It is essential to know how to deal with a lithium battery fire on a boat to avoid tragic accidents from happening.
In September 2019 the Conception dive boat tragedy killed 34 people. The 75ft dive boat caught fire trapping 33 passengers and 1 crew member in the bunk area. All 34 people died of smoke inhalation. Investigators believe the fire was started in the salon and was caused by a lithium battery fire from one of the cellphones or cameras that had been plugged in to charge overnight.
Lithium battery fires on a boat are no laughing matter. Fortunately, the risk of fire from the boat’s main LiFePO4 batteries (if installed) is very low. The risk of a lithium battery in an electronic device such as an e-cigarette or cell phone catching fire while being charged is high. This risk is magnified when the device is operated in the corrosive marine environment for an extended period.
Lithium battery fires are caused by thermal runaway, this is when the heat generated inside the battery exceeds the rate at which it can be discharged. An unstoppable chain reaction starts within the battery, progressing from cell to cell causing the battery to catch fire or even explode.
Not only is a lithium battery fire dangerous from the fire point of view, but toxic chemicals are also released when the battery catches fire.
How to Fight a Lithium Battery Fire
It is essential that every boater knows how to extinguish a lithium battery fire. The risk is real and knowing in advance how to fight a lithium battery fire is key.
The most important thing to remember with any lithium battery fire is that not only do you want to kill the flames, but you want to reduce the heat in the battery to prevent it from reigniting.
- First, extinguish the fire with a water fire extinguisher or a BC or ABC dry chemical fire extinguisher.
- If you don’t have a water extinguisher or a fire extinguisher cover it in water or any non-alcoholic, non-flammable liquid to kill the flames
- Douse the fire with water to cool it down. If you have cold water use it, you are trying to cool down the battery.
- Try and get the water inside the device if possible this will cool it faster.
- WARNING: The device should not be picked up or moved, as bodily injury may result.
- WARNING: The smoking or burning device shouldn’t be covered. Don’t use ice to cool the device. Ice or other materials insulate the device, this increases the likelihood that additional battery cells will reach thermal runaway.
- Carry on cooling the device and let it rest without touching for at least 15 minutes.
- Put the device in a container full of water and make sure it is submerged.
This advice comes from the FAA and Transport Canada as the procedure for dealing with a lithium battery fire on an aircraft. This advice holds true for dealing with a lithium battery fire on a boat. If you would like to read the full guidance policy from the FAA you can find it here, and Transport Canada’s guidance is here.
Our Lithium Battery Fire
We had a lithium battery fire on our boat. Fortunately, we caught it early while it was smoldering and the device didn’t burst into flames. We were fortunate and had a bucket of water nearby which we dropped it into. I was shocked to find that the device was still warm to the touch two hours later.
How To Store Spare Lithium Batteries
Since our Lithium battery fire and after having done some reading on the risks of portable electronic battery fires. I was surprised to learn that Lithium batteries installed in devices are often safer than the spare batteries that are not in use.
Safety While Charging Lithium Batteries
To minimize the risk of fire while charging lithium batteries:
- Don’t leave electronics charging overnight
- Only charge devices in locations where you can see them charging – Don’t charge in your bunk if you are sitting up on deck
- Unplug all charging electronics prior to leaving the boat
- Don’t charge your electronics in direct sunlight
- When charging electronics make sure they are on a flat, clear surface
- Charge electronic devices away from flammable materials such as paper
- Better yet invest in a protective pouch to store and charge your electronics in
Safety When Storing Lithium Batteries
To reduce the risk of fire with loose lithium batteries that are not in use. Such as spare camera, drone, drill batteries, etc.
- Cover battery terminals with electrical tape before storing
- Store your batteries in a protective pouch
- Store your batteries in a cool dry place
- Store your batteries with a 40% to 50% charge in them
I hope that this has been helpful. To raise awareness of the hazards of lithium batteries on boats please share this article with your friends. Understanding the dangers of lithium battery fires on a boat and knowing in advance how to fight these fires correctly could save lives.