Hoverboard sparks California house fire: How safe are they?

As no quality standards have been set for hoverboards, their lithium-ion batteries and chargers, experts say there is no guarantee for complete safety, especially in light of a series of fires around the country. 

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
Phoenix Suns mascot, The Gorilla, moves around on a Hoverboard during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets, Jan. 6, in Phoenix.

A "hoverboard" is the probable cause of a fire in a California home Tuesday, killing two dogs. It had been charging in a girl’s bedroom, and fire officials say the incident caused $200,000 to $250,000 in damages.

Hoverboards, the two-wheeled, self-balancing electric-powered scooters that were one of the most popular holiday gifts of 2015, have been reported to catch on fire in recent incidents around the country.

In December, an “exploding” hoverboard destroyed a Louisiana home. In the same week, a hoverboard bursts into flames at Washington state mall. Since the string of destructive cases, some stores, including Amazon and Overstock.com, stopped carrying the product.

But the root of the problem, experts say, isn’t the hoverboard itself; it’s the power source. More often than not, the lithium-ion batteries used to power the scooters are prone to defects. Makers of inexpensive hoverboards, says Jay Whitacre, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University says, will opt for cheap components.

“There are a lot of factories in China that now make [lithium-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,” Dr. Whitacre told Wired. “These are known as ‘low cost li-ion batteries’ by most in the industry – they are not knockoffs or copies, but are instead just mass-manufactured cells.”

Lithium-ion batteries are used in common devices such as smartphones and tablets. But batteries built inside the footrest of a hoverboard are highly susceptible to wear-and-tear damage. Still, batteries aren’t the only concern, as chargers may be of poor quality as well.

Because hoverboards are a new product, standards of quality have yet to emerge. Experts say the smartest consumer decision would be to avoid the cheap ones – $300 or below. There are more than half a dozen brands, and popular ones, such as Swagway or PhunkeeDuck, run between $500 to $1,500.

UL-certification is something else to look for when choosing a hoverboard. Approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the UL organization runs safety tests on chargers and batteries. Other tips include checking for a trusty warranty and unplugging the device as soon as it’s charged.

But experts warn even these precautions don’t guarantee complete safety.

“To avoid all instances of hoverboard self-destruction and personal injury, do not buy a hoverboard,” warns Valentina Palladino or Ars Technica.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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