Sacramento Bee Speaks to RESCUECOM CEO
When a laptop is too hot to handle
01 am PDT Thursday, August 17, 2006
Story appeared in Business section, Page D1:
This week's news that Dell recalled more than 4 million laptop batteries because of fire hazards could alarm other laptop users fearing a similar risk.
But computer repair and battery experts say lithium-ion batteries are generally safe, and that problems with Dell batteries -- and occasionally those from other manufacturers -- are caused by manufacturing flaws, not inherent problems with the battery technology.
To answer questions about the laptop battery issue, we turned to technology experts David Milman and Jeff Shepard. Milman is chief executive of Rescuecom, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based franchise computer repair business with more than 100 outlets nationwide. Shepard is president of the Darnell Group, a Southern California consulting firm specializing in portable electronics and batteries.
Q: What kinds of devices use lithium-ion batteries?
A: Because L-I batteries pack a lot of power into a small size, they are used in many portable devices, including cellular phones, digital cameras and laptop computers.
Q: Why do they heat up?
A: Batteries get hot during any kind of power exchange, such as running a portable device or when being recharged. The faster that power is drawn from or put into them, the hotter they get.
Q: What caused the problem with Dell's batteries?
A: There has been no precise explanation, but it's most likely a flaw in the safety circuits that link the power cells within the battery case. Those circuits help control how fast a battery is either charged or discharged. Those flaws could cause the battery to overheat and possibly catch fire.
It's considered likely the batteries became contaminated in the manufacturing process, causing them to operate at much higher temperatures than untainted batteries.
Q: How can I determine if my Dell batteries are included in the recall?
Q: If I don't have a Dell laptop, should I be worried?
A: The problems appear to be limited to certain batteries made by Sony Corp. for Dell. But in the past, other computer makers, including Apple and Hewlett-Packard, also have issued recalls. The Consumer Product Safety Commission allows users to search online (http://www.cpsc.gov/) for recalls by manufacturer's name.
Q: Other than a recall notice, how can I tell if I have a problem?
A: Between heat from the microprocessor and heat from a battery, laptops often feel very warm to the touch. But when they get so hot they burn bare skin, that's a sign of trouble. If that happens, take the computer to a dealer to be checked out. The same applies to other battery-powered devices.
Q: Should I be careful about batteries I buy?
A: It's always best to buy batteries from the company that made your electronics device, or those made by a well-known manufacturer, such as Sony, Toshiba or Sanyo.
Q: What other precautions should I take?
A: Don't leave your laptop charging when you are away from home for an extended period. If your battery was defective and overheated, it could cause a fire and you wouldn't be there to respond.
Even without the fire hazard, it's not a good idea to keep a computer plugged into its charger. Such units draw about 20 watts of power, even after the battery is fully charged. Leaving the charger plugged in wastes electricity.
Also, be sure to consistently back up data on your laptop. Otherwise, in the unlikely event of a fire, you could lose important information.
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