Dangers of Lithium-Ion Batteries and the Potential Impact on Condo Buildings

Lithium-ion batteries are present in a high number of commonly used personal electronics such as cell phones, tablets, and laptops. They are also present in cordless tools, vacuums, and even mobility devices. With the increase in the use of e-bikes and e-scooters, these batteries have become even more prevalent in residential settings.

According to the Calgary Fire Department, the number of fires caused by these batteries increased by 150% from 2021 to 2022[1]. These issues are compounded by a lack of mandatory standards for the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries, aftermarket alteration of batteries, and the sale of uninspected, refurbished batteries that may be unsafe.

An example of this was seen recently on October 23, 2023, when CTV news reported on the sudden explosion of a lithium-ion battery for an e-scooter at a business in northwest Calgary which resulted in a fire.[2] Luckily, no one was injured as a result since the shop owner had just left the building prior to the explosion occurring. The damage, however, was not insignificant.

What are the risks?

Lithium-ion battery powered devices require frequent charging of their batteries. Fires resulting from these batteries are increasing, particularly related to e-scooters and e-bikes. In most cases, these fires occur while the battery unit is being charged. These hazards are increased when the batteries are stored below grade with reduced ventilation or where multiple units are being stored and charged together, increasing the risk of overloading power bars or extension cords.

It is suggested that the most common cause of fires related to lithium-ion batteries is leaving the batteries plugged in and charging past the point of full charge. This can lead to what is termed “thermal runaway”, which is an uncontrolled self-heating of the battery, resulting in extremely high temperatures and leading to smoke and fire.

Once the batteries overheat and begin to smoke, it can be just a matter of seconds before there is a significant explosion of the battery causing a huge volume of fire. This rapid sequence leaves little time for action once the smoke is seen, even if someone is present at the time. Additionally, the explosive reaction and resulting flames makes it difficult for anyone present to exit the area safely.

How does this apply to Condo living?

Increasing reliance on lithium-ion batteries in modern electronics means that nearly everyone already has a device with these batteries at home. Cell phones, tablets, laptops, e-cigarettes and more, are all commonly found in condominium units. Often, they are charged while lying on soft surfaces, such as pillows, beds, or other upholstered furniture.

With the increased ownership of e-bikes and e-scooters and more people using these vehicles as their main mode of transportation, particularly in urban areas where condos are prevalent, the safety issues associated with these items should be addressed by condo boards.

Can Bylaws address this issue?

The wording of bylaws can make a significant difference in the allocation of liability in the instance of a fire caused by lithium-ion batteries. Recent instances of these fires in the condominium setting provide a reminder to assess the wording of existing bylaws and to consider how the wording of bylaws concerning liability for negligence-related losses applies to the risks posed by these batteries.

The recent 2023 British Columbia Civil Resolution Tribunal decision, Yuen v the Owners, Strata Plan EPS5890[3] (“Yuen”), provides an example of how a well-worded bylaw can assist with the allocation of liability back to the occupier or owner. In particular, the Owners relied on section 2(3) of the SPA, which stated that an owner, tenant, occupier, or visitor must not cause damage to the common property. Section 133 allowed the strata to require anyone contravening a bylaw to pay reasonable costs to remediate the contravention. In Yuen, the tenants had placed a garbage bag containing, among other things, disposed e-cigarettes on their 29th floor balcony. While the tenants were away from their unit, a fire occurred. The garbage bag was determined to have been the likely point of origin of the fire.

Forensic investigation concluded that the source of the fire had likely been the lithium-ion battery of a disposed e-cigarette in the garbage bag. The forensic investigator warned:

…careful disposal of these batteries is important because any damage to the metallic cylinder of the battery can expose the batteries and result in short circuits within the battery. Once the batteries are exposed, microscopic metallic particles can come in contact with other parts of the battery cell and lead to a short circuit within the cell.[4]

The forensic investigation did not conclusively determine that the fire was ignited by a lithium-ion battery, however, it was accepted that, on a balance of probabilities, it was more likely than not that the fire was caused by the improperly disposed of e-cigarettes. Therefore, based on the wording of the bylaws, recovery was possible as against the unit owner, Mr. Yuen.

The circumstances in this tribunal decision are likely to reoccur and could very well result in wider spread damages, particularly in cases of e-scooters where the batteries are significantly larger and have the potential to cause more damage.

What can be done to allocate or alleviate the risks?

Some residential buildings in the United States have attempted to ban e-bikes from being stored or charged within building units altogether; however, protests from residents have typically defeated these efforts[5] and it seems unlikely that this will be an option for condominiums in the future.

Since these types of devices are here to stay, it is important to take steps to ensure that residents are doing their part to minimize the risk of a fire resulting from their lithium-ion powered devices. Communicating these types of proactive steps to all unit owners and occupants is the first step in preventing losses associated with lithium-ion batteries. Some suggested steps are:[6]

  • When buying a new device, make sure it has been properly tested by a qualified laboratory;
  • Only use the battery designed for the device and install the batteries properly;
  • Use only the charging cord that came with the device;
  • If the device is damaged, have it inspected by a qualified professional before charging or using it;
  • Never charge a device under your pillow, on your bed or on a couch – airflow must be allowed around the device during charging;
  • Store batteries out of direct sunlight and keep them at room temperature. They must not be left in hot vehicles either;
  • Keep batteries away from heating equipment or anything else that can catch fire;
  • Never crush, bend, or drop a device and its charger; and
  • If you are charging a lithium-ion battery in a mobility device, ensure it is done away from doors, exits, and narrow hallways where it could block your escape in the event of an emergency.

Considerations for the Bylaws

In the standard bylaws under the Condominium Property Act, section 62(4) allows for recovery of the insurance deductible under the Condo Corporation’s insurance as against an owner for damage that originates in or from an owner’s unit or an exclusive possession area assigned to an owner. This generally will cover any recovery of costs. However, there is nothing proactive in the standard bylaws with respect to preventing damages and making owners and tenants aware of the risks of these batteries. In light of the potentially significant damages caused by fires, the addition of wording into the bylaws pertaining to the storage and maintenance of any devices powered by lithium-ion batteries would be advantageous.

Condo boards may want to consider providing dedicated storage spaces for battery powered mobility devices such as e-bikes and e-scooters, or potentially banning the storage of these devices inside the individual units and requiring them to be stored in secure areas in the parkade or other less flammable areas of the building. While this may not prevent the batteries from exploding, it would serve to decrease the damage done in the event of a battery failure resulting in a fire.

Alternatively, should owners oppose a bylaw that does not allow storage of e-bikes and e-scooters in their units, a bylaw requiring that these types of batteries cannot be left charging inside a unit when the owner/tenant is not present may assist in preventing significant damage in the event of a fire and may assist in preventing overcharging by having batteries left plugged in for extended periods of time and past the point of full charge.

Additionally, as seen in Yuen, a bylaw around the proper disposal of e-cigarettes and other similar batteries would also be helpful in warning of the dangers of improper disposal while making owners aware of the risks to owners for damages caused in this manner.

As lithium batteries continue to dominate as the source of power for portable devices of varying sizes and uses, it’s time to consider what steps your condo board can proactively take to mitigate future liability and loss. A review of your bylaws may be a great place to start.

[1] https://calgary.ctvnews.ca/mobile/fire-department-advises-calgarians-to-be-aware-of-lithium-battery-dangers-1.6188336?cache=yesclipId1723871clipId89578?clipId=263414

[2] https://calgary.ctvnews.ca/e-scooter-battery-explodes-causing-fire-at-calgary-business-1.6613857

[3] Yuen v The Owners, Strata Plan EPS5890, 2023 BCCRT 546 (CanLII)

[4] Ibid at 25.

[5] https://globalnews.ca/news/9860138/e-bike-battery-fires/

[6] https://www.calgary.ca/safety/lithium-battery.html?redirect=/lithiumbatteries