Many portable devices today are powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. These types of batteries pose a higher risk of fire than others.
Lithium-ion batteries are popular because they are light-weight and long lasting compared to other rechargeable batteries.
You will find them in many devices such as phones, tablets, power banks, laptop computers, toys, appliances and tools, as well as mobility equipment such as e-bikes and e-scooters. They can also be found in many other modern devices that need power.
What causes lithium-ion batteries to catch fire?
Lithium-ion batteries release toxic and flammable gases when they short circuit, which may lead to them catching fire. If the battery is fully charged, violent fire behaviour with sparks and jet-like flames may be experienced.
The main reasons lithium-ion batteries short circuit and catch fire - a process called thermal runaway - are because they:
- Are incorrectly charged using a charging cable that was not designed for the device or battery. This can result in overcharging or overheating.
- Have been damaged by an impact, cracked, dented, punctured, crushed or exposed to overheating.
- Have been in fresh or salt water for a long time, causing corrosion within the battery.
It is therefore very important that you dispose of old or damaged lithium-ion batteries correctly - see more information below.
How can I prevent my devices or batteries from catching fire?
Use the correct charger
Using chargers with incorrect power delivery (voltage and current) can cause damage to the battery including overheating that can lead to fires.
- Ensure the battery and charger is suited for the job and has no electrical faults.
- Only use chargers that are supplied with the equipment or device, or certified third-party charging equipment that is compatible with the battery specifications.
- Only purchase and use devices and equipment from reputable manufacturers and suppliers.
- Always follow the manufacturers' charging and operation instructions.
- Disconnect a device or battery once it indicates that it is fully charged.
- Only use chargers that meet Australian Standards - look for the Regulatory Compliance Mark.
Don't help your devices to overheat
Devices left on soft surfaces like beds and couches can overheat and catch fire.
- Don't charge batteries or devices on soft surfaces such as beds, couches and carpet.
- Keep batteries and devices away from items that can easily catch fire like blankets, clothing and paper.
- Never charge a device under a pillow.
Don't leave charging devices unattended
There is a higher risk from fire if you are not in attendance or sleeping while devices are charging
- Avoid charging batteries or devices overnight.
- Avoid leaving batteries or devices unattended while they are on charge.
General charging safety
- Only plug in one device per outlet, and always keep power boards and cables neat and tidy.
- Don't use battery charging devices with worn or damaged cables.
- Always ensure the battery charger is switched off from the electrical power supply before connecting the batteries. This will minimize the risk of shock and sparking while connecting the batteries.
- Lithium-ion batteries can be sensitive to heat and therefore must be charged and stored in moderate temperatures.
- Never store or leave batteries and devices in areas where they can be exposed to heat or moisture.
- Do not leave devices such as phones, computers or charging devices in direct sunlight or in parked vehicles where they can quickly heat up.
- Larger batteries and equipment such as power tools and especially electric bikes, scooters or skateboards should be charged in the garage, shed or carport away from living spaces.
- Victorian fire services recommend that interconnected smoke alarms are installed in areas where devices are often charged.
What's the difference between lithium-ion batteries and lithium batteries?
Don't confuse replaceable lithium batteries with lithium-ion batteries
Lithium batteries are single use only
Lithium batteries are not rechargeable and you need to buy new ones once they run out of charge.
You might use lithium batteries in torches, television remote controls, some gaming controllers, smoke alarms and digital cameras.
Lithium batteries are most commonly sold alongside normal single use batteries in similar sizes like AA, AAA, C, D or 9v batteries. They can also be found as 'button' batteries like CR2032 or A76/LR44 as used in watches, heart rate monitors or memory backup power supply in computers.
Lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable
The construction of lithium-ion batteries is very different to single use lithium batteries
You will usually find them in just about any modern device that can be plugged into a charger. Besides mobile phones and appliances, they can also be found in e-bikes, e-scooters, mobility scooters and larger versions in electric cars.
They are often larger and usually in a shape to suit the device they are meant to power. Though not always, they are often not meant to be removed from the device by the consumer. That is, they must be serviced by a technician.
Lithium-ion batteries are sometimes also called Li-ion batteries.
How do I know if my device or battery is damaged?
Thermal runaway events involving batteries can occur rapidly and can often be quite violent, involving toxic, flammable smoke and vapours, flames, and metal projectiles.
Don't use batteries or devices that show signs of swelling or bulging, leaking, overheating, or signs of mechanical damage (cracked, dented, punctured, or crushed).
Warning signs include:
- Strong odours
- Discolouration, blistering, bulging, or swelling of the casing
- Heating up and feeling extremely hot to touch
- Abnormal popping, hissing or crackling sounds
- Smoke and fumes
Never touch a swollen or ruptured device or battery with bare hands as the heat and/or chemicals can cause severe burns.
What to do if there is a fire
We don't recommend handling anything that is on fire.
If a small battery or device such as a phone or tablet starts overheating
- Unplug it from the power outlet if it is on charge.
- Avoid inhaling any smoke or fumes.
- If safe to do so, remove it to an outside area away from anything that can catch fire and away from windows or doorways.
- Leave the building and call Triple Zero (000) even if you no longer see visible smoke or flames. There is a good chance that the battery might reignite if it has not been cooled enough.
If the device or battery starts to smoke or emit flames
- Do not touch the device.
- Evacuate the area and close doors if safe to do so to slow the spread of fire. Ensure no one goes back inside the building for any reason. The vented battery gases, vapour and smoke are highly toxic and flammable and must not be inhaled.
- Call Triple Zero (000) and advise it is a Lithium-ion battery incident. Wait in a safe location outside for firefighters to arrive.
- If anyone has been exposed to spilled electrolyte, flying debris, smoke or vapours, or flames, seek urgent medical assistance. Burns should be immediately treated with cool running water for 20 minutes. Burns larger than a 20-cent piece require emergency care. Treat with cool running water immediately, call Triple Zero (000), and follow the advice of the operator.
Disposal of lithium-ion batteries
Note that some batteries may contain toxic chemicals, heavy metals and other environmental pollutants that can contaminate water supplies and ecosystems when they are incorrectly disposed of.
Protect yourself from burns
- Never touch a swollen or ruptured device or battery with bare hands as the heat and/or chemicals can cause severe burns.
- Always use gloves/hand protection before touching or moving leaking batteries.
Many battery related fires start in household bins, garbage trucks and waste facilities
- Never throw lithium-ion batteries in your regular waste or recycling collection bins.
- Where safe to do so, place leaking or damaged (but not overheating or off-gassing) batteries in a clear plastic bag and take them to a reputable place (see below) for disposal.
More information on where and how to dispose of used batteries can be found from:
Page last updated: Friday, 17 February 2023 4:08:34 PM