The Consumer Product Safety Commission and General Electric Appliances are voluntarily recalling 3.1 million GE and Hotpoint dishwashers because they are fire hazards.

The commission and GE are urging consumers to immediately stop using the dishwashers, made between April 1983 and January 1989, and keep the doors unlatched to prevent any electrical current from going to the defective heating switch.

The switch is a sliding one that allows consumers to select between "heat drying" and "energy saver," or air drying. Over time, the switch can deteriorate, melt and ignite, CPSC officials said.

Consumers should not try to repair the dishwasher but should get it replaced, officials warned.

"It can flame suddenly," said CPSC Chairman Ann Brown. "If you close the door, latch it, run the dishwasher and then go to bed, it can go into flame while you're asleep. As long as the door is latched, it can unexpectedly burst into flames."

The CPSC said it has 50 reports of fires; of those, seven spread beyond the dishwasher, and in three cases a house or apartment was damaged. There were no injuries or deaths.

GE, which also makes the Hotpoint brand, is offering a rebate on the recalled dishwashers, ranging from $25 to $125.

The $25 rebate--plus a one-year service agreement--would be given to consumers who buy a non-GE product. The $125 rebate is for GE's top-of-the-line dishwasher, Profile Performance, which costs between $400 and $550.

"The parts are not made anymore, so repairing it was not an option," said Kim Freeman, program manager for marketing media for GE Appliances.

Freeman said GE thought the rebates were fair because most of the dishwashers were "beyond their useful life," which she said is normally nine to 11 years.

"This was the best deal we could get for consumers," said Brown, who added that she would have preferred it if GE had agreed to repair the dishwashers, which she said would have been feasible even though the parts were no longer made.

"GE refused to do it, and unfortunately, under the law, they have the right" to select the remedy for any recall, Brown said.

According to Brown, GE first learned of fires in the late 1980s but didn't report them to the CPSC until November 1998. "That could be a problem," Brown said. She noted that federal law requires manufacturers to report any safety problems promptly to the commission, which she said will investigate the delay.

Freeman said GE reported the problems to the CPSC as soon as it realized the switch could be defective. With the company making 12 million appliances a year, she said, a report of a fire "can seem like an isolated incident."

"Not until there were several situations" did the company realize there was a problem, Freeman said. "We acted immediately when we realized there was a problem."

Freeman said the 3.1 million dishwashers being recalled are a "very small sampling" of the dishwashers made between April 1983 and January 1989.

The recall affects dishwashers with the model numbers GSD500D, GSD500G, GSD540, HDA467, HDA477 and HDA487. These models are affected if the second letter of their serial number is an A, M, R, S, T, V or Z. For more information, consumers can call 1-800-599-2929 or check GE's recall site on the World Wide Web (www.geappliancerecall.com).