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Will my toaster burn down the house?
September 1, 2006 7:33 PM   Subscribe

Is it really so bad to leave a toaster plugged in?

Assume the toaster in question is brand new, and the owners don't leave food in it, or wander off while it's in use. All the toaster fire incidents I can find seem to be related to one of those two causes...so if we use common sense, is there much risk in leaving it plugged in?
posted by TochterAusElysium to Home & Garden (52 answers total)
 
I've never heard of there being any issue with leaving a toaster plugged in. The toasters in the house I grew up in were never unplugged, and there was never a fire. Anecdotal, perhaps, but there you are.
posted by lekvar at 7:39 PM on September 1, 2006


We always leave the toaster plugged in. Where are you hearing that you shouldn't? Is it a CYA disclaimer in the manual or from some other source?

Just unplug it before you stick a fork inside :-)
posted by winston at 7:44 PM on September 1, 2006


I don't think I've unplugged my toaster in about 8 years.
posted by meerkatty at 7:45 PM on September 1, 2006


I grew up in a house where we always unplugged the toaster.


Not that I'm out on my own, I've thrown caution to the wind
posted by Mick at 7:53 PM on September 1, 2006


yeah - I plugged mine in when I moved in several years ago and haven't touched the plug since.
posted by GuyZero at 7:53 PM on September 1, 2006


My sister began unplugging her toaster between uses after she came into the kitchen one day and saw her cat playing with the lever that turns it on. But if you don't have pets (or small children) who could activate the heating coils inappropriately, leaving it plugged in should pose no harm.
posted by Dreama at 7:53 PM on September 1, 2006


My father was an electrician who took care that certain appliances not be left plugged in. The toaster was not one of them. (Except when sticking a fork in, as Winston notes :)

Where did you hear there was a problem? Why?

I'm guessing that what you heard was advice for people with young children, rather than suggesting unused-but-plugged-in toasters are a fire hazard.

(The appliances that he preferred not to leave plugged in were things that had transformer power supplies in them, especially if in a insulated or very dusty place where heat from a fault (or even normal operation) could potentially be trapped and get hotter. A toaster does not generate heat when not in use).
posted by -harlequin- at 8:02 PM on September 1, 2006


Funny. I unplug the toaster after I use it every single time.
Also the coffee maker. I don't know why. I'm not particularly Obsessive Compulsive but for some reason I always do. I think I must have seen or read something bad about fires years ago.
It's become like locking the door or turning out lights, just something you do.
posted by chococat at 8:11 PM on September 1, 2006


I've never known anyone who unplugged their toaster. In fact I've never even heard of anyone unplugging their toaster, until now of course.
posted by kindall at 8:28 PM on September 1, 2006


no
posted by caddis at 8:30 PM on September 1, 2006


We always unplugged the toaster when I was growing up (and I still do at my mom's). Now I always leave it plugged in. Part of it is because the plug is harder to reach here than it is at my mom's. Also, the toaster at my mom's has the lever-type of thing to turn it on, while my toaster now has a dial, so it would be much harder to accidentally turn on.

Neither has ever caused any fire-related issues.
posted by stefnet at 8:31 PM on September 1, 2006


I've never known anyone who unplugged their toaster

I have had several cleaning ladies who have unplugged my toaster, and coffee maker etc., every time they came to clean. It is not uncommon, yet it seems to me, to be overly cautious.
posted by caddis at 8:33 PM on September 1, 2006


In australia, the kitchen plugs on the counters all have switches in the middle, so you can keep everything plugged in, but kill the power to them.

I always wished we had those in the states (for the record I've had the exact same toaster plugged in non-stop for the past decade in several apartments and houses without incident).
posted by mathowie at 8:34 PM on September 1, 2006


Some toasters used to be all element with no switching on button. There were doors you opened to place the bread in, and you would have turn the bread yourself once one side was done. While it was plugged in and the power switch on, the toaster would get hotter and hotter. Unfortunately, my google-fu fails me and I cannot find a picture to show you, but this is why I think people unplugged toasters.

Okay, this might do it.
posted by b33j at 8:36 PM on September 1, 2006


Okay, now I'm trying to work through this obvious problem that I have.

In my case I think that I've not considered it unplugging the toaster after using it, but rather plugging it in to use it.

And that's the story I'm sticking to.
posted by chococat at 8:41 PM on September 1, 2006


Oh yes, I always unplug my toaster in my household. Yes indeed. I also stand beside it with a fire extinguisher whenever I make toast just in case. For the same reason I have thrown out all my extension cords and power strips, and I check every power cord in the house for fraying monthly. I make it a habit to check the hot water temperature with a thermometer before I ever step into the shower to prevent burns. I have a special safety cabinet for all scissors and sharp objects that I keep locked, just in case. Water is boiled outside on a special platform that is surrounded on all sides by at least three feet of concrete, which is swept of dry leaves and debris beforehand. I don't trust gas appliances, and every day I go outside and check that the main gas supply valve is firmly turned shut to prevent any accidental use of gas. I don't have any shelves, as there is a chance that during an earthquake the items would fall on me -- I just keep everything in piles on the floor. When chopping vegetables I make sure to wear a chain mail glove in case the knife gets out of control and comes too close to my hand. I sleep on the floor so that it's impossible to fall out of bed.

No wait, I'm kidding, I've never done such a silly thing as unplug the toaster, and I'm pretty sure the other eleventy billion people on the globe that don't do this either would agree that their homes have not burned down yet.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:48 PM on September 1, 2006 [2 favorites]


Yes indeed. I also stand beside it with a fire extinguisher whenever I make toast just in case.
:)
posted by caddis at 8:56 PM on September 1, 2006


i was living in a house with an old toaster with a badly frayed electrical cord ... one day, the cord caught fire ... i yanked it out real quick before bad things happened

of course, anything with a frayed cord shouldn't have been used to start with ...
posted by pyramid termite at 9:45 PM on September 1, 2006


I unplug the toaster after every use. Why not? I am not an electrician, but I do make risk reward assessments in my work and I can tell you that the risk reward ratio of unplugging versus leaving it in is skewed heavily toward unplugging. It takes less than 4 seconds to plug and unplug and any potential damage, even if it is a 1 in a million shot, would not justify being too lazy to unplug.

What do you have to lose by unplugging?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:48 PM on September 1, 2006


My mom always unplugged the toaster when I was growing up, so I always have. She wasn't all that paranoid in other ways, so it never before occurred to me that it wasn't usual operating procedure for everyone. Until yesterday, that is, when it came up in conversation. I'd much rather leave it plugged in and not worry about it, so thanks, AskMe. I feel better now.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 9:56 PM on September 1, 2006


Oh, and JohnnyGunn, whose answer I just saw: the way ours is located, the outlet is not easy to get to, so it's more than a quick yank to unplug (which is why I'd rather just leave it). Ah, maybe I should just move the damn toaster.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 9:58 PM on September 1, 2006


I grew up in a house where we always unplugged the toaster.

me too

Not that I'm out on my own, I've thrown caution to the wind

me too.

I think my parents were from a generation that grew up with wonky toasters that apparently spontaneously exploded or something. But with modern toasters I absolutely dont see any need to do that. Havent had any problems, myself. But yes, while growing up, my entire family obsessively unplugged the toaster. Not the coffee maker, no other appliances - just the toaster/toaster-oven.
posted by jak68 at 10:05 PM on September 1, 2006


JohnnyGunn: With that logic, why do you ever leave the house? There's a lot less than 1:1,000,000 chance you'll die in your car, especially if you ever reached over to tune the radio or get change.

And if the retort is that driving is a necesarry risk and a plugged toaster is an unnecessary risk, the concept of what a plugged toaster EVENT is defined as, a toaster catching fire does not mean the house is a four inch cinder, more likely than not an accidently engaged toaster is just hot, and if it burns something, more likely it just stinks. It would take alot more than a 1,000,000:1 odds to actually be a FIRE and then even more odds to be a high damage fire.

Drive or ride in a car and any defined EVENT probably means pain, the risk of high damage or death are much greater than a plugged toaster. BTW stay away from pools too.
posted by Kensational at 10:12 PM on September 1, 2006


I always unplug the toaster. About 15 years ago my mom, who used the toaster oven every morning, had the unpleasant experience of it actually catching fire. Now I'm sure toaster technology has improved but I was about 7 at the time and that incident is burned in my memory.

I don't believe the cord was even frayed at all. I'm sure there is a very small chance of a toaster spontaneously combusting, but I'll still unplug it every time.
posted by crashlanding at 11:00 PM on September 1, 2006


Your post is going to give me nightmares. My neighbors house burnt to the ground when I was a child because they left the toaster plugged in when they left for work. It had a frayed cord, but, like CrashLanding, you won't catch me ever leaving any small appliance plugged in.
posted by LadyBonita at 11:51 PM on September 1, 2006


So... do you leave your electrical stove plugged in?

I think the odds of anything going wrong with a modern toaster, that is in good repair, by leaving it plugged in is greater than a million to one, or else we'd heard about numerous toaster fires a day...
posted by edgeways at 12:02 AM on September 2, 2006


I leave my toaster plugged in. I have heard of people warning against this, because of the lever-operated toasters, where pressing down the lever activates the heating element. The theory goes that over time, the spring that holds up the lever gets weak, and one day it breaks (somehow?), the lever drops down unimpeded, the heat element comes on, and a few hours later your toaster bursts into flames. This sounds highly unlikely to me. However, my toaster is dial-operated.
posted by Joh at 12:23 AM on September 2, 2006


Of course, Edgeways, you're correct. But my childhood trauma can beat up your logic any day ;)
posted by LadyBonita at 12:57 AM on September 2, 2006


You should read the instruction manual. If there was the slightest known chance that your toaster would cause any problems by being left plugged in while not in use, the manufacturer would warn you about it. (See here, for example, though the manual doesn't say why you should unplug it.) But would a house-burning toaster stay on the market? Wouldn't the toaster be recalled and the manufacturer sued if the thing was known to burn down houses?

I supect some manufacturers recommend that you unplug their toasters while they are not in use so you won't be able to blame them for Junior's unsupervised adventure with the fork. They know most people would not actually put up with a toaster that required such care, but they also know that most people will not read the manual and in any case would never dream of unplugging their toasters (table lamps, stoves, kettles, televisions, etc.) after each use.
posted by pracowity at 3:30 AM on September 2, 2006


In australia, the kitchen plugs on the counters all have switches in the middle, so you can keep everything plugged in, but kill the power to them.

I always wished we had those in the states


We do, in a way. If you have GFCI outlets, you can trip the interruptor to "turn off" the outlet. I have them in my kitchen.
posted by briank at 5:23 AM on September 2, 2006


It takes less than 4 seconds to plug and unplug and any potential damage, even if it is a 1 in a million shot, would not justify being too lazy to unplug.

But not if the risk is zero.

(And if I worked at your company I would have just been fired for kicking you in the nuts)
posted by cillit bang at 6:26 AM on September 2, 2006


Mathowie's comment up there was quite informative. Over here (in the UK), almost every power outlet I've seen in the last 25 years or more has a switch next to it to cut power. I kinda thought that was standard in the developed world.

Anyone know why that hasn't caught on in the States?
posted by dash_slot- at 6:53 AM on September 2, 2006


It's funny, my roommate and I both grew up in families where the toaster was always unplugged. We moved in and were making fun of this so of course we left the toaster always plugged in. Until we had a toaster fire...now it's always unplugged when not in use :-)
posted by echo0720 at 6:54 AM on September 2, 2006


Except for cleaning, our toaster has remained plugged in for approximately 13 years now. Of course, I also empty ashtrays full of cigarette butts directly into the trash rather than into a metal container, and I'm still confused as to which side of the road I should walk on to avoid getting hit by traffic, so don't listen to me.

And I cook pork chops to no more than medium.

I'm a risk-taker.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:45 AM on September 2, 2006


Every piece of electrical anything with a frayed cord in your home is dangerous. Why limit your worries to the toaster? And I have to guess that yanking the cord out of the wall is conducive to fraying unless you're very careful about gripping the cord by the strain relief portion every time.

Just be happy that you don't live in an era when people thought it was safe to give toasters to children as playthings.
posted by popechunk at 8:58 AM on September 2, 2006


Anyone know why that hasn't caught on in the States?

Might have something to do with 220V vs. 110V.
posted by jimmythefish at 9:17 AM on September 2, 2006


What do you have to lose by unplugging?

Time (it's a pointless extra step after toasting and another before toasting), patience (if the socket is somewhere inconvenient), and the lifetime of the toaster and the wall socket.

In fact, I suspect the daily unplugging and plugging is more dangerous than leaving it plugged in, because the constant fiddling about increases the chance that you will damage the cable, plug, or socket.

I also suspect that the chance of you electrocuting yourself while plugging and unplugging the toaster, even if you haven't damaged anything (breakfast, groggy, late, bzzt), is greater than the chance that the toaster will spontaneously combust and burn down your house while you're dreaming of Pop-Tarts.
posted by pracowity at 9:38 AM on September 2, 2006


I don't unplug the toaster to stick a fork in it. I always assumed that all electricity was cut if it was in the "off" position. Is the fear that it'll spontaneously turn on and electrocute you? Man...I guess I'm the askmefi born yesterday clown of the day.
posted by one_bean at 9:44 AM on September 2, 2006


The only people I know that do such an absurd thing are my wife and my mother in law.

My wife no longer does it because I took the time to point out how stupid it is, and when she -did- do it... it made me so pissed to waste time every time I used the toaster figuring out why the thing didn't work that she gave up on unplugging it.

I see the need to unplug things that are mundane like toasters and televisions... to be a sign of OCD.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 9:50 AM on September 2, 2006


"I see the need to unplug things that are mundane like toasters and televisions... to be a sign of OCD."

Can't speak for toasters, but televisions drain a huge amount of energy, even while off. That's just a sign of frugality / environmental care.

Now I'm off to make some toast, farewell cruel world.
posted by one_bean at 9:55 AM on September 2, 2006


Can't speak for toasters, but televisions drain a huge amount of energy, even while off. That's just a sign of frugality / environmental care.

No they don't. The majority of TVs have a proper off switch on the front that is as good as unplugging them.

You're thinking of standby - and even then "huge" is pretty inaccurate. Leaving a modern TV on standby all the time is the same as having it on for 5-10 extra minutes per day.
posted by cillit bang at 10:10 AM on September 2, 2006


I don't unplug the toaster to stick a fork in it.

Unless you have a switch that turns off electricity at or before the socket, the power is always itching to go up the cable and into the box and through any fork you jab into the wrong place.

Unplug it or use something nonconductive like the handle of a wooden spoon. Or ask someone you don't like to do it for you. "Okay, okay, I'll sign. But could you put down those divorce papers for just one second and help me with this darned toaster?" Then hand him or her a wet fork and stand back from the mat you've accidentally dampened this morning.
posted by pracowity at 10:15 AM on September 2, 2006


Might have something to do with 220V vs. 110V.

I wonder if thats the pattern here - could it be that those whose parents spent some time in Europe or Asia are the ones whose families unplug toasters? Thats would be true in my case, for instance.
posted by jak68 at 12:10 PM on September 2, 2006


jak68:
My parents were on 220V, and as noted, only appliances that were a fire risk were routinely unplugged, and that did not include toasters.

one_bean:
I don't unplug the toaster to stick a fork in it. I always assumed that all electricity was cut if it was in the "off" position. Is the fear that it'll spontaneously turn on and electrocute you?


No, it's risk management. Actually not so much risk management as complacency-management. Unlike toaster fires, there are a few obvious ways that the power can and does go live while it's plugged in (someone, or even you, accidentally bumping the 'on' switch, for example). They're all unlikely, but if sticking forks in things is something you do a lot of (such as if you're a repair person), then the low odds accumulate over time, until one day, you're SOL :)

If it's something you do infrequently, and are confident you have the situation under control, it's highly unlikely to matter.

And of course, if you're poking around some types of appliances, such as a TV, you can easily kill yourself regardless of whether the thing is unplugged or not :)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:01 PM on September 2, 2006


And of course, if you're poking around some types of appliances, such as a TV, you can easily kill yourself regardless of whether the thing is unplugged or not :)

How true. My son and I were replacing the power cord on his guitar amp the other day. It had been unplugged for more than a day, yet the capacitors in the power supply still registered a 300 volt charge when I checked. Touch the hot lead on one of those and you would get a nasty surprise.
posted by caddis at 4:16 PM on September 2, 2006


Sticking forks in toasters is really unnecessary and stupid. Why would you ever need to do it? Use something wooden, or turn the thing upside down if need be.
posted by reklaw at 4:20 PM on September 2, 2006


The majority of TVs have a proper off switch on the front

Not in America.
posted by dirigibleman at 4:29 PM on September 2, 2006


It may be a throwback to the old toasters and the fact that they were usually brought to the table and removed after the meal. Back in the day most people didn't have an acre of counter space to store unused appliances. Also the kitchen table was in use throughout the day with other household chores.

OTOH My ex father in law used to unplug nearly everything including lamps. It was a real pain trying to find the plugs when coming in at night.
posted by Gungho at 7:24 PM on September 2, 2006


Unless you have a switch that turns off electricity at or before the socket, the power is always itching to go up the cable and into the box and through any fork you jab into the wrong place.

Don't forget there's another mains switch inside the toaster that cuts off mains power completely to the rest of the toaster. In any design that's had any thought at all put into, the switch will either be a sealed unit that the mains cable goes straight into (meaning no exposed live parts unless it's switched on), or the circuitry will be isolated from the toast compartment, or both.
posted by cillit bang at 8:32 PM on September 2, 2006


Traditional electrical devices, like toasters and light bulb sockets, are held to looser requirements than modern devices, like subwoofer amplifiers. The logic of the safety agencies, I believe, is that people know not to stick their finger in a socket, or a fork in a toaster, but they may not be so sensible with a speaker. So, I don't think cillit bang's point applies, even though it is quite sensible.

Personally, I don't worry about whether my toaster is plugged or not, and I can't see how there is a significant fire hazard in the off position. However, answering the question "Is it safe" is pretty hard.. I guess it is best to be informed about how electricity works in general, and read the manual..
posted by Chuckles at 11:36 PM on September 2, 2006


My grandmother's house burned down due to a toaster. The fire department told her that this was common enough in toasters where a spring (that can age) holds the device off. When the spring gets loose or rusts or what-have-you, the device turns on. You don't have to be using it for it to malfunction and burn down your house.

That said, I don't unplug my toaster, but I feel guilty about it.

A Google search of "caused by a faulty toaster" and "fire" was productive. "Faulty toaster" and "fire" brought even more, of course.

Curiously, an assignment at MIT used to be designing something to eliminate this problem. PDF linked below.

Toaster Fire Prevention System task.
posted by mezzanayne at 9:04 PM on September 3, 2006


Great answer mezzanayne, thanks!
posted by Chuckles at 10:13 PM on September 3, 2006


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