Appliances turning on spontaneously: When? Why? How? How often?!
April 17, 2014 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Here and there, around the web and (much less) in person, I've heard of small appliances spontaneously turning themselves on. Googling has turned up some product recall notices and grisly photos of burns, but I'm more interested in personal experiences--have you ever experienced a small appliance spontaneously turning on? What happened? Was there loss of property/limb/life involved?

I was home for lunch today and moved some jute placemats to my porcelain-top cooking range (water had spilled on them and I needed them off the countertop), then forgot to move them before I returned to work. So this question has a neurotic basis, of course, which is where I figure out whether it's worth it for me to return home and move the placemats, if my range were to spontaneously turn on, or if the chance of that happening is just laughably low.

I'm also just curious about how common this phenomenon is, and how people react when it does.
posted by magdalemon to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are you wondering about small appliances, or regular appliances? A cooking range is just a standard appliance, not a "small appliance", which general refers to mixers and toasters and the like.

That said, this is not a common phenomenon, at all. Especially with something like a range, this would only be the result of a serious problem, and if it happened regularly, would result in a recall. I wouldn't worry about this at all.
posted by brainmouse at 10:58 AM on April 17, 2014

nope, never heard of this in 58 years. your "spontaneous combustion" tag suggests you may have confused this with a separate, quite real phenomenon; compost in a heap or oily rags in a closet can heat up to the point of ignition.
posted by bruce at 11:00 AM on April 17, 2014

I worked at a place where the coffee machine/s would turn themselves back on after being turned off for the night, but that place was allegedly haunted. I would say laughably low or lower.
posted by vrakatar at 11:08 AM on April 17, 2014

I should have clarified that I am also interested in the spontaneous combustion of objects that are plugged into an electrical outlet, if that ever happens. I'm aware that it is a separate phenomenon but I'm fascinated that something could power itself on and heat up without direct human intervention.

@brainmouse, the articles I found after Googling included "oven range" in their lists of small appliances like toasters and coffeemakers, so I figured it counted as a small appliance.

And this is a space that I rent from elderly landlords; I'm guessing that any recall would have gone unnoticed by them. I didn't choose this oven/range and lack any paperwork about it or its purchase. Just fwiw, and thanks!!
posted by magdalemon at 11:10 AM on April 17, 2014

> have you ever experienced a small appliance spontaneously turning on

My typewriter once started typing by itself. It was the kind with a memory (this was in the 1980s) and I presume something had made it spit out whatever was stored in there. Unfortunately I didn't think to check the ribbon, and there wasn't any paper in it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:11 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

We have a central vacuum cleaner with various outlets spread around the house. They're all connected together by low-voltage wire and when an outlet is open and the hose plugged in, a circuit is completed and the central unit, located in the garage, turns on. There are also a couple of "electric dustpans", little slots along the baseboards that you can open with your toe to sweep dust into, where it is then sucked into the vacuum.

Last year, the system turned itself on and wouldn't shut off. We had to unplug the power to the main unit. It took me a couple hours of troubleshooting. All the outlets and dustpans were good. Eventually I narrowed it down to one of the wires going to one of the dustpans. The wire was in the wall and I had to run an entirely new wire to fix it. So obviously something shorted out the wire but I'll be damned if I can figure out what did it. Nothing had been nailed in or changed, we don't have roaches or rodents and there's no way our cat could have gotten to it.

So that's a long winded way of saying "sorta." Sometimes shorts happen and things turn on.

I've never heard of a stove turning on by itself, though. The only way I could think it could happen is if it wasn't turned off properly, with the knob in that little area between "low" and "off" where just a little tap could turn it either way.
posted by bondcliff at 11:15 AM on April 17, 2014

My dad's house had this stupid X10 system where lights and outlets would turn on and off according to a preset pattern which slowly degraded over time and at one point we had lights that we literally could no longer turn on and had to rip the wall apart to find the transmitter. For a while there was a shopvac system in the basement that was plugged into an outlet that would activate sort of randomly every few weeks. You'd come into the house and it would just be running. However, this was a system that we knew to be installed and knew to be breaking in this specific manner. Ovens do not turn on by themselves generally speaking. It's super dangerous and you can Google all you want for oven and rangetop failure modes but "Turn on spontaneously" is really not one of them.

where I figure out whether it's worth it for me to return home and move the placemats

No. Irrational concerns that you may have left the oven on or that there is going to be an uncontrollable event that will burn the house down are more often the sign of intrusive thoughts that can be part an anxiety disorder. This is much more common than random oven malfunctions. If this is a larger-scale problem that you have about other topics, I suggest seeing a doctor. Otherwise just check oven recall notices, this is not one of their failure modes.
posted by jessamyn at 11:25 AM on April 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I once was awakened from a deep sleep by my stereo blasting No Doubt in the middle of the night.

Never did find out why that happened. I attribute it to a poltergeist or an incubus.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:32 AM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Growing up, we had a little combo radio & 3" B&W television which would sometimes turn on even when unplugged -- that is, the television tube would sometimes show a picture, and sometimes just have a glowing dot in the middle of the screen, and the speaker would play the audio of whatever it was tuned to. This would happen every couple of months or so, and it would continue playing even after you unplugged it from the wall.

I used to think it was haunted / spooky but now I just suspect that the capacitor was discharging, possibly due to faulty circuitry.
posted by gauche at 11:34 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Clear flammables off the rangetop" is in general a good thing to do. It's on my mental checklist when I leave the house, just as a matter of caution, or house-hygiene or whatever. But I don't think you should return home over this today.
posted by sageleaf at 11:35 AM on April 17, 2014

Yeah, there's issues of something shorting out in the appliance or wiring to the appliance, but I wonder if the more common case is someone left the appliance on, or accidentally bumped the power switch to turn it on, rather than anything spontaneous.

eg our coffee maker switch can easily be bumped when putting plates on the counter (rim of plate lines up nicely with switch) and if that happens, the plate edge covers the "on" light. So the only notification is when you smell the hot-plate.
posted by k5.user at 11:36 AM on April 17, 2014

I, uh, leave flammable stuff on my stovetop all the time. It's a terrible habit because I have a cat and a kid who might accidentally turn it on, or I might toss a towel onto the stovetop when it's still hot from cooking, but so far, my house is still standing.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:38 AM on April 17, 2014

Ovens do not turn on by themselves generally speaking.

I own an oven which randomly turns itself off while baking, and also will sometimes randomly engage part of the 'self cleaning' mechanism (engaging the door lock) while we're cooking. (It doesn't seem to bring the oven up to the cleaning temp when it does this, but it does make the warning noise.) The GE guys have been out a few times but because we can't reproduce it they can't tell us what's wrong (and, honestly, I don't think they believe us). My mother is convinced that this will burn the house down some day.
posted by anastasiav at 11:48 AM on April 17, 2014

An unused toaster oven in a former house once activated itself in the middle of the night and scorched the wall behind it. We hadn't been using it in the previous 24 hours. I assume it was some kind of short. I imagine this isn't a common phenomenon. Clearly, in our case, this could have lit the entire house off if my wife hadn't woken up and wondered why it smelled like something was cooking.

Now I often unplug unattended appliances that have the capacity to burn my house down.
posted by itstheclamsname at 12:13 PM on April 17, 2014

There was a BBC documentary about Spontaneous Combustion, where it is scientifically researched and explained. Really interesting.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:13 PM on April 17, 2014

We recently had an above-stove microwave that turned itself on multiple times (to "pizza" setting!). We only actually used it once (not for pizza), and then just had to unplug it after witnessing its independent spirit. We had the landlord replace it.
posted by just_ducky at 2:28 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Back in the day, devices used to be controlled by switches or buttons which had to be physically thrown. You could still have a short, or a switch failure, but these were comparatively rare.

In our modern world of digitally-controlled-this and touchscreen-that, who knows? These days many of your devices are never really "off" as long as they remain plugged in; they're just in a passive standby mode. But should the control software contain an error there's nothing preventing them from changing modes without warning.

I wouldn't recommend you immediately flee back home to check on your stove. The odds of anything happening on this individual day are very low. But neither would I make a habit of leaving flammables on top of the stove in the future. And, though this should go without saying, regularly test to check that your smoke alarms are working.
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:31 PM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

A couple months ago, our TV turned on in the middle of the night. Then it turned off. Then it turned on again, scaring the crap out of us, because we were upstairs sleeping and it was 2 am, and it was downstairs turning itself on and off like someone was sitting down there screwing with it.

But, I will be honest. I think the events were related to the combination of a large, overweight black cat who thinks he owns this place, and the TiVo running out of buffer after he somehow slept on the remote.

Also, the only time the range turned itself on without our intervention was also almost certainly cat related, and is the reason all the knobs now have child safety devices installed.

Do you have cats? Are your cats like ours, which is to say, TROUBLEMAKERS? If not, your placemats are probably fine.
posted by instead of three wishes at 8:17 PM on April 17, 2014

I shared a hotel room for a conference with a coworker who religiously unplugged her hair dryer and curling iron every morning after using them. On my side of the sink I was blithely leaving things plugged in. When I commented, she told me that her mother had had a serious house fire from caused by a hair dryer that was left plugged in and off. So there's that.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:24 PM on April 17, 2014

I have had inkjet printers make noise when turned off but still plugged in and the automatic door opened when no one had pushed the button. I attribute it to some kind of power surge and wouldn't worry about appliances managing to start up and start fires.
posted by amapolaroja at 10:13 PM on April 17, 2014

To be sure, there have been consumer alerts along these lines, such as this from last year: Microwaves that turn on by themselves

The CPSC provided us with 70 reports about KitchenAid microwave ovens, and 41 of them detailed incidents in which the ovens apparently started by themselves or caught fire while not in use.

So it's not impossible -- it's a design flaw, and ideally will be caught by the recall process.

Right now I'm dealing with the fact that my dehumidifier has been recalled because the Chinese manufacturer (it's GE branded!) has a controller that can start fires -- in thsi case whlie operating -- but we're talking about single-digit numbers of fires with perhaps hundreds of thousands of units out there before they began the recall. (As is typical with recalls, the real danger is the folks who don't pay attention to the fact they have a faulty product.)

So, sure, keep on top of this information. There are people who carefully disconnect their electronics, turn off their water heater, and unplug their washing machine hoses just in case the worst might happen while they're on vacation. That's never been me.
posted by dhartung at 11:18 PM on April 17, 2014

I did have an oven that turned off when running and sometimes turned on spontaneously. It was a modern model, and the electronics were getting eaten by cockroaches. This was mentioned in the warranty, but the manufacturer sent someone to swap the electronics anyway, probably because it was a safety hazard.
posted by Tobu at 12:30 AM on April 18, 2014

I had a radio-controlled car as a child, that suddenly started driving by itself. But not only that, a man's voice could be heard coming out of it. Turns out our neighbor was an amateur radio freak and my car picked up his signal...
posted by edlundart at 11:43 AM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I do remember horror stories from my grandma about house fires started on vacations by toasters left plugged in. We do unplug the small appliances like toasters, mixers, toaster ovens but leave the big ones plugged in: microwave, oven, refrigerator.
posted by amapolaroja at 12:50 PM on April 18, 2014

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