Batt, Portable, Laptop, Phone

Failing lithium-ion batteries in phones, laptops, cordless tools causing fires in homes every week

ABC Sunshine Coast / 

By Owen Jacques Posted Thursday 6 August 2020

Flames shown inside a structure at night
The scene of a fire in Dimbulah, west of Cairns, after a bank of lithium-ion batteries failed and ignited.(Supplied: Queensland Fire And Emergency Service)

A Queensland fire inspector says rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in laptops, mobile phones, power drills and toys are causing fires — some of them serious — at least once a week across Queensland.

Key points:

  • Lithium-ion batteries used in phones, laptops, cordless tools and toys are starting fires in Queensland homes every week
  • Experts say to reduce risk buy batteries from reputable sellers and monitor them while charging
  • As a precaution, charge lithium-ion batteries away from other potentially flammable items like pillows or chemicals

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services recorded at least three significant incidents in July alone involving lithium and lithium-ion batteries failing and bursting into flames.

In one incident at Dimbulah, west of Cairns, investigators found a fire ripped through a single-storey building after “a large bank” of lithium-ion batteries purchased from overseas were used as part of a solar system upgrade.

In another, a Toowoomba garage was damaged after two lithium-ion batteries were left on charge for “no longer than two hours” on top of a cupboard.

And on the Sunshine Coast, a home was evacuated after a lithium-ion battery exploded, scorching carpet, and filling the home with toxic smoke.

A group of batteries surrounded by ash
The remnants of lithium-ion batteries that fire investigators believe caused a major structural fire in Dimbulah in north Queensland.(Supplied: Queensland Fire And Emergency Service)

QFES investigator Inspector Daren Malouk said fires sparked by battery failures were a serious risk to life and property.

“We’re talking about ignition that lasts, depending on the battery type, for 20 seconds to over a minute of open flaming combustion,” he said.

“So anything nearby — that’s where the fire will start to spread on to other items.

“It might be a charger that fails then it hits the lawnmower fuel next to it, then the timber work bench and you’re off and running,” he said.

He said crews were attending incidents on a weekly basis, and said even minor ignitions could prove devastating if allowed to escalate.

It is not the first time authorities have warned about the potential dangers of lithium and lithium-ion batteries.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission warned lithium-ion batteries could catch fire if they were overcharged, and the fire may be difficult to put out.

“The fire is self-sustaining, and cannot be easily extinguished by water spray or the use of a fire extinguisher,” a spokeswoman said.

An electrical power board with burned material nearby
Two lithium-ion batteries failed and sparked a garage fire in Toowoomba after an estimated two hours of charging.(Supplied: Queensland Fire And Emergency Service)

Inspector Malouk said, while all batteries had some potential of failing or exploding, it was much rarer in well known brand name products, because they were more likely to be subject to design and safety regulations.

“The ones we’re more concerned about are the ones that people can buy over the internet, from other places around the world, that come into Australia without meeting the same quality standards,” he said.

The ACCC too urges consumers to stick with reputable retailers, and be wary of buying electrical products from abroad.

Researcher and tester Chris Barnes from CHOICE said, with the batteries being so widely used, people needed to be mindful of risks but did not need to panic.

Mr Barnes said batteries themselves were not covered by regulations but the chargers had to meet electrical safety requirements.

“It must be noted that there are millions of these batteries in use around the world every day and the vast majority have no problems,” he said.

“Nevertheless, the potential fire risk is real.”

A blackened and melted mobile phone
A lithium battery catches fire on a bench.(Supplied: Queensland Fire And Emergency Service)

Inspector Malouk said the particular concern with lithium-ion batteries — often used in laptop computers and mobile phones — was if they were damaged or allowed to overheat.

“If you’ve got your laptop on charge and you put it under the pillow on your bed, which we’ve seen occasionally, that heat can’t dissipate,” he said.

“That heat itself can contribute to the failure of the battery.”

He said no product using a lithium battery should be left to charge without being monitored.

Mr Barnes from CHOICE said, ideally, the charger should automatically switch off or reduce charging once the battery was full.

“Some other chargers will be more basic and may need to be watched or timed,” he said.

Mr Barnes said, as a precaution, keep charging batteries away from anything that could catch fire.

“[They] should be on a hard surface clear of any surroundings — don’t leave them on a bed, sofa or on carpet, as chargers and batteries can get hot.”