Lithium Batteries Are All Around You—And They Can Catch Fire

Lithium Batteries Are All Around You—And They Can Catch Fire
These common items you may have in your home contain lithium batteries that can catch fire and explode. The danger is far greater than you might imagine. (Tim Carter/Tribune Content Agency)
5/12/2023
Updated:
5/12/2023

This might be the most important column I’ve written in my 30 years as a syndicated columnist. There’s a very high probability you have lithium-ion batteries in your home. They are now as common as ants at a summer picnic. You need to understand the danger to your home and to you and your loved ones.

Six months ago, a home near mine burned almost to the ground because power tool lithium-ion batteries ignited a fire. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in the fire, but lithium batteries are causing death and permanent injuries to many across the country and the world. That fire caught my attention, and I decided to begin to gather information for this column.

Early in my investigation, I reached out to the public relations person of a major power tool company here in the USA. I’ve dealt with this professional for years, and all of my previous requests were answered in a timely manner.

I asked to interview the top battery engineer to try to discover what might have gone wrong at my neighbor’s house. The PR professional ignored my request. I made a second request, reaching out to a different PR person from the company. That request was also ignored.

I’ve done expert witness work in lawsuits for the past three decades and surmised the corporate attorneys had instructed the PR folks to not engage the press on battery issues. The silence should concern you.

Early in my investigation, I set up a Google Alert using the words “lithium battery fire.” Each morning, I receive links to a plethora of stories from around the world about fires caused by these power packs.

Many of these stories share a few common elements. Many fires happen while the battery is being charged. Many fires are traced to replacement batteries that may or may not carry the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) label. Many fires have mismatched batteries and chargers. In almost all cases, the batteries explode like a miniature bomb, igniting nearby combustible materials.

I’ve watched countless videos showing batteries igniting and exploding violently. Get out of your head the image of a scented candle starting a blanket on fire. Replace that with an image of a powerful firework exploding spraying sparks, hot plasma, and flames out like a blowtorch.

Add to this that a lithium battery fire emits extremely toxic fumes. The fire can produce temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees F in seconds. Nearby combustible materials such as furniture, carpets, bedding and so forth can ignite, creating a conflagration in seconds.

As I was writing this column, I received my daily summary from Google and there was a video made by the UL Fire Safety Research Institute showing an explosion and fire inside a simulated residential two-car garage. The battery was in “thermal runaway,” an uncontrollable, self-heating state. The heat in the battery caused a violent explosion that blew the large garage door out into the driveway!

The fire department experts offer up these tips about how you can best protect your home and family. Once a battery is charged up, unplug it. Charging a lithium battery creates heat. Avoid overnight, unsupervised charging. Never charge a lithium battery in direct sunlight, as the sun’s infrared rays can easily heat the battery on its own to over 150 F.

If your battery gets damaged, emits an odor, changes color, or gives off excessive heat, stop using it and do not store it near any combustible materials.

Never throw away a lithium-ion battery in the trash. Garbage truck fires are becoming more common. Fires at trash and recycling transfer stations and facilities are causing millions of dollars in damage.

You can protect yourself by using lots of common sense. First and foremost, read the instructions that come with the tool or product and follow them to the letter. Only charge your lithium batteries when you can observe them. Consider charging the batteries on non-combustible surfaces and far away from combustible materials.

I urge you to set up your own Google Alert. Go to YouTube and watch a video titled “Examples of Lithium Battery Fires.” Watch other videos, too. Consider installing a fire sprinkler in the area where you do store your lithium battery tools and garden implements. If a lithium battery does ignite, the sprinkler should do a great job of containing the fire until firefighters arrive.

Tim Carter is the founder of AsktheBuilder.com. He's an amateur radio operator and enjoys sending Morse code sitting at an actual telegrapher's desk. Carter lives in central New Hampshire with his wife, Kathy, and their dog, Willow. Subscribe to his FREE newsletter at AsktheBuilder.com. He now does livestreaming video M-F at 4 PM Eastern Time at youtube.com/askthebuilder. (C)2022 Tim Carter. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.