Is it safe to leave washing machine on?

House fires This is an updated article originally published on Washerhelp. I want to broaden this important topic out to other appliances because many people don’t realise the potential dangers.

Although this this question is about washing machines it applies equally to tumble dryers and dishwashers.

Risks involved in leaving a washing machine, tumble dryer or dishwasher running when out or in bed

Sadly, all of our white goods appliances are a potential fire risk. It’s a reality we just have to accept and can’t obsessively worry about. But we can increase or decrease our risks depending on how we use our appliances. This article is about making informed choices, and using knowledge and information to reduce risk.

Fortunately fires caused by appliances are relatively rare, but not as rare as you might think. Many thousands of houses fires are caused each year, and people die in some of these fires.

According to the Electricity Safety Council 22 deaths and 2,500 injuries were caused by appliance electrical fires (some due to misuse) in 2012.

Of these fires, the following relevant statistics stand out –

  • Increasing the risk of serious fire spreading by leaving the tumble dryer running unattended or overnight (9%)
  • Leaving an electrical appliance on while unattended, only to be alerted by a burning smell (9%)
  • Blocking air vents by failing to clean behind their fridge/freezer (44%)

The Electrical Safety Council’s website also says that washing machines and tumble dryers are the second most common causes of electrical fires in the UK. I know dishwashers and fridges also can and do catch fire.

Fridges & Freezers: There’s little we can do about fridges because we have no choice but to leave them running 24/7, that’s their job.

However, the statistics show that 44% of fires caused by appliances were fridges/freezers with blocked air vents caused by a build up of fluff and dust.

Make sure you pull these appliances out occasionally to clean behind them and remove fluff from the back of the appliance.

Also make sure you check out, and keep informed about my Fridge and Freezer Safety Notices Issued, which I always publish when I find them –

Do you need to take risks with other appliances?

Take Risk? We generally do not have to let washing machines, tumble dryers and dishwashers run at night or when we are out. Maybe it’s a lot more convenient to do so, but you should accept you are taking a relatively low risk but with very high potential consequences if you do.

Special advice regarding tumble dryers

Although you shouldn’t leave a tumble dryer running totally unattended, ironically there is a potential fire risk associated with stopping one mid cycle. This might only be relevant to certain types of tumble dryer, but it is wise to follow this advice. If you want to be sure then carefully read your dryer’s instruction manual.

See if it says anything about stopping a drying cycle. If you need to turn a dryer off because you are all going out or to bed then don’t just stop it – cancel the cycle properly. Otherwise, in some circumstances the laundry could catch fire. Read this article for a full explanation Don’t stop a tumble dryer mid-cycle.

Is it safe to use delay start?

Many appliances now come with delayed start features. This shows the manufacturers are happy for the appliance to be used totally unattended. However, cases of washing machines, dishwashers and tumble dryers catching fire do occur – and seem to be occurring at alarming rates these days – so clearly using this feature is potentially very dangerous.

You need to decide if risking a house fire is a risk you need to take. Government fire safety advice is to not to leave white goods running unattended. This doesn’t mean you have to pull up a chair and watch, but just make sure someone is in the house to hear any smoke alarms go off or smell any burning.

Always at least have a smoke alarm fitted near to the washing machine (or other white goods appliance) if it is left on and unattended. However, this could be impractical if they are in a kitchen due to the nuisance alarms from cooking, and not much help if no one is in the house. You can buy special fire alarms that aren’t easily set off by cooking though.

The Trading Standards site has an excellent list of safety related product recalls which covers virtually all appliances in the home. It’s well worth book-marking and checking regularly as it covers all safety issues on all consumer goods – even food

What about other risks?

Fire is clearly the biggest concern, but other risks involved are large leaks or flooding. A badly leaking washing machine can cause a lot of damage unattended and some leaks can run indefinitely until someone turns off the water and the appliance.

Is it safe to use economy 7 energy tariffs?

Some people may still set their washing machine, dryer or dishwasher to run during the night to use cheaper off-peak electricity through economy 7 tariffs.

It is not advisable for the reasons mentioned so far. If you are prepared to risk doing this then at least make sure you set it to come on as late as possible (right at the end of the economy 7 time period) so that you will be up not long after the machine has run. That way if something like a bad leak occurred, the damage should be less than if the appliance had been flooding all night.

Also make sure smoke alarms are fitted close by. Appliances such as tumble dryers, washing machines and dishwashers just cannot be trusted to be left completely unattended and people die, or have their houses burnt down leaving them running whilst asleep.

I have done some research into these tariffs and think for most people they are inappropriate, and not worth risking a fire just to save the small amount of money they save running an appliance. See this article – Economy 7 and white goods

Most modern appliances are safer than they used to be: Most modern appliances tend to be controlled by software built into the main PCB. Such a machine will typically have selector buttons and LCD or LED displays.

These appliances have much better safety protection and will normally abort if they detect over heating for example. The computer style programs they use will time out and show error codes if it takes too long to fill, empty or heat the water. Washing machines can even abort the spin if the load is unbalanced. However, many leaks or floods, and fires, are not protected against!

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9 thoughts on “Is it safe to leave washing machine on?”

  1. GW just posted the following comment on another article but it’s very relevant to this one so I’m copying it here –

    With regard to a Tumble Dryer being a fire hazard? My Indesit (Model: IDVA735S) caught fire from the rear of the appliance within a couple of minutes of being started. This was the first dry of the day, so the machine wasn’t hot due to a previous drying cycle.

    When I added one quilt cover and a couple of pillowcases to the dryer drum, I left the dryer in motion whilst I continued with my usual tidying up first thing in the morning. Within a couple of minutes I could smell smoke, that rather obvious electrical burning smell that you get when a hairdryer gives up. I dashed back to the machine, where there was very slow grey smoke coming from around the sides of the dryer.

    I quickly pulled the quilt cover and pillowcases out, none were damaged, but I could see flames through the rear of the drum. The flames were approx’ 7-10 inches high and clearly well alight. Immediately I chucked water towards the flames, yes, I know I should have unplugged the machine, but I challenge anybody not to do precisely what I did when faced with such a situation!

    Because I caught the fire straight away, the flames hadn’t even damaged a plastic panel located above the motor compartment, so I was relieved to have been on hand when the incident occurred.

    I think it’s important to mention, I was about to go out in my car as soon as I started the machine, secondly, there were four persons (family) upstairs in bed when this incident occurred. I was genuinely having palpitations with the thought of what could have happened? The machine was in my kitchen, the filter was clean and the machine was serviced just one month ago.

    Hotpoint were called and an engineer is apparently coming out to check this fire hazard today. Needless to say, I expect the company to replace this dangerous machine, via my insurance. I’m just waiting for some jobsworth to try and extort delivery costs for any new appliance? I certainly don’t want a bloody repair!

    The moral of the above account is: Don’t leave these appliances on when you intend leaving home for a period of time, my machine was around 5 years old, but was recently serviced.


  2. Colin Humphries

    From an electrical safety point of view, would it not be to recommend that all white goods at risk should be connected into an RCD socket outlet at point of use. Extra protection should eliminate electrical overheating, risk of overloading and electric shock.

  3. Hello Colin, ideally people should have rcd protected sockets throughout the house via the main fuse board but if not then plugging appliances into an rcd adapter could add extra safety. I don’t think rcd would prevent many fires though because it’s often things like failure of thermostats causing the heating element to over heat. In such cases the element wouldn’t be doing anything electrically wrong just running for too long or running when the washer has no water inside for example. Tumble dryers can catch fire due to design faults or when they get covered in fluff round the element (design deficiency) which catches fire. Fridges or freezers can catch fire when they get clogged up at the back with muck and dust.

    As far as my understanding goes RCDs normally just trip when they detect an imbalance of magnetic field caused by electric current going to earth or in a direct short. I don’t think they can detect electrical overheating as in for example a poor connection somewhere. However, an electrical fire that burned through wiring and caused them to short should cause the rcd to trip cutting power and preventing a big flash but the fire is still free to spread if it can. Without an RCD device the fuse in the plug or even fuse board would also fail and cut off the power albeit not as quickly.

  4. I live in shared accommodation and one tenant keeps leaving the washer/dryer on overnight with just a few nylon items in with a plastic soap ball.

    We have had repeated conflicts that this is very dangerous and a serious potential fire hazard putting us all at risk but she doesn’t listen or care.

    I woke up last week to a “burning” smell in the kitchen where she had left synthetic items in the dryer for over 3 hours!

    Am I wrong or is she?

  5. Hello Angela. The fire risk is relatively low, but as my article points out, thousands of fires – some fatal – are caused by appliances and in my opinion leaving any washing machine, dryer or dishwasher on when no one is in the house or people are in bed is a very unnecessary risk.

    I suspect doing so is not illegal, it seems to be just accepted that these things happen as we all accept that thousands of people are injured or killed in car accidents. However, if they won’t listen to common sense the only thing I can suggest is complaining to the landlord.

  6. Andy Trigg (Whitegoodshelp)

    Hello Carina. Ideally yes. Though I would estimate it to be very unlikely anything would go wrong with the washing machine (tumble dryer or dishwasher) not actually running. From what I can see the biggest risk is from an electrical fault inside the wall socket or the appliances plug. I will be writing a new article concentrating on the specific question soon and will be linking to 2 examples where people have claimed an appliance had an electrical fire incident after being left plugged in.

    If it is easy to turn off the socket on an appliance you’re not using it is always best practice to do so. I do with our washing machine and tumble dryer in our garage. But I don’t on our dishwasher in the kitchen because the wall socket is behind lots of pans and pan lids at the back of a cupboard.

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