Are ‘hoverboards’ safe, as increasing incidents of them catching fire surface?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said they are looking into the safety of the popular holiday toy ‘hoverbard’, after the commission received at least 10 reports of the motorized, self-balancing scooters bursting into flames and with new reports increasing daily.

In the meantime, the country’s top product safety regulator says his agency is working “non-stop” to find the root cause for the fire hazards linked to the self-balancing scooters.

Elliot Kaye, CPSC Chairman, said on Wednesday that he has directed agency staff to intensify their investigation into the safety of hoverboards.

“The challenge is to move quickly but also thoroughly and carefully to find out why certain hoverboards caught fire,” Kaye said in a statement. “Every consumer who is riding a hoverboard, who purchased one to give as a gift during the holidays, or who is thinking about buying one deserves to know if there is a safety defect.”

In one heart-breaking incident, a family in Louisiana lost their entire home after one of the boards, purchased as a gift on Amazon for their 12-year-old son, started shooting flames from both ends while the battery was being charged.

“It was like fireworks, the middle part of the board – just ‘poof’,” the mother of the boy told Susan Roesgen at WGNO ABC.

And even more freaky, another of the devices – also sold through Amazon, and only in use for three days – reportedly exploded under the feet of an Alabama man as he rode it outside his house.

“I came outside turned it on, came down the sidewalk not even a 100 feet [30 metres], and it exploded,” Timothy Cade told Jacqueline Quynh at WKRG. “Batteries started shooting out of it; you would not expect a fire like that to come out of a little thing like that.”

These repeated demonstrations that hoverboards can constitute such serious fire hazards haven’t gone unnoticed. Numerous airlines have announced they will not let passengers bring hoverboards onto their planes, and Amazon has begun clamping down on the sale of the devices through its site, requiring evidence of safety compliance from hoverboard manufacturers and sellers.

The CPSC has taken possession of those that have caught fire and also purchased new hoverboards to better determine what causes the hazard.

Engineers at the National Product Testing and Evaluation Center are testing and will continue to test new and damaged boards, Kaye said, noting that staff is mainly looking closely at the configuration of the battery packs and compatibility with the chargers.

Even though the safety of hoverboards has largely centered on fire risks lately, Kaye took time to remind consumers that there are other risks, specifically that of falls.

“I do not want to downplay the fall hazard,” he said. “CPSC has received dozens of reports of injuries from hospital ERs that we have contracts with and they continue to feed us real-time data.”

Some of those injuries have been serious, including concussions, fractures, contusions/abrasions, and internal organ injuries.The agency reminded scooter riders to always wear a proper helmet and padding while using the device.

For now, the agency is actively investigating hoverboard-related fires across the country. However, looks like they won’t have to look far for answers. According to the reports by WIRED last week, many no-name, cheap hoverboards (some of them costing less than $200) are packed with low-end, Chinese-made lithium-ion batteries with a tendency to ignite.

“There are a lot of factories in China that now make li-ion batteries, and the reality is that the quality and consistency of these batteries is typically not as good as what is found in top-tier producers such as LG or Samsung,” Jay Whitacre, a researcher in materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University told WIRED. “These are known as ‘low cost li-ion batteries’ by most in the industry – they are not knock-offs or copies, but are instead just mass-manufactured cells.”

The fact of the matter is that cheaply made lithium-ion batteries assembled with sub-standard materials are already dangerous enough when used in things like smartphones and notebook computers. However, by putting them in a high-impact sport toy like a hoverboard may not be the smartest idea ever.

“If there is an inherent defect in the cell, it will go off at some point,” said Whitacre. “Small defects in the manufacturing or materials stream lead to the plus/minus sides of the batteries being shorted with each other after a small amount of use. When this happens, especially when the batteries are charged, a lot of heat is generated inside the cells and this leads to electrolyte boiling, the rupture of the cell casing, and then a significant fire.”

In order to raise the issue of hoverboard safety, CPSC on Wednesday came with a set of guidelines for those using hoverboards. Some of the guidelines include:

-Avoid buying the product at a location (like a mall kiosk) or on a website that does not have information about who is selling the product and how they can be contacted if there is a problem. If you do not think you could find the seller again, were a problem to arise with your board, that should be a warning to you not to do business with them.

-Do not charge a hoverboard overnight or when you are not able to observe the board.

-Charge in an open area away from combustibles (meaning items that can catch fire).

-Do not charge directly after riding. Let the device cool for an hour before charging.

-If giving a hoverboard to someone for the holidays, leave it in its partially charged state.

-Do not take it out of the package to bring it to a full charge and then wrap it back up. Often, the product comes partially charged. Leave it in that state until it is ready to be used.

-Look for the mark of a certified national testing laboratory. While this does not rule out counterfeits, the absence of such a mark means your safety is likely not a priority for that manufacturer.

The CPSC has urged people who encounter an issue with their hoverboard to file a report with them.