If you’ve heard about hoverboards, you’ve probably also heard about how they catch fire. Or explode. Or burn down houses and ruin Christmas. You may be under the impression that one of the most popular consumer electronic devices is also one of the most dangerous. You may have had your hoverboard seized before boarding an airplane, a bus, or a train.
Much confusion and controversy has kept hoverboards in the news since they were first launched in 2014. This article is intended to elucidate these foggy rumors. We’ll provide a brief timeline of combusting hoverboards and answer the question: “why do hoverboards explode?” At present, the kinks have been worked out and they won’t burn your house down or ruin your Italian wingtips.
Back to the Future Day, 2015
In October of 2015, hoverboards were relatively unknown. They still terrified most grandmas. They caused confused police officers to refer to their superiors.
Celebrities like Kendall Jenner, Soulja Boy, and Jamie Fox appeared publicly unable to hide their excitement. Future riders young and old began to dream of birthdays and Christmas morning.
But in October 2015, there was another reason to be excited. Back to the Future day was soon approaching, the day to which Marty and Doc Brown travel in Back to the Future II. In the future, Marty learns that hoverboards exist, and he swaps out his old 20th century skateboard for a wheel-less upgrade.
Hoverboard manufacturers were planning parties, events, and sales. They hoped that the future could be at least partially realized.
But those hopes soon fizzled. On that day, the London Fire Brigade issued an official warning about the danger of self-balancing scooters in general. They cited two different incidents of spontaneously combusting hoverboards earlier in the month.
“The cause of both fires is still under investigation whilst the devices are tested at our lab,” said Brigade spokesman Charlie Pugsley. “We’d urge people to keep an eye on their devices whilst they are on charge.”
This was odd. Electric bikes don’t catch fire. No one ever heard of any Segway explosions (but we guess it would be cool to make a Segway explode…)
The London incidents were not anomalies
A few weeks later, a Louisiana mother reported her sons new hoverboard burnt their house to the ground. After opening his present, 12-year-old Hayden Horne plugged his new chariot into the wall to charge.
“As I walked past his room I saw it began to shoot sparks,” wrote Jessica Horne on the GoFundMe page to raise money for a new home and damaged items. “Within seconds it was in flames, within minutes the entire room was in flames.” Hayden’s hover board catching fire led to the destruction of their house.
“Why do hoverboards explode?” asked every keen professional, child, parent, and future hoverboard user. “What is this smart balance wheel fire thing?” asked others. The answer would remain mysterious for months.
You might think that a hoverboard catching fire would deter many customers. You would be wrong. The headlines told of Swagway hoverboard fires and hoverboard explosions. Still, many enthusiasts couldn’t resist.
Hoverboards were one of the most popular purchases of the Christmas season. Ebay sold 5,000 on Black Friday and 7,000 more on Cyber Monday. They ranged in price between about $250 and $2,000. They could be found in major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Target, not to mention sites like Amazon and Shopify. During the holiday season, the hoverboard market saw a nearly 215% bump in sales.
But the popularity did not necessarily indicate safety. Many individuals and governing groups did not fully understand what was causing many of these devices to catch fire.
So, why do hoverboards explode?
The answer to the smart balance wheel fire thing lies in the battery, and it’s not unique to hoverboards. Today, lithium batteries power thousands of electronic devices. These include phones and cameras to power tools and small motorized vehicles.
They work like any other battery. When a circuit is completed, electrons flow from the anode, or positive pole of a device to the cathode, or the negative depository on the other end.
But these batteries differed from many others because they created a flow of lithium ions. Lithium is an alkaline metal that was selected for its light weight properties. Many other elements are suitable for battery power. They may not lead to hover boards catching fire, but they tend to be heavier metals. This increas the weight of any given device.
Creating a lightweight design is incredibly important. It allows users to travel faster and longer, and allow them to more easily carry their devices around when off the road.
The problem with lithium is that it’s also incredibly reactive. According to the Economist, “The trouble comes about if there is a small fault or damage is caused to the extremely thin separators that keep the elements of the battery apart. This can lead to an internal short-circuit and a subsequent build-up of heat. This can trigger what is known as a “thermal runaway” in which the battery overheats and can burst into flame.”
This explains why fires primarily occur when the hoverboards were charging. (Although several YouTube videos prove that they can ignite at random.)
The problem is not unique with hoverboards. The same issue, for example, caused Boeing to ground numerous planes in January of 2014. Sony recalled millions of lithium batteries of various sizes in 2006. Some models of Tesla electric cars have also required new batteries.
The public began to catch on
In June of 2016, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a massive recall of over 500,000 devices. This included several brands. According to the commission, numerous injuries had been reported. These included burns, and more property had been damaged.
They also detailed what experts had known for months. The issue was with the hoverboards’ lithium batteries. Not only were some delivered defective and prone to ignite, but others, when damaged also had the potential catch fire.
After the CPSC warning, various transportation agencies also began to ban the devices. They feared they would catch fire and damage vehicles or even jeopardize the safety of others. At the same time, hoverboard bans in cities throughout the world began to spread.
The future looked dire for hoverboard riders around the globe. There was clearly a huge, sustained demand for these products, and yet authorities did not trust them in public spaces.
New Safety Procedures
Something had to be done. Manufacturers could retest their new and improved devices all they wanted. But they needed to appease the public with a promise of safety that they could trust.
That’s where UL comes in. Underwriters Laboratories, or UL, is an independent consumer safety testing group. You’ve probably seen their mark on various electronic devices before. You’ve probably scratched your head for about .004 seconds wondering what the sign meant, and proceeded to use your device. Now you know that if a product is UL certified, it can be counted on as a safe device to use.
In November of 2016, UL came out with a new safety rating that specifically tests hoverboards for their risk as fire hazards. National Standard UL 2272 “evaluates the safety of the electrical drive train system and battery and charger system combinations of hoverboards and other 1-wheel, 2-wheel, [and] x-wheel [devices].”
Buying a hoverboard today
When checking out potential new hoverboards, be sure to check that the device in question carries a UL 2272 rating. Most retailers have conformed to the new rating. Still, you may be able to find pre-2016 hoverboards out there without the necessary rating.
What’s more, these devices will likely be temptingly inexpensive. Don’t be fooled. These products are cheap because they are risky and very well may ignite like the hoverboards of old.
It’s important to remember that, while the UL 2272 rating does ensure an e-mobility device’s low fire risk, it does not pertain to other safety concerns. Hoverboards can be dangerous. They reach top speeds of over 10 kilometers per hour, can be difficult to ride, and many contain unrelated glitches like any consumer product.
Be sure to test out your hoverboard in a safe environment and gain some confidence on it before hitting the road.
The safety and mechanical soundness of these devices has significantly improved lately. But many bans that were enacted during the days of spontaneous combustion have yet to be lifted.
Most airlines and airports still forbid the product, as do networks such as the New York City subway system and all Boston transit. They are also often verboten in stadiums, universities, and many paved public spaces.
Make sure to check your local hoverboard policies before you fall in love with your new ride, especially if you plan to use it to commute like many of us do.
Recently News Channel 6 in Texas reported a story of a hoverboard catching fire when it wasn't even plugged in. So always be cautious and store your hoverboard somewhere away from where you sleep and preferably somewhere it won't catch your house on fire if it does decide to flame up. These cases are very rare nowdays but it doesn't hurt to be extra safe.
Hoverboards are safe
Here is the moral of the story. While exploding hoverboards were a reality, those days are behind us. As with any new product, the hoverboard had some kinks to work out when it first hit the market in 2014.
In the future, a hoverboard catching fire will be a fond memory of 2015-2016. It will be a backward time to smile about as we speed our way through cities and towns on our new and improved x-wheeled self-balancing scooters.