Large increase in lithium battery related fires over the last 6 years
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The Fire and Rescue Services in Vancouver, BC are currently issuing a warning to citizens to be careful when charging anything lithium/ion batteries. Battery related fires have increased five times since 2016.
The warning doesn't just involve electric cars but also smaller devices, like anything from cell phones, headphones and watches to e-bikes and e-scooters.
The number of battery related fire have increased five fold in only six years. This may seem like a surprising number, especially since lithium-ion batteries are technically safer and less likely to fail today than a decade ago.
The increase is really just a numbers game: the amount of appliances using batteries as a power source - rather than powered by a wall powered cable - is increasing, and the more batteries you use, the higher the risk. Just the popularity of battery operated drones alone in recent years have contributed greatly to more and more high capacity lithium-ion batteries being stored and charged in households around the world.
According to an article in the Canadian Global News, fire service spokesperson Capt. Matthew Trudeau in Vancouver said the majority of the fires have been associated with batteries in e-bikes, scooters and cell phones, though battery fires in laptops and other devices have also been recorded.
The issue is not at all unique to Canada: According to the article, in October, Consumer Reports found there had been 75 e-bike fires in New York City in 2021 alone, resulting in 72 injuries and three deaths, while the U.K.’s Evening Standard reports there were at least 130 similar battery fires in London last year.
Even though thermal events in these types of batteries are statistically unusual, when fires do happen the thermal development can at worst be very quick, sometimes even explosive in nature. However, a battery about to have a thermal event can often give you certain warning signs, such as swelling, bad smell, unusal heat or even a rattling sound when higher than normal off-gassing is about to happen.
Lihium-Ion batteries, when fully in fire, will usually burn very hot and can also pose other health risks due to toxic gases leaking from the batteries during and after the thermal event.
It is important, however, not to be afraid of the technology itself, but to familiarize oneself with some of the warning signs of a battery about to fail, and to get to know the "Do's and Don'ts" of charging them.
Cover Photo: In order to test safety of Li-ion batteries, a 18650 cell was exposed to force using a hammer, which lead to an explosion. Frame from the video clip below. Date 27 August 2019. Author: Tavo Romann
Wikipedia Commons Licence
Don't buy cheap batteries & chargers. Be watchful when charging!
The advice from the Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services is to always buy known brand name batteries, as many of the reported fires have involved cheaper knock off brands.
The photo below shows a battery which has been internally compromised by swelling up. Some offgassing may happen leading to minor swelling also in a healthy battery. If the battery is performing with high or normal capacity and is fairly new, it is probably ok. But if the battery has been weak for a while, is fairly old (more than two years) and it is very swollen up, it is time to replace it. Once replaced, it could still be dangerous even if it is not charging, so it is best to place it on a non combustible surface, preferably outside, in case chemical changes start occurring spontaneously.
Photo Credit: An Apple iPhone 3GS's Lithium-ion polymer battery, which has expanded due to a short circuit failure. The battery is shown in situ on top of the rear phone case; pictured behind is an intact iPhone 3GS for size comparison. Date: 15 September 2013. Author Mpt-matthew, Wikipedia Commons License.
There are also steps a person can take to ensure safe charging at home:
- Always use the original charger (other chargers may be more powerful and charge the battery too fast or with the wrong voltage)
- Never leave batteries near combustible items
- Never leave batteries unattended when charging
- Never try to charge a deformed or damaged battery
- Discard broken batteries at a recycle depot. Never try to repair them or tinker with them!
- Make sure you have working smoke alarms and a fire extinguisher at hand
- If a battery does catch fire, or starts to behave oddly, do not touch it as lithium-ion batteries can get extremely hot, give off toxic smoke, and can in some cases can explode
- If possible, charge larger items like e-scooters or e-bikes outside or in a well ventilated area
Thinking through the battery's exit path may save your home
Remember: The larger the battery, the larger the fire. A watch battery can indeed catch fire and explode, but unless it is or or near a combustible surface, it likely won't cause a house fire. However, a battery as small as a smartphone battery can be enough to cause problems, especially if left charging in a bed or on a cough.
A laptop computer usually contains quite large battery banks, and when it comes to electric vehicles, even toys as small as an electric skateboard, will have the potential for a large thermal event, and need to charged - and stored - in a safe place.
If a fire occurs, a fire extinguisher will inhibit the thermal event, but only total submersion in water - lots of water - will fully stop the fire (as the batteries produce their own oxygen when they burn).
The challenge can be to be able to move the battery into a safer spot, since they burn very hot and cannot be touched.
If you do not have a bucket or something else which the battery can be (quickly) submerged in, the second best option is to quickly remove it from your house. If the battery is inside a vehicle, move the entire vehicle, don't try to take the battery out.
If you need to remove a battery from somewhere, a shovel, a baking plate or something else non-combustible which can withstand high heat can be used to temporarily transport it. However, move it quickly and remember that metal can also worsen a potential short cut, so it is best to see to it that the thermal event can be allowed to run its course outside on concrete or on the ground - or perhaps worst carse on an open balcony (away from greenery or combustible materials).
Many RC pilots who experimented during the early days of lithium-ion batteries have reported saving themselves and their homes by thinking very quick on their feet: Sometimes the only solution may have been to kick the battery out a window or use whatever tool may have been at hand to move the battery to a safe(r) environment before the thermal event fully develops.