Some people think it strange that hoverboards don’t exactly “hover” like the levitating board that was immortalized in the classic Back to the Future trilogy, the something-for-everyone franchise that enjoys a loyal cult following. Even stranger, is the fact that these hoverboards reportedly explode at random. While the hoverboard is a relatively new addition in the technological sphere, there have been numerous reports of hoverboard explosions, which begs the question, “Do hoverboards really explode?”
Here we are going to find out, what’s behind the reports of hoverboard explosions.
Hoverboard Explosions – Truth or Myth
For starters, hoverboards do not explode. This news should be a relief for many people who were looking forward to jumping on a hoverboard for the first time. The term ‘explosion’ is what Trump would call “fake news.” It’s an exaggeration by the media to create sensationalism. But, that doesn’t mean that hoverboards have not been known to catch fire spontaneously.
The US airline industry though has decided to take no chances when it comes to hoverboards, with United, Southwest, Delta, American, JetBlue, Alaskan and some other airlines banning passengers from bringing hoverboards onboard. Even the US postal office has caught wind of the possible dangers of hoverboards and has halted the shipping of hoverboards by air. Popular retailers such as Target and Amazon have also suspended the sales of hoverboards despite the fact that hoverboards have become the hottest new toys and are selling like hot cakes.
Despite hoverboards flying off shelves across the US, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission there were 60 hoverboard-related incidents in the US in which the lithium ion batteries reportedly caught fire, and in a few cases, apparently destroyed $2 million worth of property along with it. There have been several other reports from the UK and Hong Kong. According to reports, the fires started in various random circumstances, with the battery being the common denominator, which has led experts to believe that the lithium ion battery fitted in hoverboards is the main culprit behind the fires. The scary part is the spontaneous fires aren’t related to any particular brand, which can be avoided by staying away from said brand. All of the hoverboards seemed to have come out of Chinese factories, which doesn’t help much since the keyboard I’m typing this blog on and the screen you’re reading this on was probably made in China. So, what’s up with the fires?
The Real Culprit
The lithium ion batteries that all hoverboards use as a power source contains various cells at 4.20V each, which are all separated by a thin sheets of polypropylene or polyethylene which act as an insulator. Whenever one or more of these polypropylene sheets are compromised because of overcharging the battery or through impact, it short circuits. The current that flows through the battery cells raises the temperature of the battery to a flash point of lithium, which is followed by spontaneous fire. This would explain why many incidents of fires in hoverboards occurred while the device was being charged. This is because the lithium ion batteries do not react well to overcharging. While hoverboard chargers are fitted with cut off mechanism that detect when a battery is fully charged and stops the process, a defect in the cut off mechanism in hoverboards can result to overcharging which leads to fires.
Nonetheless, the CPSC is not taking this lightly and previously recalled more than half a million hoverboards in the US, which were said to be a threat due to overheating of the lithium ion battery. This is also one of the main reasons why safety officials have been recommending that hoverboard users be careful while charging their devices and follow the specific instructions given on the product box right down to the letter when it comes to charging their hoverboards, and only use the charger that comes with the box. This makes sense, but only until you realize that most hoverboards use charging plugs that you will be lucky to find on any other kind of electronic device. With such a limitation, it’s hard to believe that hoverboards catch fire because someone used a laptop charger instead of using the original hoverboard charger. The suggestion of overcharging hoverboards also does not make much sense since in modern times, most people just plug in their device and leave it there anyway, trusting that the cut-off mechanism of their charger will shut down the charging process when it’s finished.
Here’s the Science!
When it comes to hoverboard fires, mere speculation isn’t going to be enough, so let’s take a look at the science behind this thing.
Similar to other electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops, a hoverboard uses a lithium-ion battery pack as a power source. Few people know that the liquid that floats around most lithium ion batteries is highly flammable. We’ve already have talked about how puncturing the thin polypropylene paper which separates the positive and negative sides of the battery can lead to a fire. But, the battery back does not have to be stabbed to catch fire. Defective batteries may have tiny sharp metal particles already in the batter itself which can puncture the polypropylene sheet causing the battery to catch fire. This news should not come as a revelation either since lithium ion batteries catching fire is nothing new. Back in 2004, you would recall a spike in cell phone battery fires, and in 2006 Dell reportedly recalled millions of its laptops after six incidents of fires were reported. And not too long ago, the airplane manufacturer, Boeing grounded its much publicized 787 Dreamliner because the lithium ion batteries were overheating.
How Can Hoverboard Fires Be Prevented
The best way to avoid the battery pack catching fire in hoverboard is to purchase your hoverboard from a trusted and reliable brand, where you are certain that only the highest quality of components have been used in the hoverboard’s manufacturing. Another straightforward way of preventing hoverboard fires is by simply monitoring your hoverboard while it is charging, or at least refrain from plugging in your hoverboard and going to sleep. But, if you really want to make sure that your hoverboard does not catch fire, make sure the charger that comes with the box is of good quality. If you feel that the charger that came in the box along with the hoverboard is not of good quality, it is better to purchase an external universal charger. While purchasing third party chargers is not a guarantee that your hoverboard is not going to catch fire, at least you will have the peace of mind that the charger you have plugged in is of the best quality. Then again, fires caused due to overcharging will still happen if you keep the hoverboard plugged in for lengthy periods of time.
The best way to keep your hoverboard from catching fire is to avoid banging or scraping it while in use. Be careful not to drop your hoverboard or make contact with anything that’s sharp since any of these can cause damage to the battery pack resulting in a fire.
What About Safety Standards?
While hoverboards users do have a responsibility of not being careless with their hoverboards while using it or plugging it in for charging, what about the manufacturers and safety standards when it comes to hoverboards? This is a valid question since if a lithium ion battery is so volatile, and has been for some time now, why isn’t there been any rules in place for their safety? The argument here is that the density of energy in a lithium ion battery is higher than that of normal batteries which use materials that are less flammable. In other words, a lithium ion battery lasts longer than the traditional “lighter” batteries which use a lithium iron phosphate.
Besides that, the consumer electronics industry has gotten far better when it comes to safety standards, which has led to the relatively safe smartphones, laptops and other electronic devices of today. The fact of the matter is that almost all batteries use various forms of safety measures, such as cut out mechanisms and emergency vents to keep the batteries from overheating. In the case of lithium ion batteries, which has got a bad rap from the media lately, there are a number of production tests such as drop tests, electrical stress tests and crush tests to ensure the safety of the lithium ion battery before it is introduced to the public. But, here’s the kicker…hoverboard technology is new which means that as a product, it comes without any set safety standards, since it the technology does not fall in any current category of consumer products.
That being said, certain standards for motorized toys and scooters are in place, but even then, hoverboards do not fit the criteria of toys or scooters. For now though, well known retailers such as Target and Amazon are making sure that the battery packs of the hoverboards they sell come along with a safety certification. In December 2015, Amazon asked all major hoverboard manufacturers to provide them with proof that the battery packs used in the hoverboards they are selling come with a UL 1642 a UN 38.3, or a UL 60950-1 certification to ensure the safety of their customers.
At the end of the day, simply certifying a battery back that is used in hoverboards is not going to be enough, since both battery packs and chargers are certified individually, which means that the hoverboards still are not certified in its entirety, as in, the whole device. Until and unless the whole hoverboard is tested there cannot be any guarantees that they will not be any battery related fires in future. One hoverboard manufacturer in the US, Swagway says that their hoverboards are certified after being tested in its entirety, since it has a got a UL (Underwriters Laboratories) certified battery pack and charger, but that’s not entirely true since no reputable independent firm, even UL, tests whole products, which means there are currently no UL-certified hoverboards, period. But, this too could change as the UL 2272 certification for e-transportation devices has been introduced. If you want to find out whether or not the hoverboard your about to jump on is safe, take a minute to look for the UL 2272 certification hologram mark along with the UL promotional mark on the packaging.