of existing stock, although it is not yet clear how much time they will be given to do so. Which? believes that this is unacceptable due to the safety risk the products potentially pose, and retailers should remove them from sale immediately.
Although fires due to refrigeration faults are rare, the lifespan of these goods can be more than 10 years – meaning refrigerators with flammable backs could pose a safety risk to consumers for years to come.
Alex Neill, Managing Director of Which? Home and Product Services, said:
“We’ve repeatedly asked manufacturers and retailers to stop making and selling these potentially unsafe products, which could put people’s lives at risk. It’s a big win for consumers that some manufacturers and retailers have acted, but some are still dragging their feet.
“Responsible retailers need to put the safety of their customers first. They need to take immediate action to remove these products from sale, rather than allowing products to enter people’s homes that could pose a fire risk for many years to come.”
Notes to editors:
- Consumers can use Which?’s free tool to check the backing material of hundreds of the most popular fridges, freezers and fridge freezers currently on the market and reviewed by Which?: https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/fridge-freezers/article/fridge-freezer-safety
- Advice to consumers who already own one of these models, is that refrigerator fires are rare and as such Which? isn’t calling for a full product recall. Which? research (March, 2018) looking at UK fire statistics showed that only 8% of fires caused by faulty appliances were caused by fridge freezers, fridges or freezers.
- Which? checked the refrigeration listings on AO.com, Argos, Currys PC World and John Lewis on 21 January 2019. According to Global Data, these were the four largest retailers for this type of appliance in the UK in 2018.
We looked at every fridge, freezer and fridge freezer on each site, from American fridge freezers to wine fridges and chest freezers. Every product listing was analysed, including any models currently out of stock. Any model either listed as having flame-retardant backing or with an identical model code to a model listed as having flame-retardant plastic backing has been excluded from our analysis.
- Plastic-backed fridges on sale by retailer
|Retailer||Plastic-backed fridges listed on Jan 21||Plastic-backed fridges listed between Feb 5-7|
|Argos||137||19 (plus a further 93 that were listed as plastic but are due to be updated to metal)|
|Currys PC World||56||16|
- An AO spokesperson said: “Currently, 9.5% of the fridges, fridge-freezers and freezers that we sell are plastic-backed and these all meet the current legal safety standard. In line with customer demand, we are working with our suppliers to phase these out and only offer metal-backed fridges which we expect to complete by July this year. Over the last four months, together with manufacturers, we have more than halved the number of plastic backed fridges in our range. In the meantime, we are constantly updating our website with information about the backing material of fridges so that customers are able to make an informed choice when buying from us.”
- *This estimate is 9.5% of the total number of refrigeration appliances listed on AO.com on 7 February 2018.
- A Currys PC World spokesperson said: “As of today, February 5, we have a total range of 733 refrigerators (fridges, freezers and fridge freezers). Of this, 16 have plastic backs (15 fridges, 1 freezer and no fridge freezers). This is 2.1% of the total range. All 16 are end of line ranges. These products comply with the applicable safety standards. All of our new own-brand range of fridges are metal-backed. As we’ve stated previously, the safety of a fridge depends on far more than simply what backing material has been used.”
- An Argos spokesperson said: “As we have made clear to Which?, we offer a small range of plastic-backed lines and the vast majority are metal-backed. Some of these were incorrectly labelled as plastic and we are updating our website to make sure this is clear for customers.”
- A John Lewis and Partners spokesperson said: “Ahead of the upcoming changes to safety standards, we have not sold any plastic-backed fridges since April. With regards to the Smeg models, these are in fact metal-backed and we have now corrected the online product description. The Fisher & Paykel model was listed in error and has now been removed from our website.”
- A Hoover Candy spokesperson said: “We can confirm that since April 2018, all of our refrigeration models have been manufactured exclusively with metal (galvanized steel sheet or galvanized aluminium board) backing. The model flagged to us (HCS5172XK and all of its colour variants) is now a metal-backed product, however, some residual products manufactured before April 2018 will still have plastic backing, but all backing on sale is compliant with the requisite quality and safety standards.”
- A Lec spokesperson said: “Manufacturing of plastic-backed appliances has ceased. We have minimal stock left of plastic back ref in our business and have plans in place to cease shipment in line with mandatory legislation. AO currently lists seven Lec products, however four of these are deleted SKUs with no stock and will soon be removed from their listings. There is a small amount of residual stock of the remaining three models – each of these are in the deletion process. We have minimal stock in our business and we are working within the latest British Standard mandatory to become compliant.
- A Hisense spokesperson said: “All of Hisense’s refrigeration products adhere to current legislation and we will continue to invest in research and development to ensure that the refrigeration products we deliver to the UK market meet our customer’s quality and safety expectations. To that point, we are currently transitioning away from the remaining fire-retardant plastic-back refrigerators we have to metal-backed products across our cooling product ranges.”
- The current British Standard requires refrigeration appliances to pass a glow wire test to assess their fire resistance. This involves putting a hot wire through a sample of the fridge or freezer backing material and seeing if it catches alight.
However, when conducting more stringent fire tests, Which? found that no flammable plastic backing sample was able to withstand a flame for thirty seconds indicating that, in the event of a fire, it will not sufficiently prevent the flame from reaching the flammable insulation that’s used in all refrigeration appliances. In similar testing of metal and aluminium laminate backed refrigeration products none caught alight after the 30 seconds test. Samples of metal and aluminium laminate backing less than 1mm thick were also able to withstand an open flame for a full five minutes.
- Fridge freezer metal vs.flammable plastic backing – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBvkTAD1U50&feature=youtu.be