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Three Keys to Keep Lithium-Ion Battery Storage Risks Contained

By: Mandy Marxen, Contributor

Lithium-ion batteries should be kept in an outside building 30 ft away (or more) from people and other property. Image courtesy of U.S. Chemical Storage.

Lithium batteries have revolutionized how we live and work. They are a clean, powerful source of power to a wide variety of tools and material handling machinery. However, many facility managers don’t realize that fires caused by lithium batteries act differently – they burn hotter, reignite and come with hazardous gasses and explosions. Workplace emergency safety plans must recognize their unique qualities and fire crews must be aware of the risks at your facilities.

Building and fire codes guide building design rules. There are already many hazmat standards that meet NFPA and EPA codes for flammable liquids, hazmat, corrosive materials and explosive materials since 1983. They are constantly being updated and evolving. However, there is no current code for storing, charging or discarding lithium batteries.

Fires from lithium batteries can happen very quickly – in seconds instead of minutes. They burn extremely hot. They have toxic off-gassing and explosive gases. Once into “thermal runaway,” a battery can quickly ignite other batteries in close proximity. Batteries can reignite hours or days later if any stranded energy remains in the battery, which can cause dangers to waste management or clean-up crews. Current best practices by firefighters are to battle these events by deluging the fire with high amounts of water or, in some cases even letting them burn out on their own.

At the current time, regulations aren’t spelled out to guide managers. Safety managers are still trying to figure out what to do for the storage of batteries that are new or end-of-life. Procurement managers may face push-back during CapEx requests for a unique building only for batteries. Operations managers are concerned with ease of access and the safety of workers.

As with many codes and regulations, insurance is a significant driver. More and more insurance underwriters are understanding the catastrophic losses resulting from poorly stored lithium batteries and are requiring safety plans for the storage and charging areas. Battery concerns become a priority for many companies when it affects insurance coverage or rates.

Most would agree that it’s better to be proactive to safety than to wait to be reactive to codes. The risk is very real for hazardous fires. Whether it’s a 500 company, a military facility or a municipal agency, there are dangers. It’s best to isolate, mitigate and prevent the fire risks of lithium batteries.

There are 3 keys for companies to follow to reduce their lithium battery risks:

Isolate – Isolate lithium batteries in an outside building 30 ft away (or more) from people and other property, if possible. Isolating them in a building can keep a fire from spreading to the production floor, inventory warehouse or office. It allows firefighters to surround the building and deluge it with water properly. Isolation also keeps personnel away from the toxic fumes that these battery fires produce.

Isolation in a separate building could take many forms. It may mean designing a building that looks similar to a garage for forklifts, with separate bays to avoid thermal runaway to multiple vehicles. Or it may mean isolating power tool batteries for overnight charging in a separate climate-controlled building apart from the tools in which they’re used. It may mean utilizing a small hazmat storage locker to just house damaged batteries or batteries with suspected damage. Each business uses these batteries differently, and the solution should take that into account.

A separate building will also allow for clear labeling and marking so that fire crews on the scene can immediately know what they’re facing upon arrival. Clear space all around the building can allow crews to properly fight it. A frank discussion with the local fire marshal about the volume of lithium batteries you have and use on-site is also a good idea. Forging a partnership may help avoid catastrophic loss.

Clear labeling and marking of a lithium-ion battery storage cabinet will allow fire crews to immediately know what they’re facing upon arrival. Image courtesy of U.S. Chemical Storage.

Mitigate – Keeping the storage building cool, ventilated and at a temperature indicated for your specific batteries can help keep them stable. Charging them correctly, with the right voltage, and for the right amount of time, can keep them from overloading circuits. Keep batteries away from direct sunlight and excess moisture. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for charging your specific batteries.

All interior options for the room such as lighting, ventilation and climate control should all be explosion-proof / intrinsically safe so they won’t contribute to the start of a fire or ignite gases. Having dry chem or sprinkler systems can help on the front end of an ancillary fire. But when a thermal runaway event begins, it may be good to have a 2 ½” hookup on the building for firehoses to deluge the fire with the tremendous amount of water required to extinguish these fires.

Prevent – Inspecting batteries routinely, isolating batteries that are damaged or that you suspect are damaged, and being aware of your specific battery’s requirements, as indicated by the manufacturer, are all vital. Sensors to detect dangerous situations in the pre-conflagration stage are essential. Gas detectors that sense off-gassing are still in their infancy but continue to innovate. Smoke detectors, heat sensors and alarms can all notify your personnel of the valuable seconds required to act.

Regulations around the actual battery manufacturing are moving faster than the storage piece of regulations so it’s important to investigate where those batteries are coming from and if they’re native to the equipment into which they are being used. Battery manufacturers that aren’t UL approved or that don’t meet UL1642 and UL2054 may be at a higher risk for fire. Fires that aren’t native to the equipment they’re being used in have been named as the cause of many of these fires. A little cost savings on a cheap battery could be very costly in a fire.

In general, lithium batteries are very safe. Lithium fires occur with less regularity than those caused by gasoline combustion engines. Lithium batteries are healthier for people who use them daily and are better for air quality. They allow machinery and tools to be lighter, more portable and easier for workers with a wide range of abilities. However, when fire events do occur with lithium batteries, they escalate with extreme speed and catastrophic destructiveness. Be prepared.

Regulatory bodies are now working to catch up to the daily fire risks for those that use forklifts, power tools, handling robots, drones and other applications. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL), International Code Council (IIC) and other organizations are all working on the problem with documents in the works. Until their regulations catch up to the growing sector of lithium batteries, the onus falls on you. Be aware and take the risks seriously.

Review your emergency safety plan, partner with your local fire officials and develop a three-step plan to isolate, mitigate and prevent lithium battery fire events and provide protection for your people, property and the planet. WMHS

Mandy Marxen is the Commercial Marketing Manager for U.S. Chemical Storage, a company with over 35 years of experience partnering with clients to create chemical and hazmat storage buildings for their unique risks. As one of the important brands within Justrite Safety Group, U.S. Chemical Storage engineers and prefabricates storage solutions in Wilkesboro, North Carolina for shipment worldwide (www.uschemicalstorage.com)

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