Why Hoverboards Are Catching Fire & Expoding

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By now you’ve surely seen or heard at least a few news reports of that hot new holiday gadget, the hoverboard, leading to fiery disaster, like this one in New York, this one in Louisiana, and this one in Brentwood, California.

 


If you didn’t get a high-end hoverboard like this one, you’re probably at risk for fire or explosion

 

Earlier this week, numerous major airlines started banning hoverboards from being brought onboard their flights due to their “tendency to spontaneously ignite”.

In addition to halting sales of lower-end hoverboards, Amazon is advising customers who’ve already bought one to dispose of it, and is eating the cost of refunds in many cases.

 

Cheap Rechargeable Batteries Are To Blame
Way back in 2013 I posted about the potential dangers of rechargeable batteries, which include overheating that leads to fire and explosion, and I got plenty of push back from people saying I was wrong, that rechargeable batteries pose no danger through regular and proper use.

I responded with a post entitled Technically Correct vs. Practical: Can Rechargeable Batteries Overheat Or Not?. In that post I pointed out that while modern Li-Ion batteries do have built-in safeguards against overheating, there are many factors that can render those safeguards useless: errors in manufacturing, use of foreign-made rechargeables that don’t meet U.S. testing standards, and dropping or otherwise jarring a device, for example. In that post I reported on the infamous Boeing Dreamliner airplane fires, which were ultimately traced to faulty rechargeable Li-Ion batteries.

 

 

Which brings us to the recent hoverboard fires. Color me unsurprised that cheap, faulty Li-Ion batteries are the culprit. Here’s what Wired says is causing the hoverboard problems:

“There are a lot of factories in China that now make Li-ion batteries, and the reality is that the quality and consistency of these batteries is typically not as good as what is found in top tier producers such as LG or Samsung…In a cheaper battery…the separator between each battery’s anode and cathode—which are what the current flows through—may not be aligned correctly…there could be small holes in the separator thanks to impurities in metal particles that can puncture the anode/cathode separator…“If there is an inherent defect in the cell, it will go off at some point,” [Professor of Materials Science & Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, Jay] Whitacre explains.

With these cheap batteries, a lot of things can cause fires. For one, the nature of a scooterboard—–it can bang into stuff, smash into things at high speeds, and be abused by bros–—makes the batteries susceptible to damage. It’s not just the nature of a cheap battery, it’s the nature of any lithium-ion battery.

Meanwhile, the Daily Beast reports the problem arose because while a patent battle played out here in the States, cheap knock-off hoverboards were able to flood the market:

What ensued was a race to the bottom for knockoff brands, who tried to make the cheapest available product with sometimes combustible parts. Until last month, Amazon was selling hoverboards for as little as $350.

CBS warns consumers that the “UL Approved” label is no guarantee of safety, either:

The problem is, UL hasn’t approved any hoverboards…”We have certified many varieties of battery chargers,” said John Drengenberg, an electrical engineer and UL’s consumer safety director. “That in no way says anything about a hoverboard being approved.”

 

What To Do If You Already Bought One
Unless you got one of the high-end, brand name hoverboards, like the one pictured above in this post, you shouldn’t risk using the hoverboard or giving it to anyone else to use. Even if you did get a high-end model, because hoverboard fires are causing such horrible injuries and property damage, at this point it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and assume no hoverboard is safe.

1. Return it for a refund if possible—note that Amazon is being very generous in its refund policy on hoverboards due to the recent fires and injuries customers have suffered.

2. If you can’t return it, dispose of it safely. That means disposing of it the same way you’d dispose of any electronic device, through your town’s electronics collection and recycling program. Call your town’s City Hall for more information if you don’t know about a program for this in your area. It is NOT safe to just throw the device into your regular trash bin.

3. If a fire should break out while a hoverboard is in use, immediately get everyone as far away from the device as possible (some have exploded). Use a fire extinguisher from behind a wall or other protective barrier to put the fire out, but only if you can do so without putting yourself or others at risk; remember that this will be a chemical fire, so water will not put it out. If you cannot safely put the fire out with an extinguisher yourself, call 911 and let the Fire Department handle it.

 

Hoverboards: don’t let their popularity sway you into buying one, because they’re clearly not yet perfected. Much better to face a disappointed kid than one who’s been seriously injured by your gift.

 

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