West Seattle family says surge protector started fire



SEATTLE - Noel Bracelin of West Seattle is thankful her house is still standing and her family is safe after a device meant to help protect from electrical fires -- a surge protector -- apparently caught fire in her home.

Bracelin felt the company that makes the surge protector, Philips, wasn’t taking her concerns seriously, so she contacted KIRO 7 Consumer Investigator Amy Clancy.

 “It’s a funny thing,” Bracelin said. “Funny, because these are supposed to be surge protected, you know? And it wasn’t.”

But is it funny?

 “No, it’s not,” Bracelin said. “I could have lost everything.”

Even now, weeks after the incident, she said she wonders what could have happened had she and her husband not awakened in time to put out the foot-high flames she said were coming from her Philips surge protector early one morning. 

Bracelin said four electrical items were charging on the surge protector when the fire broke out.  She called the Seattle Fire Department, but told dispatchers not to send any firefighters because the flames had been extinguished. Then, she contacted Philips. She said she had difficulty finding someone at the Netherlands-based electronics company to take her complaint, but did eventually speak with someone. 

Days later, Bracelin said she received a letter asking her to send her "Sonicare" tooth brush --- not a surge protector --- back to Philips. 

“I don’t feel I should send it back,” Bracelin said. “I feel like I should put it out there for people to see, to understand that these don’t work all the time.”

Clancy asked forensic electrical engineer Doug Barovsky, of MDE, Inc. in Seattle, to examine the surge protector, which Bracelin said she bought last December. Barovsky investigates dozens of fires every year, and said a third of those investigations involve a surge protector of some sort.

In this case, he said he believes the problem was with the switch.

“That much loss of material, I would say, yeah, something indeed was probably burning,” he said. “The only area in which we have what we like to call anomalous electrical activity is right there at the switch.”

Which, Barovsky said, means “more likely than not, that the switch failed in some manner.”

As part of his investigation, Barovsky x-rayed Bracelin's surge protector and said he believes the default was most likely caused by a manufacturing defect on the made-in-China product. He said he believes it was most likely human error. 

“A bad solder joint, or something like that,” he said.

Asked if something within the surge protector failed, Brovsky said, “Yes.” Asked if it wasn’t the load on the protector as far as he could tell, Barovsky said, “Not that I can tell, no.”

Noel Bracelin said he came to the same conclusion just by looking at the surge protector.

"I believe it was a faulty switch because if you look where the damage is in the power strip itself, it all occurs in this surge protector switch, which is supposed to pop if you have too much power,” he said. “And it didn’t even do that. It just exploded.”

Barovsky said electrical devices, like surge protectors, do sometimes fail. But when they fail, he said they should fail safely. 

“If it does fail, it shouldn’t start a fire,” he said. “It should have stopped working and not overheated, and not caught on fire.”

In response, Philips said it is “committed to delivering an exceptional customer experience” and “would like to resolve this situation” but needs more information. The company said it also needs the surge protector, which KIRO 7 gave back to the Bracelins.

Barovsky said he didn’t do anything to damage the surge protector during his investigation, so it can be examined by Philips.

KIRO 7 will be following up to see if Philips does examine the surge protector, and if the company comes to the same forensic conclusion as Barovsky.

In order to learn more about how often surge protectors are involved in fires, Clancy has filed a public records request with the federal government.

For simple and helpful information on what to look for when you buy a surge protector to keep your home and family the safest, click here:  (SURGE PROTECTOR BACKSTORY)

Philips’ full comments on the Bracelins’ incident are below:

Thanks for reaching out regarding Ms Bracelin's claim. Philips takes consumer claims very seriously and we appreciate the opportunity to respond. I have reviewed the communications records for this case and I am happy to share them with you in full transparency. The details are included below:

  • 3/28/12 – Consumer contacted Philips call center to report the incident
  • 3/29/12 – Philips consumer care specialist contacted Ms. Bracelin and left a message asking for a return call.
  • 3/29/12 – A follow up email was sent to the consumer from “CLNAESCALATIONS” referencing the “Surge Protector” and the call we placed.
  • 3/29/12 – We received a call back from Ms. Bracelin who reiterated incident and collateral damage done
  • 3/29/12 – A claim form was logged in our system
  • 3/29/12 – The letter you attached, and a return label, was sent via certified mail to Ms Bracelin. The “Sonicare” reference was an unfortunate oversight on our behalf and we apologize for the confusion.
  • To date, we have not received the product back nor have we receive the photos that the consumer had taken of the incident.

Philips is committed to delivering an exceptional consumer experience and we would like to resolve this situation for Ms Bracelin, however, we need some additional information from her before we can move forward.

All of Philips’ surge protectors meet applicable safety and UL requirements. With regards to other incidents, we can’t provide any insight given that we do not have a model number for the product and we yet to receive the unit back from the consumer.

Please feel free to contact me with additional questions. We will also follow up directly with Ms. Bracelin.

Shannon Jenest
Director, Public Relations
Philips Consumer Lifestyle