Advancements in lithium battery technologies are allowing manufacturers to get more power from an increasingly smaller package – fueling the growth of everything from wireless headphones and smartwatches to e-bikes and cordless power tools.
But for all the benefits of lithium-ion batteries, they come with one major drawback: if they’re not properly used, maintained and stored, they run the risk of experiencing a thermal runaway. (What’s thermal runaway? Keep reading to find out.)
To help you get the most life out of your battery-powered devices, follow these tips on the proper storage, charging and use of lithium-ion batteries.
What is a Lithium-ion Battery?
Every type of battery creates electricity by turning chemical energy into electrical energy. It does this by using chemical reactions to create a flow of electrons from one material to another. We’ll spare you the rest of the science lesson. The important thing to know is that the materials used (lead-acid, alkaline, nickel-cadmium, etc.) all have different charging properties.
Lithium batteries use – you got it – lithium in metal or ion (Li-ion) form as their anode material. And they come with several advantages. Lithium-ion batteries are easily rechargeable and have the highest energy density of any battery technology, meaning they pack more power into a smaller space. They also can deliver a voltage up to three times higher than other battery types. For this reason, you’ll find lithium batteries in almost all modern portable electronic devices.
The list includes smartphones, laptops, tablets, eReaders, smart watches and Bluetooth headphones. Larger lithium battery packs are also used to power things like electric scooters, hoverboards, e-bikes and even electric cars.
How to Store a Lithium-ion Battery
If you’ve flown on an airplane or shipped a package recently, you’ve probably seen warnings related to proper lithium battery storage. That’s because lithium batteries have been known to cause fires when they’re damaged or stored improperly.
To safely store your lithium-ion batteries, follow these tips:
- Avoid temperature extremes. Experts say the ideal temperature for storing lithium batteries is around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Storing a battery in extreme hot or cold temperatures will reduce its lifespan. That includes exposing your battery to direct sunlight.
- Keep them dry. Wet or humid environments can cause lithium batteries to rust or leak. In a worst-case scenario, moisture could even create an electrical short.
- Store them partially charged. For longer-term storage, keep your batteries at about a 40 to 50 percent charge. Storing a fully charged battery can reduce its storage capacity. And when you store a completely dead battery, you risk it dropping to a zero-voltage state. When this happens, the battery may not be able to recharge – rendering it permanently disabled.
- Remove batteries from your device. When storing a battery for long periods of time, remove it from the device, if possible. Even if your device is powered off, there is still a small electrical current running through the battery – which can cause a complete discharge over time.
- Store in a safe place. Never store lithium-ion batteries near flammable or combustible materials.
When bringing your devices inside, make sure you store them in an area that won’t block a means of egress in the event of a fire. For example, storing a regular bicycle near your back door would be fine, but you wouldn’t want to do that with an e-bike. Lastly, make sure that your smoke detectors are functional and will warn you right away if there’s a fire.
How to Charge a Lithium-ion Battery
To get the best performance out of your lithium battery, try to recharge it before it’s completely dead. A good rule of thumb to follow is plugging in your device when the battery reaches 10 to 20 percent of its remaining capacity.
A fully discharged battery adds extra stress to the components, which can reduce its lifespan. So it’s always better to top off your device’s charge throughout the day than to wait for it to die completely.
It’s also worth noting that overcharging can damage lithium batteries, too. While most devices have protective circuits to prevent overcharging, you may still want to consider unplugging your device or battery from the power source after it’s been fully charged. Speaking of charging, only use the charging cable or dock that was provided with your device. Other chargers (while they may claim to charge faster) can damage the battery.
Good air circulation around the battery is also important. Recharging batteries creates heat and allowing for air flow helps keep them cool.
Why do Lithium-ion Batteries Catch Fire?
As we’ve explained, lithium batteries are capable of generating a lot of electricity. And heat is a natural byproduct this process. If a lithium battery is damaged or defective, uncontrolled chemical reactions (called thermal runaway) can occur. This generates excessive heat that can lead to battery fires – or even explosions.
To prevent a possible fire, look for warning signs of a damaged lithium battery. This can include excessive heat, swelling, noise, burning smells or smoke coming from the battery. For more information, check out our blog post on lithium battery fires.
Can I Fly With Lithium-ion Batteries?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does allow airline passengers to fly with lithium-ion batteries in their carry-on baggage. According to the FAA guidelines, devices containing lithium batteries can also be packed in checked baggage, as long as they are turned completely off and protected from damage. Spare batteries and electronic cigarettes, however, can only be transported in a carry-on bag. More information is available on the FAA’s PackSafe website.
How Long do Lithium-ion Batteries Last?
The lifespan of a lithium-ion battery is defined by its charging cycles – the number of times it can be charged and discharged. According to Popular Mechanics, most lithium batteries have a rated lifetime of between 500 to 1,500 charge cycles. But the true lifespan of your battery can vary greatly depending on its use environment and charging conditions.
The more charge cycles you have on a battery, the less charge it will hold. For devices that you use every day (like your smartphone), you’ll typically notice a significant drop in battery performance after a year or so.
It’s worth noting also that if your battery pack is damaged, don’t try to repair or replace it on your own. Purchasing a new one is the safest way to continue using your device.
How Should I Dispose of Lithium-ion Batteries?
When your device or lithium battery is at the end of its usable life, don’t just throw it in the trash. Recycle it instead. Contact your local recycling center to find a facility near you. Or ask your local electronics retailer if they have a battery recycling program.
If you’re unable to find a recycling center and your only option is to throw it away, cover the connectors at the end of the battery with tape. This will help reduce the likelihood of a “short” occurring.
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