It seems like companies are putting solar panels and batteries everywhere these days. Security cameras are a lot easier and cheaper to install if you don’t need to run electrical wiring, so you can just get them with a small solar panel and small battery packs to keep them up all night. You can get little yard lights like this, too. But, one thing I didn’t think I’d ever see is a solar-powered umbrella.
And that’s the subject of a recall that was recently announced by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “Consumers should immediately stop using the umbrellas, remove the solar panel puck containing a lithium-ion battery from the top of the umbrella, store the puck out of the sun and away from combustible material, and do not charge the puck with the AC adapter.” the agency said. “Consumers can return the umbrellas and solar puck to any Costco Warehouse nationwide for a full refund. Consumers unable to return the product to Costco can contact the firm for instructions on how to receive a refund. SunVilla and Costco are contacting all known purchasers.”
WTF Is A Solar-Powered Umbrella?
This talk of solar umbrellas, pucks, and such was initially very confusing. Don’t Canadians play hockey with pucks? And if you’re up that far north, what do you need an umbrella for? Certainly not rain, because if you’re using the thing for rain, you’re not getting any solar power for your “puck.” Further reading didn’t help much. I did learn that the “puck” catches fire, and attaches to the top of the umbrella, though:
“The firm has received six reports of the lithium-ion batteries overheating. This includes three reports of solar panels catching fire while charging via the AC adapter indoors and two reports of umbrellas catching fire when the solar panel puck overheated and caught fire while attached to the umbrella and one smoke inhalation injury.”
After doing a bunch or reading around the internet, and mostly finding “this item is out of stock” or “this item is discontinued,” I found out that the umbrella isn’t something you’d carry around with you, but something you’d put in your yard to get some shade during the day, and maybe some protection from rain during those rainy-day picnics we all have. The solar “puck?” It powers LED lights that give your picnic table a romantic glow if you’re out there having dinner or a party after dark.
So, it sort of makes sense, but people who bought them apparently didn’t have a good time when the “puck,” which attaches on top of the umbrella (and not in the shade) caught fire. Apparently the puck has not only a small solar panel, but some battery cells that could overheat and do a small-scale re-enactment of the HBO Chernobyl miniseries. Plus, burning umbrellas are likely to upset your neighbors and earn you a fine of some kind that the HOA Karens are itching to slap you with.
Why Would The “Puck” Catch Fire?
It doesn’t appear that battery cell defects are to blame this time like they were for the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Hyundai Kona. In those cases, there’s really not a good temporary solution, and you’re not supposed to park them in a garage, even if you don’t fully charge them, at least until the vehicle gets a new battery pack.
Instead, the CPSC and its Canadian equivalent says to store your “puck” indoors and out of the sun to keep it from catching fire. So, it appears that the batteries are getting overheated and getting into thermal runaway. When that happens, adjacent cells can also go up, producing a small but difficult to extinguish fire.
We’ve seen this in EVs, too. Lithium batteries generally need to stay in a narrow temperature range, usually around the same temperatures human beings are comfortable in. Get too cold, and the batteries can’t produce electrical energy from the chemical energy they store. Get them too hot, and well, you get fires. To keep that from happening, and to get better battery longevity, most EVs have a liquid cooling system that sheds the heat through a radiator, like any other car (but there’s a lot less heat to shed). The ones that don’t have electronic safety measures that reduce available power or shut the car off if it gets too hot.
The Problem Here
Automakers put a lot of time and money into designing safe battery systems for their vehicles, but small electronics aren’t subject to the same strict safety standards. Often, when you break these cheap things open, you’ll just find wires and batteries without any kind of serious battery or thermal management. Better electronics, like the security cameras at my house, have at least some basic BMS to prevent a fire, and the batteries are inside of a white-colored housing to reflect solar energy away.
But, put a cheap “puck” together with no real BMS (or an inadequate BMS), make the housing black, and leave it out in the sun all day every day, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for disaster, even if it’s a small disaster.
If this small recall and the larger vehicle recalls we’ve seen should teach us anything, it’s that battery pack design and safety is essential. Having adequate cooling and safety measures isn’t something we can skimp on to make a cheaper product and keep the prices at Costco, Amazon, and Walmart down. On a small scale, people could get burned or inhale some smoke. On the larger scale, people could die and whole buildings could burn down.
While regulators certainly play a role here, we still live in a world where buyers must still beware. If you’re buying anything with lithium batteries, especially outdoors, don’t cheap out. Be careful when shopping and if you buy something, give it a look to see if you think the batteries are getting decent care and protection from overheating or other issues that can make your new gadget go up in smoke.
All images provided by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.