Without a doubt, this year’s “gift of the year” was hoverboards. While certainly not the true hoverboard as seen in Back To The Future:Part II, these two-wheeled devices are suddenly everywhere.
The problem is that they have expanded with such speed that none of them appear to be completely certified by any testing laboratories, and the media (and YouTube) is full of examples of hoverboards catching fire while charging, while being used, while even while not in use. As a direct result of this, campuses across the nation are banning them from residence halls or even from being used on campus at all. Airlines have also banned them from both carryon and checked luggage.
What is interesting about this phenomenon is how incredibly quickly it grew. The podcast Planet Money looked into it, and discovered that many of them were coming from an area in China that is known for having factories that can quickly get a manufacturing line up and running in response to high demand. It appears that this is part of the problem, as they may be churning out hoverboards so quickly and trying to undercut each other on price that they are bypassing safety requirements.
We are used to our products meeting safety standards, and in this case, there is no testing standard for hoverboards, and none have been certified by a national testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories. One manufacturer, Sagway, was apparently putting counterfeit testing labels on its hoverboards, according to an alert put out by UL. In it, UL explains:
To date, UL has yet to certify any hoverboards for safety. Further, UL certification of components such as a battery pack or power supply in hoverboards is different from certification of the hoverboards themselves. For technology such as hoverboards that use lithium-ion batteries, it is important to understand the interaction among components and UL has yet to evaluate any power supplies or battery packs in a hoverboard system.
Testing and certification of many consumer products is voluntary. Manufacturers will often come to UL to test and certify products to provide a level of assurance to the marketplace. UL is working closely with the industry and other stakeholders on this issue and is willing to develop suitable requirements for hoverboards in order to help assure these products are safe for consumers.
Amazon pulled them from their online catalog, although one clever entrepreneur started selling fire-resistant bags to put the hoverboards into. It would appear that they are starting to come back to Amazon, but with some interesting language on the postings. One of them read “UN38.3/COC of UL authenticate.” When I looked online for more information as to what this means, interestingly enough, a number of listings for different hoverboards, yet with the same language, popped up. When I looked further into what “UN38.3” is, it appears that this is a testing standard for lithium batteries. As the statement from UL points out, it is important to test the entire device, not just components.
This is an international problem, as back in October the London Fire Brigade in the UK started identifying incidents involving hoverboards catching fire.
CNET did an article looking at the possible reasons that these devices are catching fire. It would appear that contributing factors might be low-quality components and a possible mismatch between components, such as the chargers and the batteries.
In addition, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has launched an investigation into a number of the fires and, in a statement issued on December 16, listed a series of points to consider when purchasing a hoverboard, including:
- Avoid buying the product at a location (like a mall kiosk) or on a website that does not have information about who is selling the product and how they can be contacted if there is a problem. If you do not think you could find the seller again, were a problem to arise with your board, that should be a warning to you not to do business with them.
- Do not charge a hoverboard overnight or when you are not able to observe the board.
- Charge and store in an open dry area away from combustibles (meaning items that can catch fire).
- Do not charge directly after riding. Let the device cool for an hour before charging.
- If giving a hoverboard to someone for the holidays, leave it in its partially charged state. Do not take it out of the package to bring it to a full charge and then wrap it back up. Often, the product comes partially charged. Leave it in that state until it is ready to be used.
- Look for the mark of a certified national testing laboratory. While this does not rule out counterfeits, the absence of such a mark means your safety is likely not a priority for that manufacturer.
Another concern is fall hazards and riding them in high-traffic areas. New York City initially banned hoverboards on city streets according to a number of new stories, but reportedly this is the subject of recent legislation that would modify the existing laws under which they were banned.
As this article was going to print, the Carolina Panthers football team banned its players from using hoverboards after they were found drag racing in a hotel corridor. I’m assuming this was because they were concerned about the players being injured, falling off of a hoverboard. (I’m sure the hotel was probably concerned about the presence of the hoverboards in the hotel as well!)
The list of campuses that have banned hoverboards is a rapidly growing one until everyone can get a better handle on making sure the devices are safe. This is certainly going to be an evolving story, and Campus Firewatch will provide updates here and on Facebook and Twitter as new information becomes available.