It’s not uncommon for films and books in the horror, sci-fi, and mystery genres to feature characters “spontaneously combusting.” In the real world, “reality” shows documenting strange mysteries sometimes feature instances where people have, to outward appearances, erupted into flames without any readily apparent cause.
Whether in fiction or the real world, instances of spontaneous combustion are usually traced to outside forces or poor personal choices. In fiction, the cause might be pyrokinesis, a curse, witchcraft, or, in mysteries, some elaborate device that causes the targeted character to catch fire. In the real world, the causes, when discovered, are usually much more mundane, such as falling asleep with a burning cigarette in one’s hand, or faulty electric wiring in a blanket or nearby space heater.
A real world example of spontaneous combustion, which is becoming far too common, is technologies tied to lithium ion batteries erupting into flames without any apparent outside cause. This endangers lives and property, not just with the flames, but also from the toxic fumes these fires emit.
Airlines were among the first to take notice of this problem, banning certain products containing lithium ion batteries from planes entirely. Airlines also restricted the class of battery devices that can be carried in carry-on luggage to batteries with limited storage capacity.
Dozens of stories from the past couple of years detail instances wherein either the battery systems connected to recently installed solar arrays or electric vehicle batteries being charged in garages spontaneously combusted, burning down peoples’ homes, or parts of their homes, in the process. Indeed, in August of 2021, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported approximately 12,000 residential energy solar panel systems battery modules had been recalled by their manufacturers in 2020 and to that point in 2021, due to the threat of spontaneous combustion. Mind you this wasn’t because the electricians failed to do their jobs when wiring the systems, the fires were caused by the systems themselves overheating and bursting into flames.
News stories and government reports also detail numerous instances of electric vehicles spontaneously catching fire. When an electric vehicle catches fire in or after an accident, that’s one thing, after all, cars with internal combustion engines can catch fire when this occurs as well. It’s another thing entirely, however, when a car spontaneously catches fire when stuck in traffic, or when unattended, parked on the street or in one’s garage. Electric vehicles have been known to do this, especially while charging or caught in highway gridlock. In fact, in 2021, Chevrolet recalled all of its electric Bolts to replace their battery modules because of spontaneous fire risk.
Then there are the large-scale fires associated with the battery modules intended for, or installed in, electric vehicles. In late July, a fire erupted at one of the largest battery factories in the world, a partnership with Tesla in Australia. During testing, the factory caught fire. The factory burned for days, with firefighters unable to initially fight the blaze, due lack of respirator equipment in the face of the toxic fumes from the fire. Authorities told nearby residents to stay indoors and close windows and other air vents.
The fire at the Australian battery factory fire was not unique. CNBC has detailed more than 40 such spontaneous combustion incidents at battery factories or battery storage facilities in recent years. A fire at a battery factory in Arizona in 2019 seriously injured two emergency responders and two firefighters in China were killed when a battery module connected to roof-top solar panels at a shopping mall burst into flames.
In mid-February, a cargo ship carrying battery-powered Porches, Bentleys, and Volkswagens, vehicles totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in value, erupted into flames. Whether the battery modules caused the fire is unknown. What it known, however, is that battery packs fueled the fire, making it grow quickly, and emit toxic fumes. Neither the ship’s fire suppression system nor the crew were able to suppress the fire. The crew was forced to abandon the ship. It burned for days. The ship subsequently sank, before a salvage crew could get it safely to port.
Whatever one thinks of new large-battery technologies like EVs and roof-top solar charging stations, before adding one to your home or garage, check with your homeowner’s insurance to ascertain the conditions that need to be met to not void your coverage in the case of a battery caused fire. Either require special wiring, which needs to be certified as having been done correctly by your local government agency in charge of such things. Absent that, if a battery fire burns your house down, you may find yourself in for a second shock when the insurance says the incident is not covered.
Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (email@example.com) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois