Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on March 1, 2016.

Hot Wheels

What the holiday hoverboard flap illustrated about public safety

BY LORRAINE CARLI

It may seem like the holiday season was a long time ago, but we are still feeling the repercussions of a fire phenomenon that appeared at the end of last year.

The holidays are usually a busy time of year for NFPA outreach efforts. It’s a fire-risk perfect storm—holiday decorating and cooking combine with seasonal heating issues to make December one of the top fire months of the year. We work hard to make sure we are promoting the simple steps people can take to prevent fires, focusing on some of the usual culprits, including Christmas trees, space heaters, and unattended stovetops.

This past year, hoverboards provided an added twist to holiday safety. The devices—two-wheeled, self-balancing scooters based on gizmos first glimpsed in the 1989 movie Back to the Future II — became very popular, and they became the hottest item on holiday wish lists the world over. But with the flurry of sales came a flurry of warnings from safety organizations, including NFPA, and with good reason: hoverboards had an unfortunate tendency to catch fire, the result, in many cases, of overheated lithium ion batteries. Hoverboard fires were reported from England to Australia, with numerous incidents occurring in the United States.

The reaction to the problem was swift. The U.S. Postal Service said it would only ship hoverboards by ground, and several airlines banned them. Amazon pulled most models from its website. A number of colleges outlawed them when students returned from winter break. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission initiated an investigation into how hoverboards are made.

Because hoverboards are fairly new to the market, there are still some things we don’t know about them. But NFPA does know something about new and emerging power sources, in particular lithium ion batteries. If damaged from overcharging or charged with a mismatched charger, lithium ion batteries can overheat and cause a fire.

Most hoverboard fires have apparently been related to charging, so consumers should pay close attention to this process and follow the safety tips that apply to charging other electronic devices: adults should be responsible for the charging; do not leave a charging hoverboard unattended; never leave the hoverboard plugged in overnight; and only use the charging cord that came with the hoverboard.

Also, lithium ion batteries can be damaged by extreme hot or cold temperatures, and hoverboards should not be exposed to such temperatures. As with many other electronic devices, the presence of smoke, odors, leaking fluid, sparking, or excessive heat are all signs that a hoverboard may have a battery problem. Stop using the device immediately, call 911, and, if safe to do so, move the hoverboard outside and away from anything that can burn.

In February, UL announced the development of a new procedure to evaluate, test, and certify self-balancing scooters . NFPA recognizes the importance of such tools, along with safety standards, and urges consumers to choose devices with the seal of an independent testing laboratory and to read and follow all manufacturer directions.

Sometimes at NFPA we can feel a bit like the killjoys, throwing water on what other folks think is fun. In this instance, though, you only need to look at a few of the pictures of hoverboard fires to see that the concern was, and remains, justified.

LORRAINE CARLI is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA. Top Photograph: Shutterstock