Are the two-wheeled gadgets commonly known as hoverboards cool? Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, and a bunch of other celebrities think so.
Given the hoverboard’s status as the hottest gift of the 2015 holiday season, millions of not-so-famous Americans seem to agree.
That must-have status may not last for long, though, considering all of the fires and ER visits associated with using these boards-that-don’t-really-hover.
Is this the first you’re hearing of these issues? No worries, here’s the gist:
- As of late January 2016, at least 48 hoverboards have caught fire
- Those fires started under various circumstances, with some igniting during use and some doing so while charging
- Emergency rooms across the US have seen a noticeable uptick in hoverboard-related injuries since the end of last year
- Some of the injuries reported so far: fractures, sprains, lacerations, and concussions
Whether or not all of the above has led or will lead to a consumer backlash against hoverboards is anyone’s guess.
There’s no question it’s caused a backlash among a number of organizations, businesses, and agencies, though. A few examples:
- The US Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating more than 10 hoverboard makers, importers, and distributors
- Amazon and Target temporarily banned the devices before the holidays (although they’re readily available at both retailers right now)
- com permanently pulled them from their online store shelves around the same time
- Most airlines have banned hoverboards from carry-on and checked luggage
- The US Postal Service no longer ships them by air
Anatomy of an Explosion
What’s prompting these self-balancing scooters to catch fire? That’s not entirely clear, though two components are the most likely culprits. One is the lithium-ion batteries that power the gadgets. The other is the chargers.
If lithium-ion batteries sound familiar, it’s probably because they also power most of our phones, tablets, and laptops.
So why are the ones packed inside of hoverboards causing so many fires? Actually, the ones used in smartphones and laptops cause plenty of fires too.
The hoverboard situation is a bit different, though. For starters, the batteries in these two-wheelers usually are jammed into their foot rests. As a result, they’re regularly bumped and jolted and shaken.
That’s a problem because the liquid inside these batteries is highly flammable and it doesn’t take much to set it off.
Also a problem: most hoverboard batteries are cheap and prone to defects. “The quality and consistency of these batteries is typically not as good as what is found in top tier producers such as LG or Samsung,” Carnegie Mellon University’s Jay Whitacre told Wired late last year.
As for the chargers, they often feature non-standard plugs. On top of that, overcharging these motorized vehicles may lead to fires or explosions. In other words: say goodbye to the days of plugging them in and walking away.
Liability Insurance Implications
With so many hoverboards catching fire or exploding, people who own them should make sure they’ve got enough insurance to cover any mishaps.
Specifically, make sure the liability portion of your homeowners policy offers plenty of protection. That will save you a lot of pain if a guest gets hurt while riding a hoverboard in or around your house.
Why? Say one of your child’s friends falls from the board and is seriously injured. If his or her parents sue, your liability insurance may not be sufficient to cover the claim.
"You need to have enough liability protection to protect your assets," the Insurance Information Institute’s Jeanne Salvatore told USA Today in December 2015.
Insurance agency owner Eric Kollevoll’s advice in the same article: increase the excess liability on your home policy. Or purchase an umbrella policy.
Other Insurance Concerns
Something else to keep in mind if you or a loved one gets a hoverboard: it could impact whether or not your insurer renews your home policy.
"Your rates don't go up for having those items in your household, but you may lose eligibility," Kollevoll told USA Today.
A similar issue may pop up if you apply for homeowners insurance and the company finds out you have one of these contraptions.
Of course, not everyone agrees with that take on the situation. For instance, insurance defense attorney Katharine Nohr says some companies might “rewrite their policies to include exemptions for fires caused by hoverboards.” But she also asks, “what about other lithium-battery caused fires? What about a fire caused by charging a cell phone or an e-cig too long?”
Far more likely, Nohr adds: “insurance carriers will seek subrogation for claims paid in certain situations.”
Hoverboard Safety Tips
Here are a few pieces of advice—some might call them words of warning—to anyone thinking of buying or even just using a hoverboard.
More expensive doesn’t mean higher quality
“Although brands at the high end of the price spectrum claim to use superior components, we could not easily verify that,” Christopher Raymond proclaimed in his Consumer Reports review of three models.
Don’t put too much stock in certification labels
No matter what kind of hoverboard you buy, its box probably will showcase one or more certification labels. Unfortunately, they may not ensure the safety of your board. In most cases, they only certify that individual components are safe. They don’t assure those components are safe while working together.
Be careful while charging
Unlike your phone or tablet, you shouldn’t plug in your hoverboard and then leave it overnight or for the rest of the day. Instead, charge it only as long as the manufacturer recommends. Also, keep an eye on your gadget as it charges.