The Risks in Hoverboards and Other Lithium-Ion Gadgets

A hoverboard that caught fire in a Brooklyn apartment in December.

There could be a bomb in your house, and you put it there.

In recent years, we have brought home a slew of new battery-powered devices, including smartphones, laptops, tablets, electronic cigarettes, electric cars, drones, hand-held vacuums and toys.

But while we celebrate how these devices have improved our lives, we haven’t realized that many are also capable of exploding because of battery malfunctions.

At first, it was just the odd gadget erupting into flames, an anomaly of a single battery that may have been defective. But as of late, such malfunctions seem to be happening every week or so.

Just scan the headlines from the last month. There was the man in Owensboro, Ky., who was at a gas station convenience store when an e-cigarette battery exploded in his pocket, causing severe burns along his right thigh.

There was a hoverboard, the toy of the moment, that exploded in a home in Highland Park, Ill., engulfing the house in flames and causing extensive damage. (Luckily, no one was home.)

And last week, a teenager in Castle Rock, Colo., ended up in hospital after his vaporizer battery exploded in his pocket while he was at school.

There have been hundreds of similar reports in recent months, with homes catching fire and e-cigarettes exploding in people’s pockets (and sometimes in their faces while smoking).

But these instances can happen while airborne, too.

The Federal Aviation Administration has documented hundreds of cases involving batteries from e-cigarettes, laptops, digital cameras, cellphones, electric bicycles, flashlights, GPS trackers, drones and even a cordless drill catching fire or overheating on passenger planes.

This month the F.A.A. issued a warning that lithium-ion batteries in a cargo hold carry the “risk of a catastrophic hull loss” on an airplane, and that a test conducted last year by the agency found that a lithium battery fire could lead to a catastrophic explosion. The F.A.A. has suggested that airlines perform their own safety-risk assessment and follow a list of agency guidelines.

Especially troubling is that these battery explosions can happen without warning. A study performed last year by chemical engineers at University College London found that a faulty battery can go from normal to explosive in milliseconds.

Battery specialists have warned about explosions for a long time.

Jay Whitacre, professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, told Wired magazine last December, in an article titled “Why Hoverboards Keep Exploding,” that consumers should avoid cheap knockoffs from Chinese manufacturers because of inferior battery components that can easily blow up.

The problem of exploding hoverboards is serious enough that hoverboards have been banned from college campuses, airlines and subways and buses in New York. The Consumer Product Safety Commission sent out a stern letter this month warning that the two-wheeled vehicles “pose an unreasonable risk of fire to consumers.” And fire marshals have issued warnings and tips to minimize the risk.

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So what can consumers do to protect themselves?

First, they should hold manufacturers accountable for fixing defects, as the carmaker Tesla did with its battery problem.

In 2013, after two Tesla cars caught fire, the company discovered that both explosions were a result of sharp or heavy objects piercing the battery, which sits in the car’s underbelly. In response, Tesla reinforced the car’s underbody with three shields made of aluminum and titanium.

In general, though, the most important step for consumers is not to buy inexpensive gadgets.

Most cases of exploding hoverboards and e-cigarettes have occurred with knockoffs made in unregulated factories in China.

As the gadget website Wirecutter suggests, choose a hoverboard that is UL-Certified, which ensures that it has gone through extensive tests. (Though the Consumer Product Safety Commission warns that none are completely safe from fire.) You can also pick up something called a hoverboard fire-resistant safe charging bag, to store the board while it charges.

The National Association of Fire Marshals also recommends that people avoid leaving devices unattended while they charge. The same rule applies to laptops and smartphones. Always charge them correctly, and unplug power cords when they are not in use.

As for e-cigarettes, buy a brand that has safety mechanisms built into them. Dan Recio, a founder of the electronic cigarette manufacturer V2, said in a statement that his company, “took action against the possibility of electronic issues from the very beginning, with safeguards integrated into our batteries like automatic shut off and smart chargers that prevent overcharging.”

So don’t try to save money with a cheap e-cigarette. It could blow up in your face.

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