Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen: The burning battery question

If the risk of lithium-ion batteries is well documented, where does that leave consumers who buy devices with the power source in terms of insurance? Photo / File
If the risk of lithium-ion batteries is well documented, where does that leave consumers who buy devices with the power source in terms of insurance? Photo / File

Samsung's having a rough time of it currently, thanks to a small number of its new flagship device, the Galaxy Note S7, catching on fire during charging.

The fires are due to a small fault in some lithium-Ion batteries in Note 7 devices; even though only a small number of fires have so far occurred, the whole affair is a disaster for Samsung which has had to issue a worldwide recall of the smartphone.

Not only that, but airlines around the world are banning people from using or charging their Note 7s on board planes.

Samsung will probably have to rename the Note 7 after the spontaneous combustion fiasco, and also take a hard look at its battery manufacturing processes because the risk of lithium-ion batteries catching fire is real.

If you want to see what it looks like when lithium batteries burst into flames, there are heaps of videos on YouTube that'll show you. Don't try to poke a hole into the batteries or overcharge them yourself though: the combustion can be very violent and there's usually lots of toxic smoke billowing out as well.

While lithium-ion batteries currently represent the best compromise between energy storage capacity, size and price, researchers are working on alternatives - mainly because lithium-ion batteries are known fire hazards.

If the risk of lithium-ion batteries is well documented and has been known for years, where does that leave consumers who buy devices with the power source in terms of insurance?

For instance, I've been thinking about having a Tesla Powerwall or a Panasonic house battery installed to try them out in conjunction with solar power generation and to help with electricity cuts which usually happen when I can least afford it.

However, both the Tesla and Panasonic house batteries contain lithium-ion batteries which does make me a little nervous.

Perhaps unnecessarily so: Tesla senior marketing and communications manager Heath Walker pointed me to the Powerwall manual which outlines emergency procedures for the battery in case of fire.

"Like any device that has electricity there is a chance of fire, however the design and delivery of the power with Powerwall minimises this risk drastically," Walker said.

If the risk of lithium-ion batteries is well documented and has been known for years, where does that leave consumers who buy devices with the power source in terms of insurance?

He did not think it would matter for house insurance, something that IAG's national technical specialist Chris Lysaght confirmed to me.

"For any house battery - installing and using these in accordance with the manufacturer's/supplier's instructions would not affect a person's house insurance," Lysaght said.

It's good to see that insurers will cover house and other's property in case of a battery fire, but don't be tardy in returning an expensive phone like the Galaxy Note 7 to the manufacturer in case there's a recall.

Like any device that has electricity there is a chance of fire, however the design and delivery of the power with Powerwall minimises this risk drastically.

"If a phone catches fire we would not expect that to invalidate the insurance for the resulting fire damage to other insured property, but the phone itself may not be covered for its self-destruction. We would hope most people would take up any supplier's/manufacturer's offer to resolve known problems in a recall situation," Lysaght added.

In addition to the above, if you have any old phones or other devices with batteries lying in a drawer somewhere, don't take the risk of them potentially catching fire and dispose of them.

Disposing the batteries could be a challenge, actually. I'm not suggesting anyone should panic, but the lithium-ion battery disposal situation needs to taken seriously. There are billions of devices with the combustible power sources out there, with more being made every day. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have given much thought to where they'll end once they're no longer usable though.

- NZ Herald

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Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen is a technology journalist and writer living in Auckland. Apart from contributing to the New Zealand Herald over the years, he has written for the Guardian, Wired, PC World, Computerworld and ITnews Australia, covering networking, hardware, software, enterprise IT as well as the business and social aspects of computing. A firm believer in the principle that trying stuff out makes you understand things better, he spends way too much time wondering why things just don’t work.

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