Home News and Features Lithium Battery Fires are Surging — Here’s How to Stay Safe 

Lithium Battery Fires are Surging — Here’s How to Stay Safe 

A Barre resident drops off batteries for recycling at the Additional Recyclables Collection Center. Photo courtesy of the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District.
By Lachlan Pinney

On Friday, April 14, a home fire in Walden brought the necessity of lithium battery safety into sharp relief. 

The blaze on Rock Road spread rapidly, torched the home, and took the life of a household pet. Walden Fire Chief Jason Larrabee identified a lithium-ion power tool battery as the culprit, and he stressed the importance of battery safety. His advice comes as news agencies report a growth of such fires in the Northeast; the New York Fire Department has responded to over 63 lithium-related fires between January and April, almost one incident every two days. An explosion on a Connecticut electric bus took the state’s whole battery-powered fleet out of service. A battery fire drove nine people from their home in Brockton, Massachusetts earlier this year. 

The Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District receives damaged and bloated lithium batteries from customers nearly every week at the Additional Recyclables Collection Center (ARCC) in Barre. While some customers are aware of the potential hazard, many more are not. Each interaction provides an opportunity to educate residents on battery safety and, hopefully, head off an emergency. With lithium battery fires surging, it is vital that Vermonters understand what lithium batteries do, where they are, and how to handle them.

In the modern-day household, most rechargeable electronics are powered by lithium-ion batteries. Your wireless headphones contain lithium batteries; your electric toothbrush contains a lithium battery; the laptop at your desk is charged by a rectangular lithium battery no thicker than a wedding ring. You are using lithium-powered devices when a cell phone is connected to a Bluetooth speaker to play tunes. 

According to the Department of Energy, these batteries’ “light weight, high energy density, and ability to recharge” have made them popular for home use, and their importance will only grow as new technologies emerge. The White House guidebook to the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 highlights tax credits not only for electric vehicles but also for battery-charged energy storage systems, which could prove pivotal in home electrification. 

With lithium-powered electronics here to stay, people need to know about battery safety and handling. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources’ lithium battery fact sheet identifies common battery shapes, sizes, and locations. Take stock of the battery-powered appliances in your home, their age, and their condition. Watch for swollen or damaged batteries, which may present a hazard. Handle batteries carefully so as not to crush or puncture them. 

After the Walden home fire, Captain Prescott Nadeau of the Williston Fire Department urged Vermonters to ensure that chargers for wireless appliances comply with manufacturer specifications. Never leave appliances with large energy cells, such as power tools, e-bikes, or electric lawn mowers, charging overnight. Most household fire extinguishers cannot put out a lithium battery fire. To prevent damage to property or loss of life, immediately remove any hot-to-the-touch battery from the home and place it outside in a container with dirt, sand, or kitty litter until it cools. Call your local fire department if needed.

While aging, defective, or bloated lithium batteries are not necessarily an immediate fire hazard, they are dangerous. The staff at the ARCC is trained to process and store these items, and they encourage everyone to inform themselves on their safe handling. Local residents are already achieving remarkable progress; last year, thanks to the efforts of ARCC customers and staff, the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District won the Call2Recycle Leader in Sustainability award for safely recycling nearly 9000 pounds of household batteries. As wireless appliances proliferate, and their risks draw national attention, Vermonters have an opportunity to set an example of responsible battery stewardship.

Lachlan Pinney is the Recycling and Household Hazardous Waste Program Coordinator at the CVSWMD, and works with the public to responsibly dispose of a wide variety of household recyclables.