Buyer beware. Many of today’s most popular electronics — including Tesla cars, e-scooters and smartphones — are powered by lithium-ion batteries, because they can store large quantities of energy in a small space.
If used correctly, these products are harmless. Many are laboratory tested to be safe, and have functions that can detect when they have received enough juice to hold a charge.
It’s a modern marvel to use the internet from almost anywhere in the world using a portable device and the push of a button, or travel to work without the impact of harmful carbon emissions. But no product is without its faults. As more and more of us come to rely on these batteries for energy, the potential for fires — and in some instances, even explosions — increases.
The growing popularity of micro-mobility products like electric scooters and bikes has created some concern, particularly in New York City, where, in the past year, more than 200 fires were started by lithium-ion batteries, killing six people and injuring nearly 150 others. But the trend extends beyond the boroughs.
Last September, a woman died in Hempstead in a fire caused by a lithium-ion battery. Another home burst into flames in Rockville Centre in January.
“It has absolutely been a problem here on Long Island,” James Hickman, Nassau County’s assistant chief fire marshal, said. “With lithium-ion batteries, when they fail, they burn very quickly, and very hot . . . and will ignite nearby combustibles.”
The biggest concern about the batteries, according to fire officials, is the use of after-market batteries and chargers. They are typically not manufactured to the same safety standards as name-brand products.
In order to prevent such fires from occurring, Nassau County firefighters recommend purchasing batteries and chargers from reputable companies, and always following their safety instructions. If they need to be repaired, make sure they are returned to the manufacturer, and only use the battery designed for the device.
It is important not to store electronics near anything that could catch fire or help a fire spread. This includes leaving laptops or other electronic devices on a bed. Even under the best circumstances, these products will get warmer, because the heat from the battery doesn’t have a chance to dissipate. That’s why, in the event that something goes wrong, it’s safer to keep them away from household items that are easily combustible.
And with summer approaching, it is highly recommended not to store any electronics in direct sunlight. Not only can this damage a device and cause it to fail, but it can trigger a chemical reaction known as a “thermal runway,” where the temperature of the battery increases faster and faster until it catches fire.
Another safety tip is to make sure not to charge electronics near your front door. This could cut off an entrance and exit in the event of an emergency.
Damaged lithium batteries are extremely volatile. They emit harmful gases that can speed up the spread of a fire, and in some cases even reignite one, making it challenging to extinguish.
“Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies,” Hickman said. “We have to charge everything these days.”
While the batteries themselves can be a fire hazard, plugging in too many devices at once — overloading the power supply — can exacerbate the danger. Surge protectors can be helpful in keeping this from happening, but they, too, can be ineffective if they’re off-brand or counterfeit. Plugging in certain electronics — particularly portable space heaters — is a leading cause of fires nationwide.
The National Fire Prevention Association recommends that you stop using a battery at the first sign of odor, change in color, overheating, change in shape, leaking or odd noises. If it is safe to do so, move the device away from anything that can catch fire and call 911.
To properly dispose of a lithium battery, do not put it in the trash. Take it to a battery recycling location, or contact community officials for proper e-waste disposal instructions. A number of retailers also accept these batteries for disposal, like select Home Depot, Walmart and Macy’s stores, according to state officials. Visit www.Call2Recycle.org/locator for more.
For more safety tips on lithium ion batteries, visit www.NFPA.org, or contact your local fire department.