Here’s a home mystery we’ll bet will leave you either sweating in fear or scratching your head: Why would a refrigerator explode?
It seems far-fetched, yet in West Palm Beach, FL, Mark Ligondie recently woke to a huge kaboom in his kitchen. When he rushed in to see what had happened, he found his family’s 4-month-old fridge in smoldering pieces.
“The fridge exploded, and if you look at this angle right here, it expanded and expanded so much it bent the metal of the stove,” he told WPTV-TV. “There were fumes coming everywhere.”
Ligondie also found large cracks in ceilings and walls, and a broken window in the master bedroom—evidence that the blast was strong enough to damage the whole house.
Luckily, Ligondie and his family were uninjured by the explosion, but others haven’t been as fortunate. In 2015, Samantha Thomas from Wales, England, was killed when her refrigerator exploded and engulfed her apartment in flames. In 2017, 72 residents in Grenfell Tower in London lost their lives after a faulty fridge caught the entire apartment complex on fire.
While refrigerator explosions are still rare enough that their frequency is unknown, Neil Everitt, former editor at air-conditioning and refrigeration magazine ACR News, dubs these occurrences as “ignored disasters” and views fridges as one of the most dangerous appliances in a home. The reason: While a fire caused by a stove or other appliance is usually preceded by smoke or a beeping alarm, fridge explosions happen spontaneously and without warning, leaving residents unprepared.
So how, exactly, can a fridge explode?
Refrigerator explosions explained
If you take a look behind your fridge, you’ll see something resembling the radiator of a car. This is your fridge’s compressor, and it’s key to keeping your fruits and veggies cold.
The compressor contains a motor and pump, which push a gas refrigerant (freon in old fridges, tetrafluoroethane in newer models) through coils, where the gas cools down and becomes a liquid, soaking up heat in the fridge and freezer, and cooling everything inside.
So how can it all go wrong? Sometimes, as the gas refrigerant moves through the compressor, the back of a fridge can get extremely hot. This causes the compressor’s coils to contract, and the gas can become trapped. If this highly flammable gas is not able to properly vent it builds up and can eventually burst through its enclosure.
Most modern refrigerators are now backed with metal that includes a heat shield to prevent fires, but older or cheaper models may use a plastic backing. The plastic is highly flammable and, if ignited, can cause fires that develop quickly and powerfully while giving off toxic gas.
How to prevent a fridge explosion
While there are few clear warning signs before a fridge explosion, one thing you can do is keep an eye (or rather an ear) on your refrigerator’s compressor.
According to Wayne Archer, an appliance expert at Sears Home Services, when the fridge is on and working properly, its compressor creates a steady, high-frequency humming noise. But if your fridge makes a choppy sound or, even worse, no noise at all, the coils could be clogged.
“The easiest way to save your refrigerator is to clean the condenser coils,” Archer says. (Here’s more on how to clean refrigerator coils.)
Another option? Invest in a new refrigerator. Older appliances can pose an explosion hazard because they’re often overused and may lack modern safety features such as self-regulating heating elements.
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