Smash tests, fire suits and indoor tornados: How UL’s controlled mayhem makes the world safer

The Muppets have Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and UL has John Drengenberg.

“Never put foil in a microwave,” Drengenberg said as he picked up a large, crumpled section of tinfoil and placed it in a white microwave. He set the timer for five minutes and hit start, triggering an impressive light show and sci-fi sound effects that made my fillings tingle. Still, my inner eighth grader leaned forward, wide-eyed.

Looking up from the lightning storm, Drengenberg saw my expression and chuckled. “Hey, don’t do as we do, do as we say.”

UL's John Drengenberg leans into a high-speed fan capable of simulating tornado-grade winds.
UL’s John Drengenberg leans into a high-speed fan capable of simulating tornado-grade winds.

At UL, it’s not just gleeful, don’t-try-this-at-home mayhem for the sake of curiosity or killer dinner party stories. It’s serious science, testing and inspecting and auditing and certifying and validating to help ensure that the things humans use every day are safe. UL places its mark on 22 billion products, systems and materials each year; the average American home has at least 125 objects with the UL mark, from drywall to fire extinguishers and lamps to mattresses.

Some are vaguely aware of what it means when a beard trimmer or printer is adorned with a little circle containing the letters “UL.” Others have no idea there’s a company out there with the sole purpose of making the world safer.

Bob Jamieson in UL's “rain room,” where waterproof products are tested.
Bob Jamieson in UL’s “rain room,” where waterproof products are tested.

“Whether people realize it or not, the UL mark is everywhere. It’s around you at home, on your commute, at work, at the gym, even at your campsite in the middle of nowhere,” said Bob Jamieson, information security director for UL. “For 120 years, the UL mark has adorned everyday items, large and small. The mark indicates one very important thing: The product has been rigorously tested and certified for safety.”

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