SALT LAKE CITY — Who would have thought that those batteries rolling around in your kitchen junk drawer might burn your house down?
It happened to a Colorado family, and that wasn’t the first time.
Few people routinely give batteries the respect they deserve. Batteries get tossed into junk drawers where they roll around with all sorts of things like keys, paper clips, loose notes, and paper scraps.
But given the right circumstances, those junk drawers can become tinder boxes waiting to ignite.
Dave Miller said he lost everything when a fire ripped through his Fort Collins, Colo. home. Just days later, he shot video to explain what happened. He had swapped out the 9-volt batteries in his smoke alarms, placing the old ones in a paper bag for recycling.
“Two weeks later, when I set a laundry basket next to these, it bumped the bag. Two batteries touched each other, shorted the terminals, and that’s what burned down my house,” he explained.
Miller said the revelation came after a long day with a fire investigator trying to track down the fire's source.
“We couldn’t come up with anything, and I finally mentioned the only thing I had up there was a bag with a couple of 9-volt batteries in it. He went, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve seen this before.’ And he told me he had seen other fires started by 9 volts. It just astounded me. I had no idea,” Miller said.
Miller said he took the fire hard, because he felt responsible.
“I’m the recycle nut. I’m the one who put the batteries out there, so I just felt like I had let my family down,” he said.
Austin Dransfield of Interstate Batteries said, “If these batteries are in there with some sort of metal, and these batteries get connected together in any way, they will short out and cause an extreme amount of heat,” he said.
He said all batteries have a positive and negative terminal. If a paper clip or a key or another battery should touch those two terminals, it creates a flow of electricity. It only takes minutes, as Dransfield showed us with keys and a 9-volt battery, for that flow to generate significant heat.
“With a junk drawer, you have all sorts of stuff in there. If anything is in there, you can catch fire with anything in that drawer,” he explained.
Jasen Asay of the Salt Lake City Fire Department said it's unusual for batteries to combust, but it's a definite possibility. He said all batteries present some risk, but 9 volts are more troublesome for a simple reason.
“Nine-volt batteries have the positive and negative ports right there on the top of the battery,” he said.
Miller said since the fire, he's turned his experience into a positive by getting the word out through his fire safety videos and public speaking. Still, he encounters skeptics.
“People have come up to me and said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m always very careful with my car batteries.’ It’s not a car battery. I’m talking about the little 9-volt batteries,” he said.
So, if you're disposing of lithium batteries, you can drop those off at the landfills to be recycled. The county says they can't recycle alkalines. They can go in the trash. Either way, cover the terminals with tape.
“Given the perfect storm, they can produce a spark,” Asay said.
He recommends storing any battery in the original packaging, and not letting it roll around. “If you have a battery and don’t need to use it yet, there’s really no use in taking it out of the packaging,” he said.
For loose batteries, both Asay and Dransfield said the solution is simple: Take a piece of electrical tape and cover the ends so if they do touch, a short will not be created.
“We even here, when we’re recycling them, we actually have to tape the contacts just to prevent any sort of chance of shorting out and causing a fire,” Dransfield said.
Miller now keeps a roll of electrical tape anywhere he keeps batteries.