SOME PEOPLE are afraid of electric blankets. Afraid that they'll catch on fire in the middle of a deep sleep. They'd rather huddle under 10 layers of sheets, blankets and quilts than plug in an electric blanket.
Some basis for worry exists. In one year (1978) there were 2,200 fires believed caused by electric blankets. As a result, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is studying new standards for electric blankets.
An estimated 61 percent of American households -- 75 million households -- have electric blankets.
According to CPSC's public information specialist Tamara Young, the staff studying electric blankets has recommended that Underwriters Laboratory (UL) standards be upgraded to diminish the risk of fire hazards. Electric blankets are made of man-made materials such as acrylic and polyster, since their melting points are higher than that of cotton.
Robert Van Brundt, manager of Public Information and Education Services with UL, which sets the standards for such products, says "Yes, we are reviewing our requirements for the electric blanket, as we do periodically for all products. Right now we're gathering suggestions from electrical inspectors, government officials, the manufacturers' reps and others. All of these will be evaluated. No one particular problem has arisen -- we're examining the entire blanket."
Following the instructions that accompany the three leading electric blanket manufacturers: the Essex Group, Northern Electric Co. and Fieldcrest Mills, Inc.
Among the items that UL and the CPSC are taking a closer look at are:
1. Increasing the number of thermostats in each blanket, for the better temperature control. Electric blanket thermostats operate like a sprinkler head in an office building. They're sensitive to overheating, and if the wires are overheating they're supposed to stop the flow of electricity. The turn-off point is between 145 and 150 degrees F. "Presently," says Paul Shook, marketing manager of the Essex Group, "the blankets for a double bed have nine. We're working on one that will have 12." (Essex's king-size blankets have 18 thermostats now, but will have 20.
2. Changing the material used in thermostat construction to something that can be machine-washed and still work. The blankets can be washed now, but the thermostat in some is sometimes subject to failure. At present, the thermostat contains a linen fiber insulator and is a bi-metal thermostat, meaning it has two metals of different heating points. When one heats up, the other bends.
3. Enlarging the outer portion of the conductor cord, known as the "flexure." The flexure joins the blankets to the electrical cord.
4. Relocating the thermostats in some blankets so they can be folded without over heating in any one spot.
5. Selecting new materials for the industry and UL to use in testing electric blanket use in beds. At present cattle hair is used to simulate bedding material. Most mattresses and pillows today are made of foam rubber and polyurethane foam.
"Customer misuse," says Shook, "is the most common cause of blanket fires. I think we've got a good and safe product. If I didn't think it was safe, I couldn't sleep at night with that on my conscience." "The problem," continues Shook, "is that a lot of people get up in the morning, pull the blanket off, take a shower and then throw their pajamas and a newspaper on the blanket -- all the while forgetting to turn the blanket off. This bunched condition can result in a fire. As we continue to improve on the blanket, we hope to make the product 'idiot proof.'"
"The electric blanket has a resistance wire that generates heat as a by-product of resisting the electrical current. If the heating wires are overlapped for more than eight hours, particularly in a closed room, the wires will overheat," says Shook.
"Many people think of the electric blanket as just another blanket, not like the electric appliance that it is. Would you go out and leave your iron or toaster on?," says Camille O'Neal, manager of Community Relations for Fieldcrest.
And, warns John Kennedy, vice president of marketing with Northern (which has been in the electric blanket business the longest of all three firms), never let your cat or dog sleep on a turned-on blanket. "If they decide to snuggle on top of one of the thermostats, this can shut down the thermostat. Although this won't cause a fire, it will prevent the blanket from functioning."
With the energy crunch, the electric blanket may become even more popular. Van Brundt of UL thinks that the energy conservation movement will generate more interest in the electric blanket than ever before. After all it's cheaper than heating the entire bedroom."
Northern's Kennedy agrees. The blankets can even help you conserve your own energy. "Contrary to popular belief, the blanket doesn't heat you up. Instead, it helps you retain your body heat at its normal level. You consume energy all night long, even while you sleep. By making you comfortable immediately, you toss and turn less, thereby using up less energy."
Northern Electric also makes electric mattress pads, which must be used with the same care as the blankets. Kennedy says they're ideal for backs and "a lot of older people tell us that they like it because it helps their circulation." The mattress pad requires less voltage than the blanket. Kennedy thinks that the idea for the electric mattress pad, which Northern has been producing for 20 years, began in Europe.
'Overseas, 90 percent of Europeans sleep on top of electric blankets. They turn on the blanket before getting into bed, and once it's heated up the bed, they turn it off and hop in. By turning it off, they save on energy, stay warm, and the heat helps dry up the humidity."
In the Washington area, we found that only the Hecht Co. sells the pads: A twin pad is $39.99; a full, $59.99; and a queen, $69.99. There are no king-size pads.
Taking the following precautions when using an electric blanket or pad should keep you warm and safe this winter:
1. Don't bunch the blanket, which allows the wires to overlap and then overheat.
2. Don't tuck the wired area of your blanket under the mattress. The thermostat will shut off.
3. Turn off when not using.
4. Don't permit your pets to sleep on the blanket.
5. Don't use your blanket in front of an open window. The cold air will cause it to be too warm.
6. Don't use the blanket near a heating system -- if it's too hot, the blanket will not operate. The blanket is set to warm up at room temperatures that are below 72 degrees.
7. Don't use the blanket with an infant, an invalid or someone who is insensitive to heat.
8. Don't use it with a bedspread or quilt over the top or folded across the foot of the bed.
All electric blankets now come with a similar set of insructions. But when the first blankets were made, chances are no such list was available. In fact, the first electric blankets were not made for home use but for medical purposes.
Back in the 1920s, claims John Kennedy of Northern, a popular therapy used by the medical world for tuberculosis patients was to have them sleep outside in the fresh air -- with an electric blanket wrapped around them! The blanket was wired to a generator that was run from the nearest building. And what if it rained? "I trust they threw off their blankets and made a mad dash indoors!" said Kennedy.