Mar 15, 2016

In his “Product Safety” column in March LD+A, Jerry Plank reaches beyond the lighting industry to discuss the ramifications of the hoverboard fires that have dominated the news. An excerpt follows.

YouTube videos of celebrities falling off of their new hoverboards made the rounds this past holiday season, but more serious were the reports of fires erupting in hoverboards. While the lighting industry has kept losses from fires and electrical shocks in lighting products to a minimum, there is much to be learned from the hoverboard about safety.

The product safety system used in the U.S. is considered voluntary, however, many local and national electrical codes state that lighting products shall be listed by an NRTL (Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory). Most lighting products today are sold through electrical distributors, lighting showrooms, or retail outlets that, by and large, understand and require that the products they receive for sale should be NRTL listed. In many cases, licensed electricians install lighting products, and the work is judged to meet the local or national electrical codes by the AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction) in the municipality of use.

So far so good: The system of checks and balances with lighting products works very well for the way we typically purchase lighting products through the means noted above. The rub comes with electrical goods that are purchased and imported directly from foreign manufacturers, as is the case with the current crop of hoverboards bought through the Internet. Internet sales of electrical products from foreign or even domestic manufacturers that go directly to the consumer bypass all of the checks and balances of our safety system.

While numerous consumers experienced fires in the U.S. with hoverboards manufactured overseas, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) started an investigation to determine the cause(s). The CPSC, an independent federal agency of the U.S. , released an announcement by chairman, Elliot F. Kaye on December 16, 2015 that the investigation of hoverboard safety issues would look at electrical problems, as well as user falls that led to injuries.

Some of the issues that will be evaluated by the CPSC concern the charging and discharging of the hoverboards’ lithium ion batteries. These batteries have had their share of problems as reported in airliners just last year. Many standards exist such today such as UL1642, The Standard for Lithium Batteries where the batteries are tested for charging and discharging.

Various Internet reports tried to gloss over the hoverboard safety issues by stating that all the components used are tested by various NRTLs. The truth, however, is in order to be approved for Listing by any NRTL, the finished product must meet with current safety standards, be tested accordingly and be subject to periodic factory inspections to ensure that no changes were made after the product was tested.

Some foreign manufacturers have also claimed that, to date, we do not have an adopted safety standard for hoverboards. Using the old argument that manufacturers can’t get products tested and Listed since a standard does not exist lacks any validity. Standard UL1642 can certainly be applied to hoverboards, moreover, UL1642 also includes crush and other mechanical tests to include short circuit, abnormal charging, forced discharging, as well as other electrical tests.

Other ANSI/UL product safety standards already exist to evaluate the plastic housings, chargers, and other sub-components used in hoverboards. Truth is, none of the NRTLs to date in the U.S. have Listed a hoverboard, and as far as we know none have been submitted.

Manufacturers of hoverboards are either ignorant of how the U.S. market or product system works or are taking advantage of the lack of federal laws that prevent electrical products from being imported into the U.S. It appears that foreign manufacturers have figured out that with very little regulatory oversight our market can be flooded with electrical products that circumvent our normal product safety channels.

The hoverboard debacle has bearing on the lighting industry as consumer products such as LED lamps and the like can be sold directly to consumers via the Internet and imported into the U.S. without having an NRTL Listing.  The importance of an NRTL Listing on any electrical product is that normal and abnormal conditions of use can be checked to reduce the likelihood of a fire or electrical shock hazard. More importantly, all NRTL Listed products are inspected at the manufacturer’s factory to ensure that all components are as tested and not counterfeit clones.

The greatest lesson we can take away from hoverboard fires is that our current safety system for electrical products must address Internet sales so that our voluntary system of safety testing is not circumvented. We must never accept profits over safety and we must ensure that the public has complete confidence in our product safety system.

March 2016


Jerry Plank

Jerry Plank, LC

Jerry Plank, LC, is the CEO/founder of Wilger Testing, an accredited third-party laboratory testing for product safety and... More info »