Under an agreement reached with a federal consumer panel, the manufacturer of a popular home heater has agreed to repair up to 3.6 million of the oil-filled portable electric devices after government research indicated that they pose a fire hazard.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is expected to announce the repair program Thursday. The safety commission has investigated at least 30 reports of problems with the heaters, manufactured by DeLonghi SpA of Italy, including malfunctions and fires.
Officials of the product safety commission refused to discuss their research pending an announcement of the repair plan today. But an internal commission memorandum says that electrical connections in the device's thermostats could fail and cause severe overheating.
At least 18 lawsuits involving the heaters have also been filed in the last four years against DeLonghi, some of them asserting that people have died as a result of fires caused by the heaters. None of the lawsuits involving extensive damage or fire deaths have yet to go to trial.
Officials of DeLonghi, an appliance manufacturer with headquarters in Treviso, Italy, said they do not think the units pose a safety risk. The company has declined to say how much the repair program will cost it.
The action involves electric heaters that were produced from 1980 to 1988. The heaters, which are shaped like radiators, became very popular because of the unusual design and because they operate more quietly than most portable heaters. vTC About 270,000 of the 3.6 million heaters made in those years carry the Welbilt or Sears, Roebuck & Co. brand name.
James McCusker, president of DeLonghi America Inc. of Carlstadt, N.J., the company's American subsidiary, said in an interview Tuesday that the company did not believe the devices posed a safety hazard.
Charles Samuels, a Washington lawyer who represents the company, said yesterday that a recent study of the heaters undertaken by Battelle Laboratories, a private consulting compa
ny in Columbus, Ohio, did not determine how the heaters might cause fires and could not reproduce fires in the units.
But Samuels said that the Battelle engineers speculated that a possible cause of failure might be improperly crimped wires leading to thermostats. Such connections, if not crimped properly, can cause a heater to get too hot and possibly start a fire.
McCusker said he believed that a problem, if one existed, was limited to a very small number of the company's heaters.
Under a plan that will be monitored by the commission, DeLonghi will send out upgraded control panels to owners of the affected heaters so they can replace the existing ones.
The problem heaters are beige or tan and can be identified by looking at a numbered sticker on the underside of the metal box that holds the controls. Serial numbers on the affected units begin with digits "80" through "88."
About 200,000 of the DeLonghi heaters involved in the repair plan were sold under the Welbilt brand and another 70,000 under the Sears name. They bear the serial code "816F" near the Underwriters' Laboratory seal on the side of the control box.