It's the household acronym: UL. The ubiquitous circular logo is estimated to appear approximately 100 times in the typical home, on everything from lamps to televisions, to fire extinguishers.
But who is UL? And what, exactly, does UL do?
UL stands for Underwriters Laboratory, an outfit founded in 1895 and alive and well in 2012. Yet, UL's role in product safety is largely behind the scenes.
With little (or no) fanfare, UL test thousands of products every single day.
"We're happy to be under the radar," said John Drengenberg, a longtime UL Engineer.
Drengenberg escorted us on a backstage tour of UL's gargantuan world headquarters. Although some of the space is devoted to ordinary offices, much of the UL footprint is dedicated to lab space.
In one room, shower nozzles are aimed directly at an outdoor lamp.
"Water and electricity do not mix," Drengenberg said.
Within a scientifically controlled environment, technicians simulate ordinary rain. Various products are doused for an hour. The pass/fail test is straightforward.
"If there's any water inside, it's a failure," said Drengenberg. "It's that simple."
UP TO SNUFF
A towering warehouse reveals a burn chamber. Its charred, blackened brick walls are an eerie that the risk is real.
"We're looking for danger," Drengenberg said.
Former Chicago firefighters regularly set fires to test extinguishers. Drengenberg said it's vitally important for consumers to know their extinguisher will always be ready.
The firefighters douse a pan with accelerant, torch it, and quickly back off. As the flames rise, one remarks that they see more flame in one week at UL than an entire career with the city.
After a few seconds of roiling, leaping flames, one of the firefighters moves in. He aims the extinguisher at the blaze and fires.
"We're looking to see that there's enough extinguishing agent," Drengenberg said.
Here again the test is binary: If the fire easily goes out, the extinguisher it receives the UL mark.
Mattresses are the most haunting simulation. Using a Bunsen burner, a mattress is gently set on fire—allowing the flames to grow in a slow but sinister march across the pillow top.
"This can be very deadly," said Drengenberg.
Manufacturers sent the mattresses here for an objective once-over. Those who don't attend the fire in person can usually watch via a live video link.
Asked how often beds are test, Drengenberg offered one word: "Constantly."
AK-47 FOR SAFETY
In what could be the most unusual and most dangerous task of them all, the odor of gunpowder peppers the air. Every so often, a gun shot rings out.
"I'm a ballistics expert," said technician Derek Gardner, a former Army ranger.
"I test glass, Kevlar, steel," he said. But Gardner doesn't have a gun – per se. Bullets are shot at various products via a makeshift gun.
To demonstrate its raw power, Garder screens in a wide mouth barrel and loads an AK-47 into the chamber.
He screams, "Firing!" And pulls handle that looks like it belongs on a lawn mower.
A chunk of glass shatters, creating an oddly artistic spider web pattern. But Garder's test does not hinge of the glass itself. Instead, he is interested in two slices of cardboard that are placed about a foot behind the glass.
Gardner is looking for fragments.
"That cardboard is simulating your eyes, your face. Or anything behind the glass that's being protected he said."
Tests like Gardner's, as well as a thousand others help make products of all kind as safer.
"We can't count the people that we've saved, but we know we have," said Drengenberg, the UL veteran, "And it's really a good feeling."