California safety alert: house furnaces recalled : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Headline: Thousands of Furnaces Recalled; Defective attic units, blamed for scores of fires in California, will be replaced or repaired. Move follows probe by The Times.

Source: Los Angeles Times, 10 July 2001


Defective attic furnaces blamed for scores of home fires around California in the last decade were recalled Monday, meaning that tens of thousands of the potentially hazardous units can be repaired or replaced at the expense of the distributors, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced.

The recall and a pair of recent class-action legal settlements promise relief for homeowners who have units made by now-bankrupt Consolidated Industries. Many consumers had balked at paying $2,000 to $3,000 to replace the furnaces, even though they had been warned that the aging units could overheat and touch off fires.

The federal consumer agency, which knew about the problem furnaces for years but failed to warn residents, will recall about 30,000 units, roughly one-fifth of those made by Consolidated Industries and installed in attics around the state from 1983 to 1995.

As part of the action, seven companies that distributed Consolidated units in the state will voluntarily repair or replace the gas-fired attic furnaces, sold under at least 30 brand names in parts of Northern and Southern California.

Reports by federal safety engineers who tested the furnaces show they cause fires because of alterations Consolidated made to comply with California's regional smog control rules. The problem furnaces were installed in air quality management districts in Southern California and the Bay Area.

The recall comes about 10 months after a Times investigation revealed that thousands of California residents were unaware that they owned defective attic furnaces believed to have caused at least 50 fires in the state since 1990. Investigators said the furnaces are virtually guaranteed to fail, particularly after they have been in use for a decade or longer.

No deaths or injuries have been reported, but the furnaces ignited dozens of fires at both ends of the state, including a blaze in north Tustin that destroyed a Ferrari and a closet full of evening gowns and another fire that so traumatized a Porter Ranch family that they sought counseling for months.

The Times stories prompted hundreds of calls from consumers, including one who said a heating and air conditioning contractor commented that his furnace would have acted like "a big blow torch" in his attic if he had turned it on last winter.

The consumer safety agency issued a warning on the same day the Times story ran in September. The agency, which knew about the faulty furnaces since the mid-'90s, said it didn't issue a warning earlier because it was trying to negotiate an agreement with Consolidated to finance a recall.

When the company declared bankruptcy last year, it wiped out any hope of such an agreement. The agency has been negotiating with various Consolidated distributors for months to reach the recall settlement.

"We've entered into this voluntary action because we believe if people have a Trane label on their unit they should have real confidence in it," said Jeff Bleich, an attorney with Munger, Tolles & Olson, which represents the Trane Co. Trane distributed about 10,400 Consolidated furnaces in California.

Fire inspectors and heating and air conditioning contractors said they were heartened by the recall, after years of fielding questions from hundreds of consumers anxious about the safety of their furnaces. But they said it may take years to be rid of all the problem furnaces.

"It's a start," said Michael Freige, a senior fire inspector for the Torrance Fire Department, who has led the charge to inform Southland residents about the faulty appliances. "But I can guarantee in the next couple of winters the fire service and the insurance industry will receive phone calls and inquiries from startled people who say, 'I've never heard about this problem.' "

The recall includes 30,000 attic furnaces distributed by Amana Co., Bard Manufacturing, Carrier Corp., Goettl Air Conditioning Inc., Goodman Manufacturing Co., Heat Controller and Trane Co.

The units all have devices known as NOx rods, or steel rods installed on top of the burner to absorb greater amounts of nitrogen oxide. Investigators found the rods increase the temperature inside the furnace, eventually warping the burner and surrounding parts, allowing the flame to escape.

The recall program offers free inspection and furnace repairs to homeowners who have Consolidated furnaces distributed by the companies. As part of the safety agency's recall, consumers can elect to have parts of their furnace replaced or have a new unit installed. Homeowners will be required to pay installation costs.

The distributors also have agreed to repair any heat-related damage found adjacent to furnaces at no cost to homeowners.

The recall covers furnaces with various heating capacities. In the past, the consumer safety agency said it didn't have any data to indicate that smaller furnaces--with ratings of 50,000 BTUs or less--presented a fire hazard. BTUs, or British thermal units, are a measure of energy: the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water 1 degree Fahrenheit.

To participate, homeowners must fill out an inspection request form that can be obtained on the Web at or by calling (877) 347-6456. Inspectors will follow up on the calls.

About 120,000 Consolidated furnaces distributed directly by the company under the brand names Premier and Consolidated are not covered by the recall because of the company's bankruptcy.

Attorneys representing California homeowners in a class-action lawsuit filed against Consolidated in 1994 hope to help those homeowners replace their units or recover costs. A hearing on the case is scheduled at the end of this month.

For consumers who have already had their furnaces replaced, a recent settlement will offer a measure of relief. Settling a portion of suit filed against several Consolidated distributors in 1994, the Amana Co., Bard Manufacturing, Goettl Air Conditioning Inc. and Trane Co. will reimburse homeowners up to $450, said Rob MacDonald, an attorney who represents California homeowners in the class-action lawsuit.

In yet another settlement agreement, Addison Products Co., which is no longer in business, has set up a $7-million fund for residents who own attic furnaces distributed by the company, MacDonald said. These homeowners will be reimbursed $600 to $700.

Consumers who want to file a claim with any of those distributors should call Richard G. White Inc., the law firm handling the litigation, at (408) 808-1410.

Since information about the faulty furnaces was widely distributed for the first time last fall, many homeowners have balked at shelling out the $2,000 to $3,000 to replace their units. Some chose to use their furnaces sparingly last winter, with disastrous consequences.

Faulty attic furnaces caused at least three fires last winter, including a blaze in the attic of a vacant Torrance condominium that was ignited after a carpet cleaner inadvertently turned on the unit to dry the carpets. The blaze caused $50,000 in damage.

The revelation about the furnaces has shaken many homeowners' faith in their neighbors. The furnaces were often installed in entire subdivisions and condominium complexes. Some homeowners willingly replaced their units, while others refused to do so, sparking disagreements between neighbors.

This has made the faulty attic furnaces a hot topic at many homeowners association meetings in the Southland. The Community Assns. Institute will hold a panel discussion informing consumers about how to resolve problems with the furnaces on July 17 at the Marriott Hotel in Irvine. About 250 people are expected to attend.

In reaction to the recall announcement Monday, homeowners who own Premier furnaces said they aren't holding out hope they'll receive reimbursement any time soon.

"What are we doing?" said Torrance resident Fred Virrazzi, who plans to replace his Premier furnace this fall. "We're beating a dead horse here--there's no one to sue."

-- Andre Weltman (, July 10, 2001

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