Things that use lithium-ion batteries – from electronics to power tools, to electric vehicles – are becoming increasingly common. That means fires involving those batteries are surging.
The Seattle Fire Department has an “Energy Response Team” with cutting-edge experts on fighting these unique fires. In fact, SFD has the only unit in the country dedicated solely to battling energy fires. The special team was initially created to respond to fires that have some sort of active energy element, like a substation fire or a transformer fire. Now their workload increasingly involves lithium-ion battery fires.
Most lithium-ion battery packs are 18650 battery cells wired together to get the desired voltage. It can range from about a dozen in a power tool, to thousands of batteries in an electric vehicle.
While EV fires do burn for a long time and can grab headlines – like the Tesla that crashed and burned in Medina for hours – they’re actually incredibly rare. Based on national incident numbers, gas cars (adjusted for volume) are 26 times more likely to catch on fire than EVs.
Captain Chris Greene with the Energy Response Team says a much bigger piece of their workload comes from batteries you have laying around your home.
“Most of the fires that we’ve had have been driven by some sort of e-mobility device or one of these tools that’s in your garage,” Greene said. He showed KIRO 7 a burned-out Makita battery, a charred skateboard, and a blackened e-bike – to name a few.
“I think we’re at about 75 (Li battery fires) since August,” Greene said. A big challenge is how fast the fires can spread. “It used to be when a fire would start, we’d have about 10 minutes from the time the fire started to the time you lose the room,” he said. “We’re losing rooms with these things in about 40 seconds.”
That’s because batteries can explode and launch out of their packaging, causing flames to erupt from multiple locations. SFD shared a video of an e-bike battery that fell out of the bike, sending flaming batteries exploding on the sidewalk. But if the incident had happened inside, the situation would have been much different.
“One of these other plastic cases, they’re pitching 18650 cells around a room. You have multiple set points,” he said. Green pointed to a recent fire in New York City that triggered a five-alarm response, caused by a scooter battery. The video shows the room ablaze in seconds. At least seven people, including five firefighters, were injured.
“One of the biggest lessons that we could teach out there would be don’t charge these things by your exit,” Greene said. “These things are being charged in that little outlet that’s right by the front door. So when you get a fire by the front door, you lose your exit,” he said.
As for power tools or any lithium-ion battery, pay attention to when you’re putting the battery on, or taking it off a device. If it’s sticking or a struggle to handle, the problem may beyond a wonky connection. It may be a sign of a battery swelling – one of the signs that it’s failing and a fire hazard.
Greene recommends charging your tools in the garage, not your house, and having a smoke detector near the charging station. He also advises unplugging the charger or taking the battery off once it’s fully powered up, avoiding a trickle charge. And he says it is always a good idea to use the proper charger intended for the battery.
“If they start to stink, if they’re getting hot, if they’re not really holding a charge very well anymore, you know, that may be a sign that the battery is going bad,” Greene said about other signs.
Another unusual fact about lithium-ion battery fires: they have an ugly tendency to rekindle.
“We’ve had fires in lithium-ion battery-driven devices that have caught fire three weeks after the fire was out,” Greene said. In fact, days after KIRO 7 interviewed Greene and looked at a charred e-skateboard, the device rekindled in the Fire Station 25 parking lot.
“We checked it with a thermal imaging camera. It was cold. This thing had been out for over five days and decided to light up again,” Greene said.
That’s why SFD has a “no cell left behind” policy – collecting up burned lithium-ion batteries from a scene, so it doesn’t catch on fire again. The cells are put into a fire suppressant material made of a material that looks like Dippin’ Dots but is made up of sand and a glass-like substance.
The team hadn’t yet broken up the skateboard to contain the battery inside the material when it reignited.
“One of the biggest challenges for the fire services is when is the incident done. It used to be that when you put a fire out and it’s cold and it’s wet and there’s no more smoke, you’re good. You’re walking away. That’s being challenged across the country,” Greene said.
The lithium-ion battery ignites a unique fire that’s becoming increasingly common as we all go cordless.
“It’s a known gap for the fire service,” Greene said. “And now we’re being asked to teach it all over the country.”
HOW TO DISPOSE OF Li BATTERIES
You can properly recycle your old rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for free at most Home Depot locations. Businesses can look up where else to recycle batteries and other options on the WA Ecology website. Residents can also check out http://1800recycle.wa.gov/.
Greene says SFD is working with the state to help develop an energy response model that can be used across Washington.
Read the full article here