Penny wise, pound foolish

Why using anything other than OEM batteries can be a dangerous proposition for construction professionals who use power tools. By Susan Orenga

The quality will remain long after the price is forgotten – this is a well-known quote from Henry Royce, co-founder of luxury car brand Rolls- Royce. It’s usually taken to mean that quality is worth paying for. But there’s another meaning: that buying on price alone often ends with the disappointment of poor performance or potential hazards. It is this second meaning that drives the Power Tool Institute (PTI) to strongly caution tool buyers to only buy batteries manufactured by their tool’s original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

When it comes to buying power tool batteries, going cheap can have potentially disastrous consequences for power tool users. The costs related to a single fire caused by a counterfeit or knock-off battery will quickly reveal the lower initial purchase price to be no bargain at all. Spending a little more up front for a product that is designed specifically for the tool and will perform well for a longer period of time is a smart investment.

Proprietary Circuitry: What’s inside is what counts
What makes OEM batteries the right investment over counterfeits and knock-offs? Each OEM has its own proprietary control circuity for the total system, which encompasses the tool, battery, and charger, so the three components communicate properly.

There are numerous design considerations that manufacturers address in the construction of their batteries, including type and quality of cells, durability of electrical connections, electronic controls (in the battery, charger, and tool), protective housing, compliance with standards, and independent certification.

This circuitry design is not available to third-party component suppliers, and the differences between the inner workings of these power tool systems make it virtually impossible for any other battery to match the OEM, no matter what the package claims.

Because of all these safety and compliance considerations, batteries from different non-OEMs are not cross-compatible (unless specified by the power tool manufacturer).

When buying aftermarket batteries for power tools, it is important to consult with the power tool owner’s manual and purchase only the batteries recommended by the manufacturer.

Willingness to do the right thing and shop for OEM batteries might not be enough. Manufacturers of counterfeit and knock-off batteries know exactly what they are doing when they design their products to mirror the color and packaging of the specific OEM manufacturers from whom they intend to take business. Online sales in particular can confuse well-meaning buyers. One can get caught up comparing prices, which is understandable, but what seems like apples to apples can result in a deal that quickly turns rotten.

In the end, before purchasing a non-OEM battery, consumers are advised to consider all factors, not just price. What seems to work well out of the box may deliver dire consequences later. Purchasing a battery from an unknown seller without having any verification of the seller’s qualifications or experience — or of the battery’s construction, testing or certification — can leave you with an unsatisfying, and potentially dangerous, experience.

Thermal Runaway: What to do if batteries overheat
Once you have made the safer choice and outfitted work benches and service trucks with OEM batteries, battery safety is still an important and ongoing consideration.

Most battery-operated power tools use lithium-ion batteries due to their many advantages over other battery types. They can derive greater energy from a smaller battery, are made of lower-toxicity materials, and hold their charge longer. The benefits of this newer technology have allowed higher-demand tools and applications to be battery-powered and provide significantly more work-per-charge. This extended capability, combined with the portability of battery tools, has resulted in a dramatic increase in their use.

Any lithium-ion battery, while infrequent, can become unstable, particularly if the battery is damaged, dropped, or cracked. If you encounter a lithium ion battery that is too hot to touch, melting, smoking, or on fire, it may be in ‘thermal runaway’.

Thermal runaway acts like a chain reaction, where the heat continues to build until battery stability is lost, and a fire can start. The reaction occurs due to an internal short, causing excess heat to be generated. It requires immediate action.

The quickest way to cool down and stop an overheating lithium-ion battery is to immerse the battery in a sturdy container filled with water and keep it there for 24 hours.

Before immersing a battery, there are some things to keep in mind. Don’t physically touch the battery to move it; instead, use something like a long-handled shovel. Wear PPE to protect eyes and skin. If the overheating battery is mounted to a charger, make sure the charger is unplugged. If the battery is connected to a tool or charger, don’t try to disconnect it. It’s better to sacrifice those items than risk being injured. Put them in the water as well.

If you are not able to immediately submerge an overheating battery, pouring large amounts of water on it to extinguish flames may slow the fire down until a sturdy container of water can be found. When the flames have subsided, transfer the battery to the container as soon as possible.

If water isn’t immediately available, a fire extinguisher may slow the fire down, but it won’t put it out completely. It must be cooled down to stop the chain reaction. Though the fire may appear to be extinguished, still immerse the battery in water as soon as possible, so additional cells within the battery don’t re-ignite.

If water isn’t available, you can isolate the battery by moving it outdoors at least 15 feet from any combustible material.

It’s important to leave the battery immersed for at least 24 hours. Even if you don’t see flames, the thermal runaway may not be over. While one cell is cooling down, a different cell might be heating up.

The bottom line is that a properly designed tool, battery, and charging system from an OEM, is the safest option, but you must respect any battery’s power and handle it properly.

Education is the key to safe tool operation
Reminders like this article can help promote good decision-making around power tools and their safe operation, but the best way to improve safety on job sites is through a robust, continuous training program.

Power tool safety begins with several basic, universal tenets. Workers who learn to apply these can approach any power tool with confidence. Well-trained workers make fewer mistakes, are less apt to become distracted on the job, and appreciate that safety is a team-first concept.

Many firms have their own training courses and schedules, but for any who are looking to start their first training program – or want to enhance what they already have – the Power Tool Institute offers a library of more than a dozen lesson plans, including several videos. These materials are complimentary on the PTI website (https://www. powertoolinstitute. com/pti-pages/ed-lesson-plans.asp).

Power tools make construction work and other job types go so much faster and easier. Arming workers with consistent, quality information and their professional dedication to staying knowledgeable and well trained can result in successful projects for years to come.

Susan Orenga
Susan Orenga works at the Power Tool Institute. With the vision to unify and educate others about power tools, since its founding in 1968, the Power Tool Institute (PTI) has established itself as the leading organization for building global understanding of power tools and for maintaining high standards of safety in the industry.