Honolulu Fire Department warns of danger with lithium-ion batteries, offers safety tips
The department wants the public to know that while lithium-ion batteries are safe to use, problems can occur if the batteries are defective, damaged or mishandled
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
HONOLULU — As many shoppers purchase gift items such as cellphones, laptop computers and electric tools during the holiday season, the Honolulu Fire Department is warning the public about potential dangers tied to lithium-ion batteries found in those items.
As many shoppers purchase gift items such as cellphones, laptop computers and electric tools during the holiday season, the Honolulu Fire Department is warning the public about potential dangers tied to lithium-ion batteries found in those items.
While lithium-ion batteries are safe to use, problems can occur if the batteries are defective, damaged or mishandled, such as by overcharging, Capt. Jonathan Darr of the Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials Unit said at a news conference held this week at the Kakaako Fire Station. Such cases can touch off a chemical reaction called “thermal runaway " that occurs when a lithium-ion battery cell enters an uncontrollable self-heating state, Darr said.
Thermal runaway can cause the battery to reach extremely high temperatures and produce a lot of toxic, flammable gases that might appear as white smoke. “This could result in intense fires, " Darr said.
He advised, “If a battery is overheating and you notice an odor or a change in shape or color or leaking or odd noises from the device, then it’s possible the device is going into thermal runaway.” At that time, Darr said, if possible, move that item away from anything that could catch fire and call 911.
The Fire Department recommends charging devices with lithium-ion batteries outside of the home or in well-ventilated areas.
In late November a blaze erupted at a two-story Monte Street home in Kalihi after an electric bike being charged in a bedroom caught fire. The bedroom was also used as a storage room.
Honolulu firefighter Kamehalani Ortiz, who investigated the fire, said, the e-bike was surrounded by combustibles. “Once that ignited, it started a chain reaction that was very difficult to stop.”
Five people who were in the home at the time safely escaped after smoke detectors alerted them to the blaze. The cause of the fire was determined to be accidental due to thermal runaway of a lithium-ion battery in the e-bike. Damage to the home and its contents was estimated at more than $170, 000.
In a time frame of nearly three years—January 2020 to Dec. 12—the Fire Department responded to 386 building or structure fires. Of that figure, 167 were accidental fires, 58 of which were caused by lithium-ion batteries. The count of battery-caused fires jumped from 10 in 2020 to 23 in 2021, and 25 so far this year.
Experts recommend e-bike owners not leave an e-bike unattended while it’s charging. Also, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for charging and storage, and do not charge an e-bike overnight.
“Just having an ounce of prevention is going to save everybody a pound of pain, " Ortiz said at the news conference.
LITHIUM-ION BATTERY SAFETY TIPS
The Honolulu Fire Department offers the following lithium-ion battery safety tips:
- When purchasing a device, make sure it has the Underwriters Laboratories mark, which shows the product has been safely tested.
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for charging and storage. Always use the cord and power adapter made specifically for the device.
- Do not charge a device under a pillow, on a bed or near combustibles.
- Keep batteries /devices at room temperature. Do not place in direct sunlight.
- Store batteries away from anything flammable.
- Do not toss loose lithium-ion batteries in the trash. HFD recommends contacting the Honolulu Department of Environmental Services’ Refuse Division at 808-768-3201 for instruction on proper disposal.
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