LOS ANGELES — Defective attic furnaces have caused dozens of house fires in California in the past 10 years but the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission was forbidden by law from warning consumers, the federal agency said Wednesday.
About 190,000 homeowners may have the furnaces made by now-bankrupt Consolidated Industries based in Indiana. The furnaces, sold only in California, were marketed under about 30 brand names from 1983 through 1994, agency spokesman Russ Rader said in a telephone call from Washington.
Brands included: Amana, Coleman, Kenmore, Premier, Sears, and Trane.
Homeowners may have to pay about $2,000 for inspection and replacement of a defective furnace.
Some homeowner insurance policies may cover that cost. However, “there is no way to provide consumers with repairs or replacements” until Consolidated Industries emerges from bankruptcy, Rader said.
The gas-fired, horizontal forced-air furnaces can be identified by steel control rods installed above the burners to meet California air quality regulations. Unfortunately, those rods can overheat, igniting combustible materials or wooden flooring in attics, where they usually are installed, Rader said.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission began investigating in 1997. The agency is responsible for warning about defective products, but it was prohibited by law from issuing such a notification.
“We are restricted in what we can say about an ongoing investigation. We can’t specifically discuss a company or brand name,” Rader said. “It’s Congress that imposes those restrictions on us.”
The agency also was unable to order a recall because the company went into bankruptcy and therefore was unable to pay for it, Rader said.
On the other hand, the bankruptcy allowed the commission to issue a public warning because “the company’s out of business,” he added.
“We continue to work on a possible recall” if the firm re-emerges, he said.
“The commission is always bound by its limited budget,” said attorney Rachel Weintraub of California Public Interest Research Group. “It’s always needing to balance what it can do to protect consumers and what it can afford to do.”
Damage ranges from a 1990 blaze in North Tustin that destroyed a Ferrari and ball gowns, to a $750,000 fire in Rancho Palos Verdes in 1995, to a $300,000 blaze in Porter Ranch in 1999. All three fires prompted litigation. Two cases were settled, while the Porter Ranch case is pending against a builder and Consolidated.
California homeowners filed a class action lawsuit in 1994 against Consolidated and four distributors: Addison Products, Bard Manufacturing, American Standard/Trane Co. and Amana Appliances. A Santa Clara Superior Court is scheduled to set a trial date in October.
Experts say that after eight to 10 years of steady use, the units become hazardous. A class action lawsuit was filed in summer by a Bird Rock family who contractors said could have died when carbon monoxide leaked from a malfunctioning furnace.
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