Is my house about to burn down?
July 2, 2013 11:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm scheduled to leave for a much-needed vacation in about two hours, and my dishwasher just died in a hot & smelly way -- is it about to catch fire after I drive away? Sorry - I'm paranoid and in a rush and I need you people to help me think.

The dishwasher is ancient -- it was old when we moved into this place in 1996 -- and it's been on the verge of death for a long time, judging by the inreasing racket it makes while running. We always figured we'd let it die, then get a new one. And it's just hung on year after year.

But I just ran a load, and the racket was louder than usual, and then when it finished and I went to remove the dishes, insead of the usual cloud of hot, clean-smelling steam, out came a cloud of hot, smelly steam -- a little smokey, smelling of burned rubber. I'm totally fine if this means the end of the dishwasher. But does it mean that there's a fire somewhere? Obviously there's no visible fire, I mean, but could there be a fire in the wall? In the floor? A spark that's going to expand into a conflagration once I drive away?

I am always paranoid about fire, FYI. Mr. BlahLaLa teases me, but there was that one time that the toaster caught fire and I TOLD HIM SO.

I'm alone. I don't really know what to do. Family BlahLaLa has already left for the vacation and I am supposed to bring up the rear in 2.5 hours. What should I do?
posted by BlahLaLa to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you call an electrician to come over? it might take the rest of the day, but would well be worth your sanity.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:38 AM on July 2, 2013

A good start towards a calmer state of mind would be turning off power to the appliance at the circuit breaker.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:39 AM on July 2, 2013 [25 favorites]

Is there a melted piece of plastic touching the heating element at the bottom of the dishwasher?
posted by Grither at 11:40 AM on July 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

I would pull the dishwasher away from the wall and unplug it. If that doesn't work, I would pull the fuse/circuit that it's on. If it's on fire after that you should know before you leave in 2.5 hours.

You might also look inside to see if something fell through the rack onto the drying element. That happened with a plastic part to a sippy cup once and it resulted in smelly smoking stuff coming from our dishwasher.

(on preview, what they said)
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:40 AM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

The rubber gasket that seals the dishwasher shut may have started to melt. Check that.
posted by Melismata at 11:41 AM on July 2, 2013

When we had a smell like that once it was due to a measuring cup that fell on the heating element. Your extra clunks could have been something similar falling down.

Clear out the washer and unplug it (or shut off the circuit breaker if you can't access the plug) and you should be fine.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:41 AM on July 2, 2013

Yes, turn it off at the breaker until you can investigate further. Once you've done that, it can wait until you get back from vacation.
posted by deadmessenger at 11:43 AM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Grither and charmedimsure; The smell of a plastic utensil or container against the heating element is awful, and would be the first thing I'd check... and for peace of mind you can unplug it (if possible) or turn off the breaker at the panel.
posted by usonian at 11:45 AM on July 2, 2013

(If you turn it off at the breaker make sure to plug the fridge in to a functioning outlet so you don't come home to fridge ick.)
posted by elizardbits at 11:51 AM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Pulling it out - does the literally mean just pulling it? I'm recovering from a big back injury and can't do much more than that. I'll try it. Turning off the breaker - I'm pretty sure in this old house it would mean turning off the entire kitchen, ad I can't do that because of the fridge. I just opened a bunch of windows - trying to air thing out so I can determine if the smell is just lingering from when it was running, or new and current.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:59 AM on July 2, 2013

Do you have a neighbor who can help you pull it out from under the counter?
posted by Specklet at 12:02 PM on July 2, 2013

This may seem like overkill, but you can totally call the non-emergency fire department phone number and explain the situation. They'll more than likely send a truck out to inspect. Trust me when I say that they would MUCH rather inspect a maybe than put out a roaring fire.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 12:07 PM on July 2, 2013 [9 favorites]

Your dishwasher may be bolted in, but it is likely plugged into a standard outlet that may just require a stretch to get to. Do you have any access to one side of it through the cabinet beneath the sink?
posted by rocketpup at 12:09 PM on July 2, 2013

Yeah, mine is plugged in beneath the sink. Check there.
posted by something something at 12:16 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

To save sanity before your vacation and your back, just turn off the circuit breaker. If the fridge is on the same circuit, run an electrical cord to another outlet in the house.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:34 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay, opened some windows for a while, then closed everything up again. I smell nothing. Safe?

(I really appreciate this advice, everybody.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:37 PM on July 2, 2013

Agree with KokuRyu - turn off the breaker until you can give it your full attention. Moving a dishwasher with a bad back is no party and having replaced one in the past two years that had "creative" wiring and hose connections, I can attest that you may be called to be a contortionist. It can wait.
posted by plinth at 1:09 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Appliance professional here!

1) Fourthing usonian, Grither, and charmedimsure. #1 suspect in these situations is a plastic dish or utensil that's somehow fallen and contacted the heating element at the bottom of the tub (visual aid). Should be trivial to remove, but even if you can't remove it, it should pose no threat as long as your dishwasher is turned off.

2) Dishwasher electrical installation varies across the USA--some places DWs are allowed to be hard-wired to the power source, some local codes require a plug. Bottom-line for you: go to your circut box and turn off power to the dishwasher from there, and you'll be solid until you return from vacation.

Back to the most likely cause:

Remove lower dish rack and check for something laying against the black heating element. Again, sometimes plastic items can fall on the element. They will get hot and melt. Clean the item off the element and it will be okay to use again. Make sure the heating element is cool before touching it.

To remove plastic from the dishwasher element:

Mechanical (Dial) Models -

* Advance the timer to the "Dry" cycle and allow heat for approximately. 4 minutes.
* Advance the timer to the "OFF" position, unlatch the door and remove the lower rack.
* Scrape the plastic off with a non-metallic object such as a wooden spoon.

Use caution when scraping. The element will be hot!

Electronic Models -

* Reset the dishwasher control by pressing the "Reset" pad if the dishwasher is not already off.
* Wait approximately 30 minutes for heating element to cool down.
* Open the door and remove the lower rack.
* Scrape the plastic off with a non-metallic object such as a wooden spoon. Use caution when scraping.
posted by magstheaxe at 1:09 PM on July 2, 2013 [8 favorites]

Pull the breaker and go on vacation.
Caveat: For all that is holy, make sure only the dishwasher is on the breaker. You don't want to leave for a week and come back to discover both the DW and the fridge were on that circuit.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:24 PM on July 2, 2013

Unplugging it should be enough, although yes turn off the breaker if you can't find the plug.

There's a very good chance that the plug is hooked into an outlet under your sink: look there first.
posted by easily confused at 3:48 PM on July 2, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, people. I did nothing, and the house has not burned down.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:16 AM on July 3, 2013

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