Hot, Hot Heaters

June 22nd, 2014

When I was seventeen I took my driving exam.  The car I drove was memorable, it was a 1980 AMC Spirit.  It was great in that it was mine, but in hindsight I confess it was close to rolling landfill.  In the passenger seat sat my examiner, a nice guy, professional, he carried a clipboard.  All professionals carry clipboards, as you know.  Well, my driving test went smoothly and I proudly became a certified motorist. 

But not all such tests go smoothly.  What if I showed up drunk for my road test?  What if I hit three pedestrians?  And two of them were nuns.  And the third was a cop?  Wouldn’t that make it harder for the examiner to pass me?

Consider this quote: “Any engineer can fail a product, it takes a good engineer to pass a product.”

It is indeed easy to fail students who clearly fail their tests.  Passing them in defiance of their failures is harder.  Some would call it fraudulent.  So how is failing a failure merely the expected mediocrity of “any engineer,” whereas passing a failure is the mark of a “good engineer”?  Good question.

The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) tests new consumer products for safety and, if the products pass, the CSA certifies that they’re safe and the manufacturer is then allowed to sell them.  On one occasion, one of CSA’s testing contracts involved a new type of space heater, suitable for home or office use, and for both indoor and outdoor locations.  All such heaters require rain tests and shock hazard testing and they all need an automatic tilt switch, so the heater turns itself off if its tipped over. 

The CSA engineer responsible for testing this new heater was Mr. Moamar Mustafa.  RestoreCSA readers will remember Mustafa, he’s CSA’s in-house gentleman of liberties with regard to testing.  Anyway, Mustafa started through the testing protocol with thermocouple testing.  Basically, a thermocouple test is a temperature range test, to see how hot the heater actually gets, to see whether it runs within a safe temperature range.  So what were his results?

A number of sources have advised RestoreCSA that there were no results whatsoever from Mustafa’s tests.  “Mustafa did not thermocouple the components as was required, therefore there was no thermocouple record, no temp data, he had no way of knowing what the actual temperature was.”  This didn’t slow him down much.  “Mustafa told the client that the heater had failed its tests, sent it back.” 

You see, the CSA had an informal policy in its testing facility that every new product should fail the first test, that way the CSA can charge twice for the same certification.  So by this standard, the first test didn’t need any actual testing per se, the product was predetermined to fail for financial reasons.

Manufacturers are generally aware of these practices but there’s not much they can do about them.  Its just a cost of doing business.  Safety certification is mandatory, the CSA is unavoidable, so double charging is a sort of tax that everyone grumbles about but eventually it gets paid.

With the heater, the manufacturer merely “advised Mustafa that they had fixed the problem.”  That’s interesting too, by the way, because the “problem” hadn’t been identified by CSA, and the client likewise declined to identify the “problem” that they fixed.  Regardless, “Mustafa accepted the clients statement and recorded the untested unit as tested and issued the certifications.”  Lovely. 

This space heater was therefore passed without any temperature testing, which is awfully important for heaters, and neither was the heater subjected to any rain testing or shock proofing for child hazards.  Bluntly, there was no safety testing at all of this apparently safety tested product.  That’s bad enough, but you know the really bad bit?

The heater had no tilt switch.  None.  Friends, this is a basic.  A safety tilt switch on this type of heater is like wheels on a car, there’s nothing optional about it.  Without the tilt switch, if the heater tips over it’ll keep heating whatever its resting on, be it your carpet or hardwood floor, things that will start catching fire.  So what happened?

“The units were catching fire in the field.”  Oh dear.  “Well what do you expect,” one whistleblower ranted, “Mustafa skipped all of the testing, certified them anyway.”  And this was all being done to bump revenue, its what CSA management wanted from Mustafa.

It all comes back to the attitude that “any engineer can fail a product, it takes a good engineer to pass a product.”  That’s a quote from Rick Fort, by the way, a leading CSA engineer in Ohio.

It seems that the rot at the top is pretty pervasive.  According to HR, in the year of the space heater “Mustafa got an extra $1,000 in his bonus for turning in high profits.”  Heart-warming, isn’t it?