Guide to lithium-ion battery fires and how to stay safe ⚡ 🔌
Emergency services are reporting increased cases of lithium-ion battery fires in the home. Here’s what causes lithium-ion battery fires, plus how to prevent them.
Many cordless appliances and electronics such as computers, laptops and e-scooters now use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. As a result, lithium-ion battery fires in the home are on the rise, especially in garage areas. Emergency services have a new focus on lithium-ion battery fires, and SES is rolling out new training to educate their volunteers about limiting and preventing these types of fires.
RACV Head of Home and Business Insurance Kirsty Hayes said RACV has been witnessing an increase in safety incidents involving lithium-ion batteries. “More than 450 fires across Australia have been linked to lithium-ion batteries over the past 18 months,” says Hayes. Between July 2021 and July 2022, Fire Rescue Victoria alone responded to at least 120 lithium-ion battery incidents, from small fires to house fires.
Here’s what you need to know about lithium-ion batteries and the risk of lithium-ion battery fires in your own home.
Lithium-ion battery fires: how to stay safe
What is a lithium-ion battery?
Lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable, energy-dense and long-lasting batteries found in many battery-powered household items. Lithium-ion batteries come in various shapes and sizes, but they are all rechargeable and usually have some variation of “Lithium” or “Li” printed on them.
What appliances are lithium-ion batteries used in?
Laptops, mobile phones, tablets, power banks, electric shavers, power tools, domestic appliances, e-scooters and e-bikes are just some of the many rechargeable items in your house that probably contain lithium-ion batteries.
“If you have purchased an e-bike or e-scooter that contains a lithium-ion battery, it is important to be aware of the risk that they can pose,” cautions Hayes. “E-bike and e-scooter owners should only purchase a reputable brand, store them outside, unplug them once they are charged, take care to avoid damaging them, and not leave them in hot environments.”
Lithium batteries, as opposed to lithium-ion batteries, are single-use only. They are commonly found in smoke alarms, digital cameras, television remotes, and some gaming controllers.
What causes lithium-ion fires?
Lithium-ion batteries can potentially overheat thanks to their high energy density, which can cause a cell inside the battery to short-circuit. The Country Fire Authority (CFA) Victoria advises that short-circuiting lithium-ion batteries can release flammable, toxic gases that may catch fire.
This triggers a chain reaction through the other cells in the sealed battery unit called a ‘thermal runaway’, where temperatures can reach highs of 500°C. You may see white smoke coming out of the battery or device at this point. The battery can then explode and shower burning fragments around the room, where they can set fabrics and furnishings alight.
Many larger lithium-ion battery-operated devices like e-scooters, e-bikes and power tools are left on charge in the garage for too long, where they can easily overheat, and the resulting fire can’t be picked up by a smoke detector. Objects like your car, petrol, paint and other common garage items are extremely flammable, leading to uncontrollable fires.
Sparks, flames and other violent behaviour is much more common if the battery is fully charged. That’s why it’s important to prevent overcharging by taking devices off charge as soon as, or even slightly before, they reach full charge.
In Australia, lithium-ion batteries and their rechargers must pass stringent safety tests to be sold, which greatly reduces the risk of lithium-ion battery fires. Even so, incidents can happen because of:
- Overcharging the lithium-ion battery
- Using an incorrect charging cable for the device or battery
- Exposing the lithium-ion battery to extreme heat sources
- Dropping, crushing, denting, puncturing, cracking, or otherwise physically damaging the lithium-ion battery
- Leaving the lithium-ion battery in fresh or salt water for a long time, causing corrosion within the battery
- Lithium-ion battery system faults, cell malfunctions, short-circuiting or manufacturing defects
Don’t leave charging devices unattended in your home and ensure you keep power boards and cables neat and tidy. Image: Getty.
How do you prevent lithium-ion fires from occurring in the home?
Use the appropriate charger
Many cheaper rechargeable devices have flooded the market in recent years, especially on marketplace websites. The CFA reports that using chargers with the incorrect power delivery (voltage and current) can damage lithium-ion batteries. A non-compliant charger may not ‘talk’ to the lithium-ion battery properly, so it will overcharge the battery rather than turning off when the battery is fully charged.
Make sure to only use chargers supplied with the device, or third-party chargers compatible with the battery specifications that are certified with the Australian Standards Regulatory Compliance Mark.
In addition, the CFA suggests only plugging in one device per outlet, keeping power boards and cables neat and tidy, and not using worn or damaged power cables.
Never overcharge your devices
Most importantly, avoid overcharging your batteries and devices. The CFA recommends disconnecting your device or lithium-ion battery from the charger once it indicates that it’s fully charged. Since there is a higher fire risk if you aren’t attending the charging device, avoid charging your devices overnight or away from home.
In addition, stop using the device if you notice an issue such as losing power on a regular basis, which might indicate that the lithium-ion battery is degrading.
Charge your devices in an appropriate location
Select an appropriate location in your house for charging. Consider placing them in your bathroom or laundry to charge, where it would be more difficult for a fire to spread. Don’t charge items in rooms without a working smoke alarm.
The CFA urges Victorians to keep charging devices off soft furnishings like beds, sofas, pillows, blankets, clothing, paper and carpet, all of which can easily catch fire.
You should also keep devices and appliances using lithium-ion batteries and charging devices out of direct sunlight and other heat sources.
Keep your smoke alarms maintained
Finally, keep your smoke alarms in good maintenance and make sure the battery is regularly checked by a professional. Smoke alarms are vital to saving lives in the event of a fire.
How do you safely dispose of lithium-ion batteries?
Lithium-ion batteries you want to dispose of are technically hazardous waste, since they may contain toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and other pollutants that could contaminate water supplies and ecosystems.
As a result, the CFA says that lithium-ion batteries should never be placed in your rubbish or recycling bin. In fact, they can even cause fires in household bins, garbage trucks and waste or recycling facilities.
Luckily, there are many places you can freely and safely dispose of old or damaged lithium-ion batteries thanks to B-cycle, Australia’s national battery recycling scheme. The scheme also keeps toxic materials out of landfill, where they could contaminate groundwater and soil. If safe to do so, place leaking or damaged batteries in a clear plastic bag before taking them to a disposal facility. Find your closest disposal location here.
The CFA advises to always use gloves or other hand protection before touching or moving leaking lithium batteries. Touching a leaking lithium battery with bare hands can cause severe burns. If you incur a burn injury, seek medical attention urgently.
How do you extinguish a lithium-ion fire?
Lithium fires require different extinguishing methods to a traditional fire. You should not attempt to extinguish a lithium-ion fire yourself, because the vented battery gases, vapours and smoke are highly toxic to inhale.
If your device or charger feels extremely hot to touch, or if you notice odours, leaking, case discolouration, blistering, bulging or swelling; or abnormal popping, hissing or crackling sounds emanating from a battery or battery-operated device, the CFA advises immediately turning the power off, unplugging the device from the power outlet and moving it outside away from anything that can catch fire (if it’s safe to do so). Then, evacuate the house and call 000 for a fire brigade. Even if there is no fire, the toxic fumes from a damaged lithium battery can be dangerous to inhale, and an overheated lithium-ion battery may reignite.
If smoke or flames start emitting from the battery or device, the CFA urges Victorians not to touch the device. Instead, evacuate the area and close doors as you leave (if safe to do so) to slow the spread of the fire. Call 000 for a fire brigade, advising the operator that it is a lithium-ion battery incident, and wait in a safe outdoor location for the emergency services to arrive.
This article was first published in RACV by Danny Baggs on 3 March 2023. Read article.
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