By Ben Slater
Fridge backs and fires. Find out about the differences between metal and plastic backing and how to use your fridge safely.
Following our campaign against fire-risk fridges, new British safety standards designed to make these appliances safer were introduced on 11 July 2019. Fridges with flammable plastic backs do not meet this new standard, so manufacturers are effectively banned from making them. While this is a positive, if overdue, development, it remains legal for retailers to sell fire-risk models that have already been made.
Your fridge is one of the most hard-working appliances in your home, but one that you probably don’t think about too much once you’ve plugged it in and turned it on. That said, your fridge is one of only a handful of electrical appliances that is constantly switched on, so it’s worth being in the know about the latest on fridge safety.
Fridge backing material can increase the spread of fire
All refrigeration appliances need insulation to keep cool. This insulation is flammable, so it's essential that it's sufficiently protected in the event of a fire. The backing that protects this insulation is currently made from either plastic, metal or aluminium laminate, depending on the make and model of refrigeration appliance you buy.
At Which? we aim to recommend the best products for you to buy. With this in mind, we continually monitor and vary the assessments that underpin our reviews to take account of changing standards and areas of concern.
Our tests have revealed that plastic backing can be highly flammable. Watch our video above to see what happens in a fire.
We are therefore not recommending any refrigeration appliances that have flammable plastic backing. All ridges with this backing have been made Don't Buys regardless of how else they performed in our chilling and freezing tests.
Read more advice on how to buy the best fridge.
In September 2017, we called on manufacturers to immediately stop producing refrigeration appliances with flammable plastic backs. Since then, and in the apparent absence of any action from the newly created Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), we’ve been conducting fire testing on refrigerator backings.
So far, we’ve tested backing samples from more than 80 refrigeration appliances, across every refrigeration brand that we have on our website. We applied an open flame to each sample, and any product that was unable to withstand the flame for 30 seconds has been deemed unsafe and has been made a Don’t Buy.
Hundreds more products have also been made Don’t Buys because the manufacturer either confirmed, or our own research indicated, that the backing on these products was identical to a product we tested and found to be unsafe.
Should I worry if my fridge is plastic-backed?
If you already own a fridge with a flammable plastic back, you should be reassured that the likelihood of a refrigerator fire is very low. Our March 2018 research analysing government fire data found that only 8% of fires caused by faulty household appliances were caused by fridge freezers, fridges or freezers. It's important to note that the material used in the backing can allow an existing fire to spread - it isn’t the cause of fire itself.
How can I tell if my fridge is metal or plastic backed?
It can be extremely difficult to work out whether your fridge has a plastic back.
One way to find out what the back of your appliance is made from is to check if your fridge is one of those featured in our Which? reviews. If so, the material of the back panel should be listed in the technical specifications section of our fridge reviews. Alternatively, you can consult our tool below.
If the model you're looking for isn't in our tool above (or for any reason you can't see our tool, or it's not working for you), you can check all of our Don't Buy fridges to see those models currently on sale that we've made Don't Buys. If you still can't find it, we recommend contacting the manufacturer of the appliance.
However, as we have said above, if you own an appliance with a flammable plastic back, the likelihood of a refrigerator fire is very low, and the material used in the backing can allow an existing fire to spread – but it isn’t the cause of fire itself.
More fridge safety tips
To minimise the risk of fire in your kitchen, take the following precautionary steps:
- Refer to your appliance manual to ensure recommended distances are kept between your refrigeration appliance and the wall and to ensure there are no other obstructions that can restrict airflow.
- Make sure vents are not blocked and the area around your appliances are kept clean to prevent the build-up of dust and grease.
- Plug your refrigeration appliance directly into the wall rather than using an extension lead, and ensure the sockets are not overloaded with too many plugs.
- If your white goods start making a strange noise, don't ignore it. If you suspect there might be a problem, always unplug it and contact the manufacturer or a qualified repair technician.
- Don't be tempted to put that freezer in the hallway – if a fire does break out in your home, you need all escape routes to be clear.
- Fit smoke alarms: white goods are often left switched on 24 hours a day, seven days a week; a smoke alarm will wake you up if a fire happens while you're sleeping. You should fit a minimum of one smoke alarm per floor and fit enough alarms to cover all areas where a fire could start, making sure they are tested regularly.
- Fit a heat alarm in your kitchen – this will give you early warning of an increase in temperature caused by fire but won’t be set off by cooking fumes.
- Register your appliance – by registering your appliance, you'll be informed if the manufacturer identifies any issues with the product you have bought.
- Be careful with refrigerant. Refrigerant used in fridges, freezers and fridge freezers to extract the heat from the device. In modern appliances, it's used in very small quantities, but it is highly flammable and so needs to be treated with care. With this in mind, be careful when transporting a refrigerator and don't plug it in if it looks damaged in any way. To reduce risk of refrigerant leaks, don't defrost the refrigerator using anything sharp.
- Be careful if you're thinking about using a big refrigerator in a small room. In a small room with a big refrigerator,the proportion of refrigerant to normal air could get too high in the unlikely event of a leak, so will make the air more flammable. Common advice is to have 1 cubic metre of room volume for every 8g of refrigerant used in the appliance. The amount of refrigerant can be found on your refrigerator's rating plate. Your manual will tell you where to find the rating plate.