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Blog: Are Your Tool Batteries Safe?

During the holiday season, national news outlets covered problems associated with a new product on the market referred to as a hoverboard. More specifically, the media suggested it was lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries that were responsible for the fires, explosions and personal injuries. 

This news may have caused contractors to wonder how safe your power tool batteries really are. The tool industry is converting more and more corded tools to battery-powered ones, and you have them in your trucks and businesses, on your job sites and even in your homes. 

You use them in all climates—in hot, cold, humid and rainy conditions. Occasionally they are abused in ways never sanctioned by the manufacturer. So are they safe?

What’s wrong with the batteries?

Aside from the fact that hoverboards are creating a lot of business for orthopedic surgeons, they also put a high demand on batteries. They accelerate heavy loads, sometimes at high speeds, causing batteries to provide high amperage to motors and producing high temperatures in the process. 

In the hands of inexperienced users, hoverboards often bang into things at high speeds, causing physical damage to batteries. They also achieved popularity very quickly and were “the gift to give.” This popularity caused many unknown companies to put a product on the market. Adding to this perfect storm, the units had to have the lowest possible price tag to satisfy the market. 

Battery basics

In an ideal world, contractors want batteries to be small, lightweight and have lots of power with long run times. This means a high amount of energy must be stored in a dense space. Li-ion batteries can do that, but they present challenges:

•    They become unstable at high temperatures.
•    Battery cells are sensitive to physical abuse.
•    They can degrade internally when charged at low temperatures.
•    They must not be discharged too quickly in order to control the development of high internal temperatures.
•    Overcharging and too much discharge can damage them.
•    When manufactured improperly, they can overheat, cause fires and even explode.

Quality tool manufacturers solve many of the above challenges by including software in the batteries, in the tools they power and in the charging units. Li-ion batteries can’t work properly without software management, which is becoming more and more complex.

Battery cases, especially higher voltage platforms, have air passages that help to reduce battery temperatures while they are being used. Many chargers incorporate fans that automatically turn on when battery temperatures exceed safe charging temperatures. 

Most reputable tool manufacturers do make their own batteries, but they buy the cells from highly qualified, trusted manufacturers, who usually provide cells made to the tool company’s specifications.

It’s all in a name

There is speculation that some hoverboard fires and explosions are the result of unknown suppliers making battery cells with separators between the anode and cathode (the plus and minus sides of the battery) that leak or are misaligned in the manufacturing process, causing electrical shorts that build up intense heat. 

If you don’t want to worry about your battery-powered tools, buy the best brands. This is one of those times when brand name counts. They will probably cost a little more than off-brand tools, but you will get value, and you can prevent battery-caused fires and explosions. 

Here are some things you should do to avoid battery problems:

•    Don’t leave batteries under hot sunlight.
•    Replace batteries with ones made by the same manufacturer, not ones from an after-market, unknown source.
•    Don’t try to recharge batteries with chargers made by other manufacturers.
•    Protect batteries from physical damage.
•    Keep them clean, and don’t let air passages designed to help batteries dissipate heat fill up with dirt.
•    Follow all of the manufacturer’s safety and maintenance instructions, which are specified in the user manual supplied with the tools when purchased.

——

Joe Nasvik is a writer and editor serving the construction and concrete industries. He has 18 years’ experience as a concrete contractor. Contact him at jnasvik@sbcglobal.net.

Be sure to join the Lowe’s ProServices LinkedIn Group to read additional content and interact with other Construction/Trade and MRO professionals.

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