The fire danger hiding in household batteries

Leslie Rhode/KXAN News Special Contributor - AUSTIN (KXAN) -- When you have three small boys running around your house, you also have a slew of electronic toys and gadgets that come along with it. To make sure she was always prepared for long road trips and car pools, Jennifer Buaas kept extra AA and AAA batteries in her vehicle, just in case one of her boys needed to power one of their toys.

Early Halloween morning, Jennifer heard a car horn going off in her driveway.

"My husband grabbed the keys, went to the garage, opened the garage door and the Suburban was completely on fire," said Jennifer.

By the time she woke up her three young sons and rushed them outside to safety, the fire had spread from the SUV to the garage, and it was moving fast. Jennifer's husband, Travis, quickly called 911.

"All kind of stuff was popping," said Travis Buaas. "It sounded like fireworks were going off. It was pretty loud. Scary."

When the North Hays County Fire/Rescue teams arrived, the flames had spread through the garage and up into the attic of their home. Crews worked to control the fire as gusty winds pushed smoke throughout the house.

After surveying the damaged and charred areas, fire investigators determined the cause of the fire. The Buaas family assumed it was something that went wrong in the engine of the SUV, but the investigator discovered the fire actually started inside the console of the vehicle. He told them the fire likely started with a handful of AA batteries and some DVDs.

"He said the batteries could have gotten jostled, so they were touching," said Jennifer. "The terminals were touching, and you have a DVD with the metallic coating of the DVD.  He said it's a good combination for fire."

The private investigator's report from Rimkus Consulting Group, Incorporated concluded, "The fire was the result of light weight combustible materials being ignited by heat produced from loose batteries short circuiting against loose metallic objects stored within the console."

In other words, the small AA-batteries got into just the right position, came into contact with the DVDs and generated enough heat to set scraps of paper in the console on fire. Jennifer kept the spare batteries in her car for her sons' wireless headsets used when watching the vehicle's built in DVD player.

The Science Behind the Fire

Captain Ken Bailey, who teaches students at the Austin Community College Fire Training Academy, does not doubt that something with a small voltage like a household battery could start a fire if the conditions are right.

"It takes contacting the negative and positive posts with something metal, then you start building up heat," said Bailey. "You confine it in a drawer or put it in a paper sack and confine it, it will build up enough heat that it can't dissipate out into the air, and eventually it will reach 451 degrees which is the ignition temperature of paper."

Bailey showed KXAN News it only takes minutes for temperatures to rise when a 9-volt battery touches something like a penny. With the negative and positive posts of the battery so close together, it is easy to complete the circuit and produce heat. The temperature of the battery can go up in minutes to more than 100 degrees.

Bailey says it would not be as likely for a AA battery to start a fire because the positive and negative posts are on opposite ends of the battery, but when KXAN News pointed an infrared thermometer at a battery that had ends of a paper clip touching both posts, the temperature quickly rose to 80 degrees.

The conditions would have to be just right with metal touching a AA battery or more than one AA battery to complete the electrical circuit. Then, some sort of combustible material like paper would need to be nearby for the fire to start. Fire investigators say perfect conditions for a battery fire are found often in junk drawers containing loose batteries and metal objects like paper clips or keys. Batteries can also be hazards in garages where they are stored loose in boxes or bags with metal items.

Preventing Battery Fires

         Leslie Rhode's Blog

According to records kept by the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office, batteries are to blame for 20 residential home fires in Texas from 2011 to 2015. Out of the 20, two involved homes in Central Texas-but not the Buass' home. While the family's insurance company determined the fire was caused by the batteries, fire officials ruled the fire started from the car and spread to the house. Fire officials tell KXAN News batteries are often overlooked when determining the cause of a fire.

The likelihood of common household batteries causing a fire in your home may be low, but it is easy to prevent if you store batteries properly.

"If you store them in the packaging you bought them in, you're going to reduce the likelihood of it causing an issue," said Lt. Jacob Wade with North Hays County Fire/Rescue. "If you can't store them that way, if you need to store some in your car, we recommend putting a strip of electrical tape over both terminal ends."

Battery Storage Tips:
  • Keep 9-volt batteries in original packaging
  • Store batteries standing up
  • Never store in containers with other batteries
  • Never store them loose

Most battery manufacturers remind consumers on the back of the battery packaging to store them in their original case. Jennifer now takes it even a step further: she purchased plastic battery storage containers that keep batteries in the proper position without touching any other object. Jennifer says she also puts tape over battery posts even when they are old and before she throws them away. She considers it a safe step to prevent the possibility of those batteries coming in contact with metal and paper.

Jennifer has spent a lot of time going through things damaged by the fire, smoke or water in her house and says she has learned a great lesson in adaptability. She is also on a mission to tell others about the possible dangers from the improper storage of small household batteries. She even shared her family's story in every Christmas card they sent out this past holiday-in hopes that her friends and family will learn the value of proper battery storage.

"Just simple organization can help you from possibly burning your house down."

Most county waste disposal and recycling services accept used batteries like those in Hays County and Williamson County. There are also several battery drop off locations in Austin.

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