On Saturday, Jan. 21 at approximately 7:46 p.m. the Boca Grande Fire Department responded to the 500 block of Gulf Boulevard for a golf cart on fire, fully engulfed.
It took some time, but firefighters eventually got the fire extinguished, with full loss of the vehicle. While the final determination of the cause of the fire has not been found, the fire department believes it is possible that a lithium ion battery powered the cart. It is more common than people think for these batteries to become damaged and catch on fire – a fire that is difficult and somewhat dangerous to extinguish. Common fire suppressants don’t work well and the fire can burn very fiercely. In some circumstances, the battery can explode.
There are several reasons that lithium ion batteries are being used more in golf carts. Traditional batteries lose charge more quickly when stored – up to 33 percent a month. Lithium ion batteries only lose two to three percent charge in that same time. Lithium ion batteries also charge fully in two to four hours and have the ability to be charged many more times than a traditional battery.
They must be taken care of properly, though, and prior knowledge of what potential problems could arise is good to have. Fires have started when people use chargers that are incompatible with the battery and it is recommended that only the charging cables recommended by the manufacturer be used: An incompatible charger might continue to charge the battery to the point of overheating.
Lithium ion batteries are built to show signs that they need to be replaced if they get hot, expand or take longer than usual to charge, and immediately before failure, a battery will make a popping noise and then a hiss in which gas is released.
If you do have a fire in a lithium ion battery at your home, using water is not the best idea. The National Transportation Safety Board has published material explaining how water can also create a fire situation with these batteries.
“Water is clearly not a lithium battery’s friend,” they wrote. “It may ignite during thermal runaway, or in the presence of an adjacent fire. When a lithium battery overheats for whatever reason, it expands rapidly causing short-circuits inside. This may spontaneously release energy that can ignite adjacent cells when it explodes … damaged cells in the battery can experience uncontrolled increases in temperature and pressure (thermal runaway), which can lead to hazards such as battery reignition/fire. The risks of electric shock and battery reignition/fire arise from the “stranded” energy that remains in a damaged battery.”
In the case of this particular golf cart, the fire department was able to douse the battery until it was eventually extinguished. However, it continued to arc for quite some time prior to being extinguished.
If a lithium ion battery is exposed to a lot of water (such as flood water), short circuits can cause overheating and provide an ignition source for fires. That actually applies to any type of device, from a toothbrush to a portable speaker or rechargeable battery pack. Keeping these batteries dry is important. If you notice one that is overheating or emitting any smell, gas or smoke, stay away from it and call 911 immediately.
Civilians should not attempt to extinguish this type of battery fire, as it is a Class D fire. This means that metal is involved, and while it takes a bit to get it hot enough to catch fire, once it does it is incredibly hot and hard to put out (as you can see by what’s left of this golf cart).