Tips & Tweaks: Explosive Notebooks

Update: At press time, Dell and the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a voluntarily--and massive--recall of over 4.1 million lithium ion batteries manufactured by Sony. (Okay, so we don't use a press for this online column, but you get the idea.)

As you'll read later, some of Dell's batteries have erupted into flames.

If you want to find out if your battery's one that's being recalled, check the list of computers on Dell's site. If it's easier for you, call 866/342-0011. In the meantime, Dell advises you to turn off your notebook, remove the battery, and use the AC adapter to power the system. --Steve

I first wrote off the report of a Dell notebook bursting into flames as a typical urban legend. No such luck. A laptop did indeed burst into flames in June at a conference in Japan. The story was on the International Herald Tribune's site and YahooNews--honestly, it was. The link's dead now, so read the one saved in Google's cache. Gizmodo has some pictures.

And the kicker is, it happened again about a month later. Read about it on Tomshardware Forumz. [Thanks for the tip, Robert D.]

Wait! You want yet another kicker? Try the exploding laptop in Singapore. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the owner thought it was a fluke. In a blog post he goes on to say that the only Dell rep that contacted him was from the company's legal department.

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On the Record: Dell Doesn't Deny

I called Dell spokeswoman Anne Camden for a comment. (You didn't think I had such great connections, right? Anne was surprised too.)

I tried wheedling her for a bombshell. I wanted some dirt. And I could almost hear her thinking, "No way, Bass." She stuck to her corporate line:

"Dell meets or exceeds battery specs for over 20 countries worldwide. They [batteries] are designed to increase safety by incorporating failsafe features to stop overcharging."

She wasn't finished.

"Suppliers are geared to the same stringent standards and high priority on evaluating and investigation of the safety concerns of both batteries and products."

What about the incident in Japan? I asked, fishing for some culpability.

"[We have] the notebook and battery. [It was a] lithium ion battery and the initial investigation shows a problem with one of the cells. We're absolutely concerned and relieved that no one was hurt in the incident," she said.

She also explained that the majority of notebooks and cell phones use lithium ion batteries. Notebook batteries typically have six cells, but may have as many as nine.

So much for my interviewing skills.

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Not New: Exploding Batteries

The problem isn't new. We reported on battery problems three years ago and again late last year; read "Mobile Battery Problems Explode" and "Dell Recalls Laptop Batteries" for details.

Of course, Dell's not the only manufacturer suffering from battery problems. Nikon had a recall in December, and according to a report by WCCO, a CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, the battery in a Mac notebook caught fire in May; WCCO also reports that there have been about 43 incidents of batteries catching fire in the last two years.

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The Hazards of Notebook Batteries

Okay, so all this was making me a bit nervous, so I did some research to reassure myself that this exploding battery thing isn't really a big deal. Maybe those incidents I heard about were just freak accidents. But the more digging I did, the more I found out that portable batteries are even more dangerous than I'd imagined.

I contacted the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association for information on safe handling of batteries. Like so many trade associations, it didn't offer much I could use. The association's site does have a FAQ with safety advice, but it would only be useful if I were planning to ship lithium ion batteries.

I found a few good sources of general information, though. For some background, read Charlie Demerjian's "The INQUIRER Guide to Exploding Batteries." For details on what lithium ion batteries are made of, how they work, and what they're used for, read Wikipedia's entry on the topic. You might want also want to plow through a white paper on MPower Solutions' site.

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Safety Tips

There are a couple critical ways to safely use any lithium battery:

  1. It's essential that you use the charger that's specifically designed for your battery. Use the wrong charger and there's a chance you can overcharge the battery.
  2. Keep the battery--and your notebook--as cool as possible. Don't store the notebook in the trunk of your car. When you're using it for long periods of time, get a cooling tray.
Steve Bass writes PC World's monthly "Hassle-Free PC" column and is the author of PC Annoyances, 2nd Edition: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer, available from O'Reilly. He also writes PC World's daily Tips & Tweaks blog. Sign up to have Steve's newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.
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