Answers to questions about RV Repair and Maintenance from RV expert Dave Solberg, author of the “RV Handbook” and the managing editor of the RV Repair Club. This column appears Monday through Saturday in the RV Travel and RV Daily Tips newsletters. (Sign up for an email reminder for each new issue if you do not already receive one.) Today Dave discusses lithium batteries.
On a camping trip, our neighbors had a lithium battery that exploded and flamed up. I tried to put it out with my fire extinguisher. It helped, but I read later that you need to use water and special blanket, or a class D extinguisher. In your opinion, how safe are lithium batteries, and what precautions should one take with them? Thanks. —Les
There are several aspects to your questions, which are great. Hopefully, nobody got hurt.
First, I think it is imperative for every RVer to educate themselves on fire safety. I helped produce the RV Safety and Education Foundation’s 9-course safety program several years ago. We did extensive research with Mac “The Fire Guy” McCoy. Mac is the leading expert on RV Fire Safety and used to conduct seminars at rallies and conventions. He was also a contributing writer for several organizations, including RVtravel.com.
We shot several videos, and one of the critical ones was knowing how to use your onboard fire extinguisher.
For years, the fire extinguisher by code has been the 10 BC-rated extinguisher. It will only be effective in 10 square feet and only cover a B- or C-type fire. This means it is not effective on an A-type fire. That is anything that can leave an ash, such as wood, carpet, fiberglass and more. That is the majority of most RVs! Hopefully this has changed recently, but 10 square feet is a small space to be effective!
Types of fires
Class A – Trash, wood, paper, or anything that will leave an ash
Class B – Liquids such as motor fuels or propane
Class C – Electrical equipment
Class D – Combustible metal
If your rig had a 10BC fire extinguisher, it would be effective on the electrical part of the equation, but not on the Class A, which would have been the battery cases, compartment liner, sidewall material and others.
A Class D fire is defined as a combustible metal such as magnesium, aluminum, and even lithium.
I do think the fire blanket is a good choice and you can find them at Amazon.
I suggest RVers purchase a larger rated unit that covers A, B, & C class fires. In fact, I suggest you get several extinguishers. Have one inside the rig, one in the bedroom, one in storage, and another in a tow or towed vehicle. This is not to scare people, and I’ll get a ton of comments that it’s overkill and not necessary. However, it only takes once, as you have experienced. Then learn how to use the extinguishers and remember where they are located.
High quality lithium
Now, to the second part of the equation: Why did it happen and what can be done to prevent or reduce the chances of it happening?
I am not that familiar with lithium technology, so I contacted my source at Expion 360. I have worked extensively with Zamp Solar. The founder, John Zamp, sold the company (now Dometic) and started Expion 360. Here is what I have learned.
Without having information on the type/brand of battery involved in the issue, the charging system, and the type of installation, it’s impossible to determine what caused the failure. Plus, was it a gradual overheat situation that actually started some other material close to the battery, connections, or charger on fire? Lithium battery fires are fairly uncommon, so it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause without having more information.
However, what research they do have with cheaper batteries over the years is overcharging and incorrectly fused components on inexpensive batteries causing failures.
As with anything, you can always go cheaper. If the public doesn’t know the difference, they will buy on price. This is so huge in the RV industry. The higher-priced lithium batteries utilize UL-rated steel casted cells and a battery management system.
Upgrading to lithium batteries
Mike Sokol has great articles about upgrading batteries and how you can’t just drop a new set of lithium batteries in your unit without making sure your charging system is compatible. As I’ve written several times, the conventional charger with your distribution center, called a converter, sense the batteries are low and just ramps up a 13.6-volt charge until the batteries reach 12.6 and then drops off to 13.2 volts. A multistage charger such as an inverter, solar panel with charge controller, or Progressive Dynamics charge wizard will do the multistage charge. They are not compatible with the lithium battery charge protocal and could overcharge if not set up correctly.
As a final note, the Expion battery has a battery management system that will sense extreme overcharging and discharging as well as temperatures to reduce the potential of such a disaster. I would suggest checking them out here: expion360.com/pages/rv
Major points: Get good batteries, make sure they are compatible with your charging system, get the right fire safety equipment for your needs, and understand how to use it.
I applaud you for the assistance and request for more information! Thanks!
Read more from Dave here.
Dave Solberg worked at Winnebago for 15 years developing the dealer training program, as marketing manager, and conducting shows. As the owner of Passport Media Creations, Dave has developed several RV dealer training programs, the RV Safety Training program for The Recreation Vehicle Safety and Education Foundation, and the accredited RV Driving Safety program being conducted at rallies and shows around the country. Dave is a leading expert in the RV industry and author of the “RV Handbook” as well as the Managing Editor of the RV Repair Club.
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