Roll Tape: Why Being Cheap is Bad For Holidays

Underwriters Laboratories warns against uncertified products

Electronic gifts might be high on anyone’s shopping list, but is a bad economy forcing shoppers to look for cheaper, less safe products?

How do you know if the vacuum cleaner you’re buying is safe, or if the electronics in your lamp post can stand up to the rain?

At the Underwriters Laboratories in Northbrook, engineers are doing the testing for you on everything from hospital call buttons to curing irons.

This season, they are sounding the alarm on no-name, uncertified products.  To make sure products are safety tested, look for the UL label on them.  You can also search UL's online database to see if a product has required safety features.

"Consumers may shop at deep discount stores," said John Dregenberg, of Underwriters Laboratories. "We are asking them to be a little careful, and not to neglect looking for the UL mark."

To show you what can happen with products not made to UL standards, engineers disabled the UL-required safety systems in a common household hair dryer, then simulated what can happen if the vents are blocked.

In less than a minute, the barrel of the appliance erupted into flames and the plastic casing melted into a puddle on the lab bench.

"That's not what you want to have happen in you house," Dregenberg said.

At a Bucktown electronics store, the UL Label is easy to find on some items, but on others you may have to look.

"It's not so much the child's toy, but the counterpart that goes to it, the accessories.  Look for the UL seal on the back," Best Buy's Nicholas Perez said.

The Underwriters labs also test Christmas lights.  A red UL symbol on lights means they can be used outside.

Dregenberg said homeowners should check their lights as they are unpacked to look for cracked or broken sockets and frayed wires.

"If they don’t look good, throw them away. They are cheap, that's good insurance," he said.

That’s the kind of safety advice the engineers at Underwriters Labs have been providing since 1914.

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