Lithium-Ion Battery Fires: Myth vs. Reality

Separating fact from fiction for a top emerging fire risk

Separating fact from fiction for a top emerging fire risk

Lithium-ion battery fires are emerging as a top risk for many businesses

There were at least 25,000 incidents of fire or overheating in lithium-ion batteries over a recent five-year period, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Within large-scale lithium-ion battery energy storage systems, there have been 40 known fires in recent years, according to research from Newcastle University.

Creating plans for discarding, storing, and charging batteries is critical. But it’s important to separate misinformation from facts. The following myth vs. reality document can help. It was developed by expert engineers at TÜV SÜD Global Risk Consultants who have helped large and small businesses manage their lithium-ion battery fire risks. It also comes from audience questions from our webinar: Reduce Your Risk of Lithium-Ion Battery Fires.

Myth: Lithium-ion batteries are unsafe.

Reality: Lithium-ion batteries are generally safe. If you follow proper storage, charging, and discarding procedures, they are unlikely to fail or catch fire. But beware: It is relatively easy to damage plastic casings or cause overheating from heavy power draws. If so, flammable electrolytes inside can be released and ignited at a low flash point.

Myth: Lithium-ion fires are typical of other industrial fires, and don’t need specific emergency response planning.

Reality: These fires have unique attributes and are very difficult to extinguish. In fact, you may need to let the fire burn out. That’s due to additional cells rupturing due to fire and heat, releasing flammable vapor. While water or foam may appear to put out fires out quickly, lithium-ion fires can reignite as breached cells are met with oxygen. Keeping sprinklers running and moving batteries to safe burnout areas are recommended.

There were at least 25,000 incidents of fire or overheating in lithium-ion batteries over a recent five-year period, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety CommissionMyth: Storage height is not a concern.

Reality: Height is critical to safe storage. It is recommended that you store lithium-ion batteries at a maximum height of 15 feet and never store flammable materials above them. Flammable vapor will rise from a punctured or damage battery making anything above it more susceptible to fire.

Myth: There are standards risk managers and facilities managers can use to guide them toward creating policies and processes.

Reality: There are no NFPA standards dealing with lithium-ion batteries specifically (as of mid-2022). We expect that to change as new standards are written and rolled out. Consult a risk engineering organization like TÜV SÜD Global Risk Consultants to develop safe processes and assess your risk of fire.

Myth: You can use any compatible charger for a lithium-ion battery.

Reality: Only use the charger designed for your specific battery. Incorrect charging can cause the battery to expel its charge quicker, creating heat and starting thermal runaway. It can also lead to the battery discharging faster than expected which can lead to heat and short circuits.

Myth: Damaged batteries are not a threat unless they are on fire.

Reality: If damaged or punctured, the individual cells inside can become compromised and release flammable electrolyte vapors. Combined with an ignition source and oxygen, it can cause fire. Remove damaged batteries from your facility immediately.

Myth: You can just throw lithium-ion batteries away with your trash.

Reality: Safe discarding is a must. Wrap terminals in electric tape or drop them into metal containers with lids. Store all lithium-ion trash outside if possible or near exits. If you are discarding multiple batteries, separate them by at least 10 feet.

Myth: Since it’s an emerging risk without NFPA standards, underwriters aren’t following along too closely.

Reality: Underwriters are expecting proactive steps be taken to minimize the risk of lithium-ion battery fires. They will be looking for plans for safe storage, charging, handling, and discharging of batteries. They also want to see robust fire emergency protection plans in place.

Myth: It is unsafe to charge electric vehicles in your building.

Reality: The damage from a gasoline-powered vehicle fire would be similar to the damage for an electric vehicle fire. There is no difference.

Myth: You must use class D extinguishers made for metal to put out lithium-ion battery fires.

Reality: Water and foam work just fine. Lithium-ion batteries have a lithium oxide anode, but it’s oxidized and doesn’t warrant a class D extinguisher.


Ready for a Lithium-Ion Battery Fire Assessment?

TÜV SÜD Global Risk Consultants has helped many businesses address their lithium-ion battery fire risks. We assess your processes, storage, charging, handling, and fire protection procedures to determine if your facility is susceptible to fire. Our recommendations will strengthen your facility, keep workers safe, and reduce your risk of property damage. Interested in learning more? Contact us today.

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