Implementing fire safety measures for lithium-ion battery risks in residential buildings

Lithium-ion battery fires in properties are a pressing concern. Daniel Robins, projects director at CheckFire, explores measures building managers and landlords should take to ensure property and lives are protected.

With lithium-ion batteries becoming increasingly prevalent in everyday life, so do the associated fire risks. As more people store rechargeable electric devices on their properties, from smaller items such as smartphones, wireless headphones, and electric toothbrushes, to larger items such as e-bikes and e-scooters, it is crucial residential buildings are equipped with the correct precautions and fire safety equipment to handle these unique fires. 

With UK fire services responding to 46% more fires linked to these batteries in 2023 than in the previous year, it’s now recognised in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 that lithium-ion batteries are to be considered in all fire risk assessments in England and Wales – including for housing associations, landlord associations, and private landlords.

Understanding lithium-ion battery fires

Lithium-ion batteries, while efficient and powerful, are susceptible to thermal runaway. This phenomenon occurs when a battery cell undergoes an uncontrollable increase in temperature and pressure, and can lead to an explosion and fire. Factors such as overcharging, overheating, physical damage, or internal malfunctions can trigger this dangerous sequence of events. Once ignited, this type of fire is difficult to extinguish due to the flammable electrolytes within the batteries, which can reignite even after the initial blaze is quelled.

Tailored fire safety solutions

Each class of fire has to be tackled by a fire extinguisher specifically designed to address the unique challenges it poses. Therefore, it’s imperative that housing organisations and landlords ensure fire extinguishers specifically designed to combat these fires are installed. There is currently only one fire extinguisher on the market that not only extinguishes flames from lithium-ion battery fires, but also draws out heat from the battery, effectively halting thermal runaway in its infancy to prevent other cells from heating and exploding. It boasts high Class A ratings, offering protection from any secondary fires caused by the exploding battery.

Proactive measures and regular maintenance

In addition to installing the correct fire extinguishers, regular maintenance and proactive safety measures are essential. For example, choosing high-quality products from reputable brands ensures batteries meet safety standards and have undergone rigorous testing. It’s also imperative to avoid overcharging by following the manufacturer’s recommendations and unplugging devices once fully charged. 

Landlords and housing associations should be aware of, and educate tenants on, the importance of correct placement, protection, and disposal of devices containing lithium-ion batteries. 

The location of devices containing lithium-ion batteries throughout residences should be carefully considered. Monitoring temperature and keeping devices and spare batteries out of direct sunlight and hot environments, as well as refraining from using them in extremely cold conditions, helps prevent overheating, which can initiate thermal runaway.

Furthermore, protecting devices from physical damage with protective cases or covers and handling all lithium-ion batteries with care is vital. Regularly inspecting devices for signs of wear and tear, such as swollen batteries or cracks, and consulting manufacturers or professional technicians for repair or replacement when needed ensures safety. 

Finally, ensuring the responsible disposal of old or damaged batteries at designated recycling centres can also prevent thermal runaway and associated fire risks. An increase in the number of these devices being thrown in household rubbish bins has led to more than 1,200 fires in the waste system in the past 12 months, compared with 700 in 2022.

Drawing on fire safety experts

Collaboration with local fire services and adherence to the latest safety standards and regulations are essential. It’s vital for housing organisations to engage with fire safety experts to continually refine their fire safety protocols and ensure compliance with legal requirements. This collaboration can include training sessions for staff and residents on the dangers of lithium-ion batteries and the proper use of fire extinguishers.

Compliance with regulations and standards

Staying updated with the latest fire safety regulations and standards is crucial for housing organisations. The evolving nature of technology and the increasing prevalence of lithium-ion batteries necessitate a dynamic approach to safety protocols. It’s imperative for Organisations to invest in regular training and certification programs for their staff to ensure they are well-equipped to handle any fire-related incidents.

Community awareness and education

Educating residents about the risks associated with lithium-ion batteries and the importance of proper charging practices is another critical step. Housing organisations can organise workshops and distribute informational materials that highlight best practices for battery use and storage. By fostering a community-wide understanding of these risks, organisations can significantly reduce the likelihood of fire incidents.

The rising use of lithium-ion batteries in everyday devices presents a new set of challenges for housing organisations. With the potential for catastrophic fires, it is imperative that property managers and landlords take proactive steps to mitigate these risks. Installing the right fire extinguishers, maintaining rigorous safety standards, collaborating with fire safety experts, and educating the community are all essential measures to protect both property and lives.

By adopting comprehensive fire safety measures and staying vigilant about the risks associated with lithium-ion batteries, housing organisations can ensure a safer environment for all residents. The key lies in preparedness, education, and collaboration with experts to navigate the complexities of this modern fire safety challenge.

Daniel Robins is the projects director at CheckFire, a market leader in the UK fire trade.