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Explosion Hazard Results In Repair Program For 600,000 LP Gas Water Heaters Following Settlement Of Penalty At $420,000

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Recall Date:
December 04, 1980

Recall Details

December 4, 1980  
Release # 80-042

WASHINGTON, D.C. (December 4) -- A nationwide recall program to repair more than 600,000 LP gas water heaters which may pose an explosion hazard -- and the largest civil penalty settlement ($420,000) in the agency's history -- were announced today by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The recall program involves LP (liquid Propane) gas water heaters which contain a thermostat manufactured by the White-Rodgers division of Emerson Electric Co. of St. Louis, Missouri. The water heaters were sold between 1961 and 1980 predominantly to rural homeowners by the A.O. Smith Corporation of Kankakee, Illinois, and by Sears, Roebuck and Co. of Chicago, Illinois, and by other manufacturers and retailers. A.O. Smith manufactured its own water heaters during this period and sold them through plumbing wholesalers and contractors; the Sears water heaters were manufactured by State Industries.

Sears or A.O. Smith LP gas water heaters containing White-Rodgers thermostats produced between 1964 and 1976 have been involved in 23 explosions involving five deaths and 16 serious injuries to consumers. These accidents have occurred from 1968 through 1980.

Typically it appeared that during the life of the product the pilot gas control knob of the thermostat became damaged so that the safety valve became stuck in the "open" position, allowing LP gas to escape.

Liquid propane is heavier than air; therefore, in the event of a leak, LP gas can accumulate near the floor (rather than escaping up through pipe vents) and explode from a variety of ignition sources, including an electric spark.

In settlement of its alleged failure to report promptly these explosions to the Commission as required by law, White-Rodgers has agreed to pay $420,000. This is the largest such amount ever collected by the Commission.

The Commission voted 4-to-1 to approve the replacement program and the amount of the settlement on the civil penalty. Commissioner Edith Barksdale Sloan has prepared a written dissent from the majority decision which will be available through CPSC's Office of the Secretary. While more than 800,000 of the White-Rodgers thermostats were manufactured and distributed for use in LP gas water heaters since 1961, the company believes that an estimated 600,000 currently remain in water heaters still in use by consumers.

Thermostats produced from 1961 to 1976 were installed in LP gas water heaters manufactured or sold by A.O. Smith and Sears. Thermostats produced by White-Rodgers from 1976 through 1980 had different pilot gas control knobs and were installed in LP gas water heaters manufactured by A.O. Smith, Rheem Manufacturing Co., the W.L. Jackson Manufacturing Co., and State Industries. These water heaters were sold by Sears, Montgomery Ward Co., and a variety of plumbing supply outlets.

The post-1976 thermostats incorporated into water heaters manufactured by State Industries, A.O. Smith, Rheem Manufacturing Co. and W.L. Jackson Manufacturing Co. do not contain the pilot gas control knobs involved in the explosions described above, and are being replaced solely to meet certain "state of the art" standards met by the current White-Rodgers thermostats.

A total of 56 different brand names of water heaters manufactured by the above-listed companies are being covered by the recall program. This recall program is expected to cost the comuanies which signed the agreement with CPSC anywhere from $5 million to $9 million during the next year, although they recognize that this figure does not represent a ceiling on the potential cost of the program. A list of the brand names is attached to this press release.

Following negotiations with CPSC staff, White-Rodgers agreed to mail safety alert notices to all the identifiable users of LP gas in the United States -- or an estimated 15 million households. Each notice will describe the White-Rodgers thermostat which is eligible for replacement. If consumers believe that their water heater contains one of the potentially hazardous thermostats, they are instructed to telephone a toll-free hotline at White-Rodgers headquarters (800-325-9589) to arrange for replacement with a new, modified thermostat free-of-charge to consumers. (Residents of Missouri, Alaska or Hawaii should call the company collect at 314-631-9321).

The current thermostat being manufactured by White-Rodgers contains a pilot gas control knob and collar which are substantially more resistant to damage during the life of the product than prior models. In addition, the current thermostat contains a gas inlet filter which White-Rodgers believes will prevent the possibility that contaminants which might be contained in LP gas lines could interfere with the operation of the thermostat safety valve.

In its notice, White-Rodgers will inform consumers using LP gas that they can obtain replacement thermostats by calling the toll-free number, by contacting LP gas dealers or, in appropriate cases, by contacting the service departments of water heater manufacturers. All LP gas dealers also are being notified of the replacement program and are being offered by White-Rodgers a finder's fee for locating each White-Rodgers thermostat eligible for replacement and a separate service fee for each new, modified thermostat installed.

The new thermostats are to be installed by Sears service representatives and by other qualified service representatives working under an arrangement with White-Rodgers. This replacement program does not cover any gas water heaters manufactured or sold by A.O. Smith, Sears or the other companies which are fueled by natural gas, since natural gas water heaters are not believed at this time to pose a safety hazard.

The agreement between the Commission and the companies states that the replacement program is being conducted because it is in the public interest to minimize any possibility of injury due to White-Rodgers thermostats used in LP gas water heaters. The companies have stated that they do not admit that any violation of the Consumer Product Safety Act has occurred. In addition, in agreeing to settle the penalty claim, White-Rodgers has stated that it does not admit that it committed a violation of any reporting requirement applicable under the Act.

CPSC staff learned of the problem with White-Rodgers thermostats in LP gas water heaters in February, 1980, when the company notified CPSC of several incidents involving explosions and informed the agency that it planned to conduct a corrective action program. In agreeing to the settlement, as in all such settlements, the Commission has not made and does not hereby make any determination that the thermostats contain a defect which creates a substantial risk of injury to the public.

Consumers wishing further details on the replacement program may call CPSC at the agency's toll-free Hotline, 800-638-2772.

Trade Names Of Water Heaters Possibly Having White-Rodgers Thermostats


A. O. Smith Co. Sears Rheem MFG. Co. W. L. Jackson MFG. Co. State Industries

A. O. Smith
American Standard
Arcoglas Classic
Energy Saver 5
Energy Saver 10
Fuel Saver 1
Gas 1
Gas 2
Gas 3

Honor Bilt
Sears (series ranges from 15 up to 600)

Right 10
Right Miser
Right Miser 10
Montgomery Ward (models 33032, 33158, 33166, 33376)

Big O
Plum Easy
Tip Top

Imperial Citation
Master Service



Picture of the Agency Seal and Location

In the Matter of

Emerson Electric Co., a corporation;
A.O. Smith Corporation, a corporation;
and Sears, Roebuck and Co., a
CPSC Docket No. 80-C0005
No. 80-C0006
Dissent Of
Commissioner Edith Barksdale Sloan


I am dissenting from the action of my fellow Commissioners in their acceptance of the Consent Agreement and Order, and the press release in the matter of Emerson Electric Company and others involved with the allegedly defective thermostat manufactured by White-Rogers Division of Emerson Electric Company for liquid propane (LP) gas water heaters. I am not opposed to a nationwide recall program to repair LP gas water heaters which may pose an explosion hazard, nor am I opposed to the civil penalty settlement figure of $420,000 for Emerson's alleged untimeliness in reporting the alleged explosion hazard. I am opposed to accepting Emerson's characterization of the problem ("typically it appeared that during the life of the product, the pilot gas control knob of the thermostat became damaged...") without Emerson's having provided the Commission their engineering data to verify this theory of the cause of the alleged explosion hazard.

The fact that the Commission has not made an independent hazard determination troubles me because this lack of a determination appears to be predicated solely upon the acceptance of Emerson's explanation for the 23 explosions involving five (5) deaths and 16 serious injuries. Emerson has only this year reported these events to the Commission, despite these incidents having occurred during the years 1968 through 1980.

While I am always in favor of refinements in consumer products which make such products safer for consumers, Emerson is replacing post-1976 thermostats (page 2, Majority Press Release) "to meet certain 'state-of-they art' standards met by the current White-Rogers thermostats," while at the same time alleges that these post-1976 thermostats did not contain the allegedly defective pilot gas control knobs involved in the above described explosions. This gratuitous move on the part of Emerson raises serious questions in my mind because quite possibly there are other thermostats manufactured by White-Rogers which could be updated to meet "state-of-the-art" standards which are not being updated and which have no more relationship to the alleged hazard brought to our attention by Emerson this year than (by their own disclaimer) do these post-1976 thermostats which they are now replacing. I also am given pause by the fact that this gratuitous replacement is to provide a fuel filter in the thermostat, while the lack of such fuel filter has not been identified by Emerson as a possible hazard. It is my sincere hope that the absence of such filter does not later prove to be a reportable problem.

I am truly concerned that the, small belated amount of information provided the Commission by Emerson points to a violation of our timeliness requirements, and again I am concerned that the Commission has, as in the case of the failure to make a hazard determination, failed the public which has a right to know not only if a hazard exists, but has a right to such knowledge in a timely fashion as prescribed by our laws.

It should not be overlooked that:

"This replacement program does not cover any gas water heaters manufactured or sold by A.O. Smith, Sears or the other companies which are fueled by natural gas, since natural gas water heaters are not believed at this time to pose a safety hazard." [my emphasis] (Majority Press Release, page 3)

I trust that any future failures will be more promptly reported if they occur.

Picture of the signature of Edith Sloan, Agency Commissioner 1980



Picture of the Agency Seal and location
Additional Statement By Commissioner Edith Barrsdale Sloan

As you know, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission has agreed to a settlement of $420,000, the largest in its history, with the Emerson Electric Company of St. Louis as a penalty for the company's failure to report in a timely manner five deaths and 16 injuries associated with failures of LP gas water heater thermostats manufactured by a subsidiary the White-Rogers division.

I have attached hereto my official dissent from the Commission's majority opinion. However, beyond my official dissent I am impelled to emphasize my disagreement with my colleagues' reasoning and my objection to their willingness to accept and agree to a document into which its own staff had minimal input.

The Commission staff has excused its failure to do little or practically no independent engineering investigation of the alleged failure, its causes or the efficacy of the fix on the grounds that it is not necessary to know the fine details just so long as the fix takes place. I could not disagree more with this indifferent approach. To reach a considered judgement, it is my conviction that the Commission must have all the facts obtainable, not just those proffered by the manufacturer involved.

I also am astounded that the Commission would come to an agreement with Emerson (or anybody else) which would throttle the Commission's right to address any issue related to any alleged defect unless the right to do so is specifically delineated (at paragraph 21) in the Consent Agreement. Such a stipulation precludes the Commission from exercising its clear duty to inform the public of data which may have a direct bearing on its health and safety and which its members have an unquestioned right to know and which the Commission has a statutory and moral right to disclose. It is understandable that any company would strive to minimize the bad publicity that might result from the recall of one of its products, but it is unconceivable and totally unacceptable to me that a United States agency whose statutory mandate is to protect the health and safety of the public from harmful consumer products would agree to anything that would in any way attempt to exercise prior restraint on what it could or could not say to the Americans at risk. The agreement with Emerson does just that.

As my official dissent makes clear, I have grave reservations about the kind and amount of information supplied by the Company regarding the alleged reasons for the thermostats' failures. As one Commissioner, I ask -- even challenge -- the Emerson Electric Company to release to the Commission all the data they have that will support their contentions as to the reasons for the thermostats' failures. At the same time, I would urge the Commission staff to exert a concentrated effort on both the causes of the many explosions and the adequacy of the fix reported to the Commission by Emerson.

Until then, the Commission cannot accurately judge whether the alleged hazard has indeed been eliminated and the owners of 600,000 propane gas water heaters cannot be reassured.

Picture of the signature of Edith Sloan, Agency Commissioner 1980

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The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury or death associated with the use of thousands of types of consumer products. Deaths, injuries, and property damage from consumer product incidents cost the nation more than $1 trillion annually. CPSC’s work to ensure the safety of consumer products has contributed to a decline in the rate of deaths and injuries associated with consumer products over the past 40 years. Federal law bars any person from selling products subject to a publicly announced voluntary recall by a manufacturer or a mandatory recall ordered by the Commission.
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