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Recall: Millions of surge protectors could cause fire

Schneider Electric recalled 15 million of its SurgeArrest surge protectors (series APC 7 and APC 8) made before 2003.
Source: U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission
Schneider Electric recalled 15 million of its SurgeArrest surge protectors (series APC 7 and APC 8) made before 2003.

Sometimes it takes long while for a company to recall a potentially dangerous product. Case in point: a major recall of some very old surge protectors.

Schneider Electric just announced a recall of 15 million of its SurgeArrest surge protectors (series APC 7 and APC 8) made before 2003. The company warns they can overheat, smoke and start a fire.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said the company had received

  • 700 reports of overheating and melting;
  • 13 reports of injuries, including smoke inhalation, and burns from touching the overheated device;
  • 55 reports of property damage, including a house fire that caused $916,000 in damage and a fire in a medical facility that caused a loss of $750,000.

A report filed on the CPSC public database details an incident that took place Dec. 24, 2011, involving one of the now-recalled Schneider units:

By the time I reached the top of the stairs smoke was filling the room and I saw my girlfriend standing over the surge protector while it was on fire. Fire was coming from the open outlets and had actually melted through the bottom.

The room was filled with black smoke and burn marks were on the wood floor. The surge protector appears fine on top but actually has a hole melted through the bottom.

The APC SurgeArrest surge protectors involved in this recall were made in China and the Philippines. They were sold at Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, and other stores nationwide from 1993 to 2002 for between $13 and $50. The devices plug into the wall and are supposed to protect electronics from power surges.

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If you have one of these recalled surge protectors, unplug it right away and contact the company for a free replacement. You can call Schneider Electric IT Corp. toll-free at (888) 437-4007 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday. Or go to http://recall.apc.com to submit a claim for a free replacement.

Why the delay?

The CPSC's recall notice raises an obvious question. Why did it take so long for Schneider Electric to act? How could it have received more than 700 reports of problems—including fires and injuries—without issuing a recall?

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In a statement to NBC News, the company said these "rare incidents" took place in "certain unusual circumstances" in less than 0.01 percent of the product models included in the recall.

"In all but a fraction of these cases, the inquiry was resolved with no property damage and the consumer was provided with a replacement product," the statement said. "We brought this to the attention of the CPSC after undertaking a review of product complaints over the last 20 years. ..."

We could not reach anyone at the CPSC, as its public affairs office is closed because of the government shutdown.

But in its recall notice, the commission said it is still interested in receiving reports of incidents or injuries directly related to the SurgeArrest models being recalled or that involve a different hazard with the same product. You can do that at SaferProducts.gov.

Play it safe

Any electronic product can fail, especially as it ages, or if it's abused or misused. Nearly half of all fires in the U.S. involve some type of electrical malfunction. That's why it's so important to be alert for the warning signs.

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"If you smell something or feel something that's extremely hot, stop using it and find out why it's acting up," said John Drengenberg, director of consumer safety at Underwriters Labs.

And if you feel it's a safety issue, file a report with the Consumer Product Safety Commission at SaferProducts.gov.

—By CNBC contributor Herb Weisbaum. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @TheConsumerman or visit The ConsumerMan website.