Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Posted: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 First, she heard a barely noticeable noise, which was followed by a faint chemical smell. The next thing Loretta Luff knew, her shirt was on fire.
Also on fire was her 6-year-old Dell Inspiron laptop computer, which she had been using for about a half-hour.
The laptop then exploded, propelling the battery pack and pieces of burning debris through the air. They landed on the carpet causing roughly a dozen little fires throughout the living room. Scorch marks were found as far as 6 to 8 feet away from where the laptop was sitting.
“It was scary,” the 72-year-old Langhorne Manor resident said Tuesday.
Borough Fire Marshal Frank Farry said the battery pack inside the computer apparently exploded Sunday afternoon, during the fourth inning of the Phillies-Braves game that was playing on Luff’s TV.
The fire marshal’s office and Dell computers are expected to undertake separate investigations into the fire.
Farry, also chief of the Langhorne-Middletown Fire Co., said the laptop fire was a first for him in his 25-year volunteer firefighter career.
Meanwhile, consumer and computer advocates on Tuesday emphasized that laptop fires are rare and even more so than as recently as eight years ago when Dell laptops and notebook computers were subject to a massive recall due to battery-related fire hazards.
Dell laptop batteries were the subject of a massive recall in 2006 and again in 2008 after battery-related fires were reported, according to PC Pitstop, a software development company that also serves as a consumer advocate for personal community safety issues. The group has researched laptop battery volatility.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission does not keep annual stats on fires related to lithium-ion batteries, those tiny, but powerful energy sources found in small electronic devices. But battery-related fires involving both cellphones and laptop computers peaked around 2005-06 after the implementation of new safety standards, spokesman Scott Wolfson said.
Recalls still happen. Last year, Sony and Apple issued recalls on some laptop models due to battery-related fire risks. On Tuesday, about 650 of Sony’s VAIO Flip PC laptop units were recalled due to fire and burn hazards, according to Wolfson.
But the more recent recalls are not as big as they were previously, Wolfson said.
Lithium-ion battery-related fires can occur for many reasons including exposure to high heat — like leaving a computer or other electronic device in a car on a hot day — which increases pressure, using incompatible or counterfeit replacement batteries or exposing a battery to metal, Wolfson said. Also overcharging a battery, such as using a fully charged computer while plugged into an outlet, and improper ventilation can also cause problems.
In a statement, a Dell spokeswoman said the company will take appropriate steps to investigate what happened with Luff’s laptop.
“It’s also important to note that, in our product documentation, Dell tells customers that using an incompatible battery or a third-party battery may increase the risk of fire or explosion and that they should replace the battery only with a battery purchased from Dell,” the statement said.
On Tuesday, Luff said that she did replace the batteries about three years ago on the laptop, which was her first computer, a Christmas gift. She didn’t recall the replacement brand.
Before the computer exploded, it was functioning fine, Luff said. The computer was plugged in but the battery was not fully charged, she said. She had a fan designed to circulate air under the laptop to prevent overheating, too.
Farry noted that the neighborhood had experienced a power outage earlier Sunday.
When she realized her cotton shirt had caught fire, Luff said she ripped it off and used it to beat out the flames on herself and the carpet. She also doused the flames using water from her dogs’ bowls.
Everything happened so fast that Luff didn’t realize she had first- and second-degree chemical burns from the battery acid on her face and arm. The worst burn is on the bottom of her foot, where she believes she stamped out flames.
Her two dogs and a third owned by her daughter, as well as Luff’s husband, who has a traumatic brain injury, were not injured. Her desk along with the living room carpet were damaged.
Luff says that a Dell representative has called her, but that she isn’t ready to talk to the company yet.
As for any plans to replace her laptop, Luff says that she probably will. But she plans to take out the batteries every night.
“I am just thankful. It could have been a lot worse. I’m doggone lucky.”