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Are tools with lithium-ion batteries safe to use?

Q:

A battery-powered chainsaw or circular saw would be handy for me, but because of news stories about Li-Ion-powered phones, laptops, and hoverboards catching fire, I’m already leery about using my drills with these batteries. Am I over the top here?
—Chuck Stine, Hayward, Calif.

A:

We understand your concerns, Chuck, but you have little to worry about with your power tools. It is exceedingly rare for any type of Li-Ion-powered device to catch fire (less than 1 in 10 million for any type of device, according to Cadex Electronics, a manufacturer of battery charging and testing equipment). In other words, the odds of a properly manufactured Li-Ion battery catching fire are 14 times less likely than you being struck by lightning in a given year (1 in 700,000).

Know that problems with early cell phones and laptops have been resolved. Hoverboard fires resulted from the use of poorly made or improperly installed cells. Bear in mind, too, that power tools use rugged construction formats, Li-Ion chemical formulations, and charging-management systems different from those found in personal electronic devices, according to Sean Fitzgibbons, senior product manager for the battery category at DeWalt.  

Though the odds of one of your power-tool Li-Ion batteries catching fire are incredibly remote, it still pays to follow these practices:

•  Use original-equipment-manufactured  replacement batteries designed for specific tools and chargers. As Ridgid’s development team told us in a statement, “Many counterfeit batteries and inferior designs don’t invest in the [safety] protocols that we do.”

•  Do not impact or damage a battery by using it as a mallet, and never use one that appears compromised in any way.

•  Don’t expose batteries to temperatures above 104°F or below 32°F, or charge them in direct sunlight. If you exceed those parameters, the equipment should prevent damage. “Our batteries work as a system with tools and chargers to monitor temperatures and shut down operation at temperature extremes,” according to DeWalt’s Fitzgibbons.

•  Don’t store or transport a battery in a container with loose metal objects that could contact the terminals and cause a short circuit. Also, avoid exposure to liquids, including rain, oils, and solvents.

•  Never disassemble, modify, or tamper with a battery. If it appears damaged, replace it. Many retailers will accept your batteries for free recycling.

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