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?
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!