Can Batteries Cause Fires? Are Batteries Dangerous?


The world of battery-operated devices has become complex and unavoidable in recent years. We have lithium-ion batteries in phones and laptops, large-scale battery banks for renewable energy, car batteries, and still plenty of old-fashioned AA batteries. More batteries mean a higher risk of battery fires so what do we need to be aware of to reduce the problem and handle any fires? 

Batteries can cause fires. There are several reasons for this and you can see fires related to different types of batteries. The most common types of battery fires are caused by rechargeable batteries in portable devices. However, there have been fires related to car batteries and old AA batteries thrown in the trash.

This is why we all need to know more about the potential dangers of battery fires, their causes, and what we can do in the future. So, below you will learn more about the following. 

  • The different types of battery fires
  • The various reasons why lithium-ion batteries catch alight 
  • The growing risk of fires in energy storage solutions for renewable energy 
  • The problems of dealing with battery fires
  • How to reduce the risk of fires and damage in the future 

Types of battery fires

Battery fires come in different shapes and sizes because so do batteries themselves. There are all kinds of power packs, rechargeable batteries, and alkaline batteries powering everything from remote controls to smart devices in an off-grid home. 

Battery fires and explosions from rechargeable devices.

It can be pretty scary to think about when reading this on a portable electronic device, but battery fires are possible in personal electronics.

Batteries can sustain damage or overheat, which can lead to fires or even explosions. A more recent example is the risk of vape pens exploding while charging and causing fires.

There are also cases of the batteries in electric cars catching fire due to overheating and malfunctions. It is important to be aware of the risks, even if the chance of a phone or laptop seeming to spontaneously combust is low. 

Battery fires and explosions in energy storage facilities.

Batteries don’t just mean the small power packs in our devices. A lot of homes and facilities now have battery storage in energy storage solutions.

These set-ups, such as the Tesla Powerwall, can contain energy from renewable sources to power a home or business with ease. The problem is that these batteries have similar risk factors on a larger scale.

Battery bank fires can be devastating when one cell leads to a chain reaction that takes out multiple battery packs. 

Alkaline battery fires.

Then there are the fires from alkaline batteries. These are the tiny batteries in our remotes that used to power a lot more toys and other devices.

These products are generally safe to use until they run out of power. But, old batteries can leak hazardous materials that could become a fire risk.

There is also the risk of explosion when the battery is exposed to high heat or a strong electrical current. That is why we need to be careful when storing and disposing of these lesser batteries too.

Why are lithium-ion batteries dangerous? 

When lithium-ion batteries work as intended, with no dangerous external factors or damage to the device, there are few fire risks. They should be able to run at the right temperature and pose no risk in terms of short circuits or leaks. However, there are issues that could potentially lead to fires. 

Thermal Runaway

Thermal runaway means that there is an uncontrolled release of heat from one of the cells in the battery.

Battery cells can overheat and this energy needs to go somewhere. In the worst cases, you get a chain reaction where the heat transfers over to other cells, which themselves become too hot. The more this build, the create the risk of a fire.

This is how many overheating personal devices could end up exploding or causing fires.

So, if you feel a phone or laptop getting too hot, do what you can with the power supply and settings to try and bring it down. 

Toxic and flammable gases. 

It isn’t just excess heat you need to worry about with batteries – especially with large-scale energy storage solutions.

The process of thermal runaway can lead to the release of gases as a by-product. These gases can be toxic and highly flammable.

There are two problems here.

The first is that these off-gases could ignite in the atmosphere if there is a suitable source of ignition. This could then result in a fire.

The second is the potential build-up of these gases in an energy storage system facility. If these gases build up to a high enough pressure before igniting, there could be an explosion.

That is why facilities have measures in place to vent the gas and create a better atmosphere. 

Deep Seated Fires.

All lithium-ion batteries and large energy storage solutions have significant casings to house the components within and prevent leaks and damage.

The downside of this comes when there is a fire within the battery due to thermal runaway or a malfunction with the system. The casing can contain the seat of the fire pretty well and stop firefighters from getting directly at it to cool it down and control the blaze more easily. 

Stranded Energy

Finally, there is the issue of stranded energy. Standard energy is an electrical charge within a battery that has nowhere to go.

This can often happen with damaged batteries and energy storage solutions, especially after a fire. It is important that anyone at the scene of a battery-related fire is aware of this risk as the stranded energy could be enough to reignite the fire. It can also stay present for a long time. 

The issues above with the toxic gases, deep-seated fires, and risks of stranded energy show how difficult it is for firefighters to handle fires in large-scale battery facilities.

That is why it is so important for facility managers to adhere to safety practices for exhaust systems. Improvements in detectors for those gases will help.

Also, the National Fire Protection Association now has its own Standard for the Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems, called NFPA 855. 

Can you put out battery fires with water? 

It can sound like a pretty bad idea to go anywhere near a battery fire with water because they are electronic.

It may be possible to use water on a device that has been unplugged, but there are better options.

Firefighters will use water from hoses from a safe distance when dealing with car battery fires and ESS banks as the better way to cool the battery down and control the situation. 

Battery fires at home or work, such as laptop fires or other devices, are better handled with Co2 or foam extinguishers if they are available.

Unplug the device if it is safe to do so and use the extinguisher to smother the flames. Small device fires are also relatively easy to control with baking soda.

Just dump the powder onto the fire to starve it of oxygen. If the fire is too intense, or has spread, evacuate the room, seal it off, and call for the fire department. 

How can we lower the risk of battery fires in the future?

We may not need to worry so much about alkaline battery fires in the future as we lean more towards rechargeable tech.

But, that shift to battery-powered devices, new wearables, and renewable energy solutions means more lithium-ion batteries and battery banks on larger scales.

The first thing that we can do to lower the risk of fires is to make batteries safer. Any battery company that can reduce the risks from off-gases, thermal runways, and other factors will see greater demand for their products.

After all, consumers don’t want the fear that their laptop could explode if it overheats. 

The other thing that needs to happen is that we need to make it much easier for people to dispose of their dead batteries safely.

Battery recycling banks are more common, but not always as accessible as they could be. Greater information on the dangers of throwing away batteries in the trash will help too.

For example, data shows that the number of fires started at North American waste facilities increased by 26% between 2016 to 2019. But, the public isn’t widely aware. 

In short, while there is no doubt that the risk of battery fires has increased in recent years, this is simply down to the rapid rise in their use.

As long as we are careful to dispose of old batteries correctly and companies work on creating safer products and safety systems, the problem shouldn’t get out of hand.

Mike Pertz

I’m Mike, I’m a full time firefighter/paramedic/diver for a department just west of Cleveland, Ohio and the founder of FirefighterNOW. I’m also a columnist for FireRescue1. If you’re reading this blog my guess is you are interested in the fire service. There's information on fitness, gear, interviews, tests and more. I hope you find what you're looking for.

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