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Insurer Aviva issues warning over rising claims related to lithium-ion battery fires

15 January 2024

INSURER AVIVA is urging consumers to be “on their guard” after witnessing a 7% increase in customer claims across the past year in relation to fires started by lithium-ion batteries, which are commonly found in rechargeable devices including smart phones, tablets, power tools, e-bikes and e-scooters.

The data, which encompasses fire claims across 2022 and 2023, includes a significant house fire started by an e-cigarette being charged with an incompatible charger, extensive fire damage to a house after an e-bike with a second-hand battery was left charging unattended in a bedroom, a smart phone which exploded during charging after becoming wet, an annexe which was destroyed by fire after batteries were left charging unattended and a fire in a garage after a faulty charger was used to charge a remote control car.

This trend in claims is highlighted in additional research commissioned by the insurer, which reveals that one-in-nine Brits have suffered a fire (11%) or explosion (11%) in their home due to a lithium-ion battery or device. Almost one-in-ten (9%) have experienced the scorching of a surface where a lithium-ion battery or device was charging, while two-in-ten (20%) have experience a battery or device overheating at some point.

Earbud explosion

Ian, 57, a customer assistant from the Isle of Wight, was at home when his Bluetooth earbuds exploded. He said: “I was charging my headphones next to me on the sofa and, without realising, accidentally plugged them in using an incorrect charger. The light didn’t illuminate properly, but I still thought they were charging.”

He continued: “After about five minutes, the headphones started smoking and, within seconds, both the headphones and the battery case exploded. The metal and plastic from the headphones then melted to the sofa and set it ablaze.”

In conclusion, he observed: “Luckily, I was able to put the flames out, but I had a shock and have been left with a burn hole in my sofa. I dread to think what would have happened if I had been asleep or wasn’t present in the property. There’s no doubt that the sofa and house would have gone up in flames.”

Lack of awareness

Worryingly, despite most Brits (79%) – that’s circa 43.2 million people – owning a device that contains a lithium-ion battery, and more than one-third of the UK population (around 18.5 million) receiving a device containing such a battery as a Christmas gift, awareness around the risks posed is low.

The research shows that more than two-in-five adults (41%) don’t know what a lithium-ion battery is, while more than two-fifths (42%) are unaware of the fire risks associated with charging them.

Likewise, more than seven-in-ten adults (71%) don’t know the warning signs of a lithium-ion battery that’s about to fail, among them overheating, poor performance and bulging or leaking batteries.

There’s also a lack of awareness of the devices which contain lithium-ion batteries, with just over one-third of adults (37%) correctly identifying mobile phones as having them, alongside laptops (33%), tablets (22%) and vapes (22%). Awareness is also low for items like power tools (23%) and smart home devices such as doorbells (20%) and electric toothbrushes (17%).

Significant fire risk

Hannah Davidson, senior underwriting manager at Aviva, informed Fire Safety Matters: “For the majority of people, devices powered by lithium-ion batteries such as mobile phones, laptops, power tools and e-bikes are safe to use. However, these batteries can present a significant fire risk if the battery fails, is faulty or is otherwise charged incorrectly.”

Davidson continued: “Likewise, with consumers buying lithium-ion batteries and lithium-powered devices from second-hand retailers or sellers, there’s an increased potential for the batteries to be damaged or faulty on purchase, for the battery in the device to be different to the original or for the charger supplied with the device to be the incorrect one.”

Worryingly, Davidson noted: “Fires caused by lithium-ion batteries can devastate a property and are more difficult to extinguish. With this in mind, we urge customers to be aware of the fire risk from lithium-ion batteries and protect themselves and their properties from potentially devastating outcomes.”

According to Davidson: “Taking simple steps, such as always using a manufacturer-recommended battery, practising safe charging techniques and knowing how to spot the early warning signs of a potential battery fire can make a very real difference. Having the right insurance in place is also critical to protecting homes and belongings if the worst should happen.”

Incorrect chargers

Aviva claims data highlights a worrying trend of unsafe practices leading to fires, with numerous blazes starting due to customers using the wrong charger for the battery or device, overcharging their devices or leaving batteries and devices unattended while they’re charging.

This trend is backed up by the research, which found that under one-third (32%) of adults always use the charger supplied with their handheld devices/tablets, or recommended by the manufacturer, when charging their mobile phone. Less than three-in-ten adults (27%) unplug their device once it’s fully charged and almost one-in-ten (9%) leave their mobile phone charging while they’re not present in their property.

The research also reveals that more than one-in-ten individuals (13%) – that’s over seven million Brits – don’t have a smoke alarm or any other fire safety devices fitted in their homes.

Staying safe around lithium-ion batteries

Proper care of lithium-ion batteries and devices can help to extend the life of the battery and reduce the risk of battery fires.

Use the original battery for the device or a manufacturer-recommended battery if a replacement is needed. Using non-compatible batteries can cause the battery to fail and turn into a fire risk.

Monitor the condition of the battery or device. Check for damage including bulging, dents or any signs of overheating. If you notice any damage, stop using the device immediately and replace the battery.

Learn the signs that a lithium-ion battery is about to fail. These include excessive heat, unusual smells, bulging batteries, leaking, unusual noises such as cracking or hissing and poor performance of a device.

Store batteries and devices safely. When not in use, store them in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and flammable materials.

Ensure you have smoke alarms installed at your property. Early warning systems such as smoke alarms and heat alarms can alert you to fires before they become a serious threat to life.

Charging lithium-ion batteries

Always use manufacturer-approved chargers specifically designed for the device. Cheap or counterfeit chargers can be deadly as they may lack safety features and cause overcharging and overheating.

Avoid overcharging the battery. Disconnect your device when it’s fully charged and unplug the charger. Leaving items on charge continuously, such as overnight while sleeping, can be a significant fire hazard.

Monitor batteries and devices while charging and don’t leave them unattended. There are numerous cases of fires starting while people are charging items in different rooms, when they’re asleep or when they’ve left the house. Catching an overheating battery early on in that process can help reduce the risk of a serious fire or serious injury.

Charge batteries and devices in a safe location. Charge on a flat, non-flammable surface. Avoid charging batteries or devices on soft surfaces such as beds or close to flammable materials and hazardous substances. If a lithium-ion battery overheats, it can ignite flammable materials and cause a fire.

Never charge batteries or devices in hallways, doors or blocking escape routes. If there’s a fire, you will need to be able to escape safely.

Inspect cables and connectors for any signs of damage and wear. Replace any frayed or damaged components to prevent short-circuiting.

Do not charge lithium-ion batteries in high temperatures or in direct sunlight. High temperatures can cause the battery to overheat and is a fire risk.

Charge and store batteries in a fire-resistant box. The latter will offer some protection if the battery or device overheats and catches fire, containing the explosion and helping towards the prevention of serious fire damage.

*For further information visit www.aviva.co.uk