Nova Scotia

Misusing your phone charger could spark a fire, warn officials

Halifax firefighters believe more fires are being caused by people using cheap, mismatched chargers for their electronics.

Using a charger not designed for a device can result in its battery catching fire or exploding

A firefighter holds what is left of a charger for a handheld drill that caught fire. (Marcheta Fitzgerald/Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency)

Halifax firefighters believe more fires are being caused by people using cheap, mismatched chargers for their electronics, and are warning people to pay closer attention.

At least 12 fires a year in the area of the city are started by portable electronic devices plugged into power outlets, according to officials with Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency. Other fires where the cause was deemed inconclusive could "easily" be attributed to the same source, said Matt Covey, fire prevention division chief.

"Our stats tracking is not specific enough to be objective, but subjectively we feel there is a rise in incidents," he said.

The battery pack of the drill that caught fire. (Marcheta Fitzgerald/Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency)

In some cases, fire officials believe, fires are being caused by people using mismatched batteries and chargers. For example, many cellphones use seemingly ubiquitous mini-USB chargers — but not all chargers work with every battery.

Covey urges people to ensure devices are plugged into the correct chargers to avoid fires.

Expert surprised by number of fires

Twelve fires a year related to battery charging is surprisingly high, said Chris Burns, a battery expert and president of Norvonix in Dartmouth, N.S. His company sells equipment for testing the long-term performance of lithium ion batteries.

"Most of the mainstream devices have much higher-quality batteries, and the safety and feedback rates of those are extremely good in today's day and age, so I'm surprised to hear that the number would be one a month here in Halifax alone," he said.

"I think it's important that people appreciate that batteries are safe."

This battery for a radio-controlled car exploded, starting a fire. (Scott Wheeler/Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency)

Burns agreed that using a charger not made by a device's manufacturer can potentially damage a battery.

"When you use a secondary charger that's not supplied with that device, depending on the device, you may be trying to put in more power than it can take. Or take the battery to a voltage that is unsafe," he said.

That could cause the battery to fail and start a fire.

Flaming shrapnel from exploding battery

No one in the area has been seriously injured by batteries catching fire, but there have been some close calls.

In April, a fire at one home in the municipality was set off by a cordless drill that caught fire while charging. The homeowner smelled smoke and called firefighters, Covey said.

The fire was extinguished quickly by a fire crew, but not before it damaged nearby stairs. Covey says the blaze could have burned down the house.

A wireless drill was charging when it caught fire, damaging nearby stairs. Firefighters say the entire house could have been destroyed if the fire hadn't been extinguished quickly. (Marcheta Fitzgerald/Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency)

Another incident in October 2016 involved a radio-controlled car and a person using a fast-charging device to give the car's lithium ion battery some juice. It exploded and the flaming shrapnel was shot six metres across a room. That shrapnel bounced off a cork board and landed on a suitcase. The suitcase caught fire and the homeowner used a garden hose to douse the flames.

The remnants of a suitcase after it was ignited by flaming shrapnel from an exploding battery. (Scott Wheeler/Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency)

Lithium ion batteries can overheat in extreme temperatures and potentially start a fire, Burns said.

The batteries are not meant to operate in temperatures exceeding 50 C, meaning if a device is left in an enclosed car in direct sunlight and then turned on or charged, the heat that the battery produces on its own could be enough to cause it to fail.

The batteries should also not be charged in temperatures below zero. 

Damage caused when a suitcase caught fire after it was struck by an exploding battery. (Scott Wheeler/Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency)

Covey said people should pay attention to how they're using their batteries and how their batteries are holding up.

He also said people should replace their batteries with specifically designed replacements made by the device's manufacturer, not a cheaper knockoff.

"If there's anything that seems off with the battery — odour, change in colour, excessive heat, change in shape, leaking or any noise like gas escaping — then absolutely stop using that right away."