Should laptops come with a fire extinguisher?

The push to pack more power into less space may increase the severity of damage in worst-case scenarios

When pictures of flaming laptops blaze across the Internet, and Dell and Apple recall nearly 6 million lithium ion batteries, it's natural to wonder whether we can trust our portable devices. Billions of these batteries power everything from cell phones to cameras to Segways. And the push is invariably to pack more power into less space, increasing the severity of the damage in a worst-case scenario.

Incidents are rare

All 4.1 million Dell lithium ion batteries and 1.8 million Apple batteries in the recall contained cells made by Sony Energy Devices of Japan. A manufacturing defect led to rare instances where batteries overheated and even caught fire (Dell reported six confirmed cases, and Apple nine).

If you're looking askance at your portable device, relax. Experts say the batteries, which can generate two to three times as much continuous power as other rechargeable battery types, are not unsafe. The battery packs incorporate multiple layers of internal safety monitoring that rely on CPUs and sensors along with control technologies such as vents and chemical fuses. Normally, a problem battery will power down automatically when a short circuit occurs, before any serious overheating or fire can develop.

Of course, if these precautions worked perfectly, Dell wouldn't have undertaken what the Consumer Product and Safety Commission says was the largest consumer electronic device recall in history (Apple's was the second largest). Sony says other batteries, including some in Sony VAIO notebooks, use the defective cells too; but safety measures in those batteries eliminate the risk, it says, and no further recalls are planned. Though any battery carries some inherent dangers, Sony has changed its manufacturing process to fix the defect.

The odds against

Will your laptop explode? The odds against are extremely high. Even if 50 times more incidents (or 300 total) happened than were reported to Dell or the CPSC, that would translate into only about 1 in 1000 chances that any Dell laptop battery shipped during the recall period (not just those being recalled) would overheat. Dell calculates that it shipped a total of 24.9 million batteries during the recall period (April 2004 to July 2006). Apple's problem batteries shipped between October 2003 and August 2006.

Given the sheer numbers of lithium ion batteries being cranked out every day, future recalls seem inevitable, despite manufacturers' work on safer designs and technologies. But if you follow basic safety precautions, you can probably leave the fire extinguisher at home.

Portable Power Safeguards

- To see whether your laptop is affected, go to Battery Recall (Dell) or Battery Exchange Program iBook G4 and PowerBook G4. If it is, pull the battery and use the power cord until you get a replacement.

- Cheap third-party batteries may skimp on safety, so be careful where you buy. A laptop's manufacturer is normally the best choice.

- Use only the type of charger made for your specific battery.

- Don't leave your device or battery in the hot sun or other toasty spot. High ambient heat can increase the risk of overheating.

- Impact and pressure are bad, too. A faulty latch that could damage the battery if the laptop were dropped prompted a recent (but much smaller) Panasonic battery recall.

- Never carry a battery pack--whether charged or dead, in a bag that contains loose change, car keys, or other metallic items; doing this could result in a short between the battery's terminals. Instead, put the battery in its own bag or other container first.

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