FORT MYERS, Fla. – An exclusive Call for Action investigation has uncovered three hidden fire dangers that are lurking in your home.
Brad O’Neal is a forensic electrical engineer at Unified Investigations. He travels across the state investigating the cause of fires. Recently, O’Neal said he has noticed three products that are increasingly linked to fires. The three products are: lithium batteries, corrugated stainless steel tubing (CSST) and radiant barrier. O’Neal said while he cannot quantify how many fires these three products are linked to, it concerned him because they are products many homeowners and even some fire investigators are not aware of.
Recently, lithium batteries have made local and national headlines for their volatility. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Transportation just announced it is banning battery-powered portable electronic smoking devices in checked bags. DOT also said passengers and crews are not allowed to charge those devices on a plane. The Federal Aviation Administration has already banned spare, or uninstalled, lithium batteries from flyers’ checked bags due to the number of cases where the batteries have been linked to fires.
Earlier this week, Evan Spahlinger, a Collier County man, was hospitalized after his sister said his e-cigarette blew up in his face. North Collier Fire said the explosion was likely caused by the lithium battery inside the e-cigarette.
“I was laying in bed with my two-year old and I heard an explosion,” said Ema Richardson, the man’s sister. “I found my brother not breathing with his whole face burned and his neck burned and trying to throw up a little or maybe he was gasping for air…They said he has internal and external burns and damage to his lungs from the explosion itself. And possibly the mouth piece went, when the cigarette exploded, it went down his throat and exploded again.”
On Oct. 18, a North Naples home in the Quail West community went up in flames. The homeowner reported to a 911 dispatcher the flames were coming from his study. A family of five, including three children were able to escape safely, but the entire home was destroyed. Fire fighters believe the cause was a lithium battery.
Back in 2010, a Cape Coral man died in a house fire, which state fire investigators said was likely caused by a laptop on a bed. The man’s family is now suing because they believe the cause was a lithium battery inside that laptop.
O’Neal said the best way to protect yourself is to avoid charging these batteries when you are not at home because that is when they are the most volatile.
Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing
CSST is often recognizable by the yellow jacket covering on the tube. O’Neal said these tubes, made in Japan, carry natural gas through homes and are more flexible than other products like black iron pipe, which is what was used in the past. While many homes in Florida may not have natural gas, if you have a gas stove, water heater or built-in grill you may have this tubing in your walls.
“[A] very typical scenario is lightning strike, here’s a boom, two minutes later they [homeowners] start to smell smoke and then there’s a fire,” O’Neal said. “It [electricity] either goes to the CSST or comes off. And as it does it, it reduces down its area, causing a hole. And we have an arc, which is high intensity heat and gas, and we have an ignition source and fuel source nearby, so we have a fire pretty quickly.”
O’Neal also said the lightning does not have to be a direct strike to cause an ignition nearby. He gave one example of a fire he investigated, where lightning hit a tree in a yard and the homes on either side both had CSST and caught fire.
He said short of removing CSST from your home or making sure you do not have it installed, it is hard to protect yourself. However, TECO Energy sent a flyer to all customers saying if you have CSST in your home or business, you can reduce the risk of a fire by making sure the tubing is properly bonded and grounded. Installation crews are required to follow very specific guidelines when it comes to installing CSST.
Radiant Barrier is the newest product on the market and is becoming more popular as homeowners look for more energy-efficient options. The product is used to reduce cooling costs and looks like aluminum foil in your attic.
“It’s very early on, we’re starting to see a trend of failures happening on this particular product…but nothing that’s been found that can fix the problem right now,” O’Neal explained. “What typically happens is it’s during a lightning storm and so the lightning gets on the radiant barrier. It’s not grounded, and because it’s not grounded, that may or may not help, I can’t say for sure right now. But as it conducts across the barriers, there’s certain points where they connect and it arcs, which is another form of lightning and that is ultimately what starts the fire.”
Again, O’Neal said with lithium batteries the best way to protect yourself is to avoid charging the products when you are not home. He said during a charge or discharge that is when the battery is most volatile.
As for CSST, TECO Energy has recommended making sure the tubing is grounded and that will greatly reduce the risk of a fire. One of the firefighters we talked to told us there are new products on the market that are thicker and claim to be lightning resistant. One of those products is Flash Shield and the other is TracPipe.
Finally, O’Neal did not think there was a solution for radiant barrier. He said it was unclear if grounding the product would help or not. But he did say he hopes stories like this will make the manufacturers aware of these risks and hopefully change the way the products are made. In the meantime, he recommends homeowners change their buying patterns until you know the product will not put your family at risk.