As many shoppers purchase items such as cellphones, laptop computers and electric tools in the holiday gift-giving season, the Honolulu Fire Department warns the public about the “potential dangers” of lithium-ion batteries found in those items.
Lithium-ion batteries are very safe, however, problems can occur if the batteries are damaged or mishandled, said Capt. Jonathan Darr of the fire department’s Hazardous Materials Unit at a recent news conference held at the Kakaako Fire Station.
A chemical reaction called “thermal runaway” occurs when the lithium-ion battery cells enters an uncontrollable self-heating state, Darr said.
Fire officials say thermal runaway can cause the battery to reach extremely high temperatures and produce a lot of toxic, flammable gases that may appear as white smoke.
“This could result in intense fires,” Darr said.
“For example, 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,” he added. 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.
Some of the causes of thermal runaway are defective or damaged batteries and overcharging.
In November, a fire broke out at a 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 clothes and other 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 the fire after smoke detectors alerted them of 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.
From January 2020 to Dec. 12, the fire department reported 386 building or structure fires. Of that figure, 167 were accidental fires, 58 of which were caused by lithium-ion batteries..
Experts recommend e-bike owners to not leave an e-bike unattended while it’s charging. Also, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for charging and storage and do not leave it charging overnight.
“Just having an ounce of prevention is going to save everybody a pound of pain,” Ortiz said at the news conference.
The Honolulu Fire Department provided the following lithium-ion battery safety tips:
>> When purchasing devices, 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 your pillow, on your bed or near combustibles.
>> Keep batteries/devices at room temperature. Do not place in direct sunlight
>> Store batteries away from anything flammable.
>> Do not throw loose lithium-ion batteries in the trash. HFD recommends contacting the Honolulu Department of Environmental Services’ Refuse Division at 808-768-3201 for proper disposal. The public may also visit: https://www.honolulu.gov/opala/quick-links/hhw/batteries.html.