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Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly

Episode 122: Space — the final business frontier

Jul 16, 2019

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The company that makes sure appliances don’t explode

Gigi Douban Jul 12, 2016
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The Consumer Products Safety Commission warned that all hoverboards should be UL certified after the toy's recent recall. 
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Some half million hoverboards were recalled last week after almost 100 incidents of batteries catching fire or exploding. And the Consumer Products Safety Commission warned that all hoverboards from here on out should be UL certified. What is UL, and how did it come to be?

I went around downtown Birmingham, Alabama, asking people one question: Have you ever heard of UL or UL certified?

Most had not.  UL stands for Underwriters Laboratories, as two people in the know (read: the insurance industry) pointed out. The rest of us have only a vague notion, if any, of what this company does. The fact is, UL is all over your home.

“We estimate there are about 125 UL marks in the average American home,” said John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for UL. The company is based just outside of Chicago and has 94 laboratories around the world. In those labs, testers make sure your television doesn’t explode, your toaster oven doesn’t spark, your hair dryer doesn’t melt your scalp.

This company started with lights, 122 years ago. 

“There was a World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. And as you know World’s Fairs highlight the new innovations of the day,” Drengenberg said.

At the time, it was the light bulb. But there were no electricians, so prepping for the fair, workers would slap up some lights and just nail wires into the wall. Of course, there were fires everywhere. The promoters got nervous, and they called in an expert from Boston. “His affiliation was the Board of Fire Insurance Underwriters,” Drengenberg said.

That was William Henry Merrill, who later founded UL. Today, the company tests more than electrical stuff. There’s an entire room at UL where every day testers burn roof shingles over and over. UL develops safety standards along with manufacturers and the government, and tests for them. About 22 billion UL marks land on products every year.

But as Kenneth Ross, a product safety attorney pointed out, “The limitations of UL are that you can have a UL-listed product, but that doesn’t mean that it is safe.”

That just means the UL-tested component of the product is safe. Take the hoverboard battery, for example. The UL certified one might not explode, Ross said, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still hover your way right into a wall.

 

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