Vape explosions: the truth behind what you see in the news

How to explain to non-vapers why vapes can explode (and why it’s so rare)

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exploding-vape

Vape explosions are a hot topic these days. Thanks to cameras being everywhere, we see a new video of a supposed exploding e-cig every couple weeks or so. It’s not so much that vapes blow up a lot, but that when they do, it’s a story that spreads seemingly without end. What we have is an optics problem. It’s not what actually happens that’s an issue; it’s what people think is happening.

There’s no evidence that actual mods or vape pens explode any more than any other battery powered consumer electronics product. The optics problem is that vaping is already not the most popular activity among the non-vaping, non-smoking public — so it’s an easy target for the news, and a popular thing to spread on social media. Eventually, the stories lead to denunciations of vaping by opportunistic politicians like Chuck Schumer or Richard Blumenthal.

In reality, most of the battery issues are caused by some kind of user error, but that is impossible to easily explain to people who don’t understand the tech. And some of the fault lies with vape shops and online sellers, who may sell inappropriate products to uneducated new vapers, or not properly explain how to safely carry extra batteries. Furthermore, many inexperienced vapers buy products from online sites that include no instructions or warnings.

Please don’t become the subject of “Vape explodes! News at 11."

Almost all vape batteries are lithium-ion (Li-ion) or lithium-polymer (LiPo) cells. These batteries are generally safe. However, it is possible to get a lemon — especially if you choose cheap batteries, which are often rewrapped, low-quality cells. Batteries are mass-produced and tested in the factory. Those that don’t meet the standards for direct sale to electronics manufacturers are sometimes sold to resellers.

In the future, the risk of exploding vapes may disappear. New battery formulas are being developed that replace the flammable liquid electrolyte in lithium batteries with stable solid-state electrolyte made from glass. Other researchers have developed a battery design with a fire-resistant barrier between the positive and negative poles of the battery.

Generally speaking, vapers who follow basic principles of battery safety very rarely have any problems, let alone actual vape explosions. Aside from the very rare “bad battery,” most exploding vapes are created by a few specific — and avoidable — causes.

The major avoidable causes of exploding vapes

Loose batteries

18650 Battery
18650 Battery

When you use a battery in a vape device, the power button causes a circuit to compete between the positive and negative poles of the battery, and power flows to the device. Any conductive material that connects the two poles will do the same thing — however, if there’s nothing drawing power from the battery, it causes a short circuit and the energy loops into the battery, which causes it to rapidly overheat and possibly catch fire or explode.

Often news stories with headlines like “Vaporizer explodes!” are really about loose batteries exploding — or overheating and venting, and sometimes catching on fire. The major source of such events is batteries carried loose in a purse or pocket with keys or change. The metal objects accidentally connect the positive and negative poles of the battery, and boom! Most of the viral videos we see of fires in vapers’ pockets are loose batteries — not vape mods or vape pens.

There are inexpensive plastic cases and thin rubber or silicone sleeves available to protect batteries, or more precisely to protect the user. Anyone carrying extra batteries should always use one of these. Please don’t become the subject of “Vape explodes! News at 11.”

Inappropriate batteries

inappropriate-batteries vape explosion

Batteries have a limit to the amperage they will supply, and the numbers are often exaggerated. Sometimes also, the manufacturer will mark the battery as “30 amp,” when in reality that is only a rating for a brief period (a pulse, or peak, rating), rather than a limit for continuous use.

This is crucial when building low-resistance coils, and it’s especially important with mechanical mods, which have no electronic safety protections. If the atomizer you use needs more amperage than the battery can supply, the battery overheats and can go into thermal runaway. If the battery can’t vent when it overheats, the energy can be powerful enough to cause a fire or explosion.

Don’t take the word of the guy at the vape shop who said it’s cool.

If you are building low-ohm coils, you must understand how the battery works in conjunction with the resistance of the atty, and you must understand battery amperage ratings and how they apply to vaping. If you don’t understand that, stick with known products. Frankly, there are so many inexpensive, high-quality variable-wattage mods nowadays, it’s hard to see why anyone wants to take even small risks with mech mods.

Counterfeit batteries and damaged battery wraps

fake-batteries vape explosion

Aside from batteries that don’t provide enough current (amperage) to support some atomizers, there is the issue of counterfeit batteries. These are often very low-amp batteries that are wrapped to imitate well-known models (with higher amperage ratings) that people trust. Almost every popular battery on the market has been counterfeited.

How to avoid counterfeits? Buy only from reputable dealers –and not from a no-name eBay seller — and choose known batteries made by original manufacturers. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Saving a couple dollars on a battery isn’t worth the risk. If you choose one of the best batteries, they won’t be the cheapest, but you may make your money back in long-term performance. High quality battery models have more lifetime capacity; they’ll take more charges than low-end cells.

Another cause of shorted batteries is damaged battery wraps. The thin plastic cover that prevents the metal body of the battery (the “can”) from making contact with the sides of the mod’s battery chamber can get torn. If that happens, you should either discard (recycle please!) the battery, or have it rewrapped. Rewrapping the battery is not difficult; you can purchase sleeves and do it yourself cheaply in just minutes. [Thanks to reader Craig Harrison for reminding me to address this point.]

Hybrid mech mods and improper atomizers

Hybrid-mech-mods-and-improper-atomizers vape explosion

The growing number of stories about a vape exploding in someone’s face tend to come from a pretty unique cause. Some atomizers, especially some sub-ohm tanks, have a very short positive pin on the 510 connection. When screwed into a so-called hybrid mech mod — a mod that allows the positive battery connection to make direct contact with the atomizer pin — the battery contact can push hard enough so that both positive and negative contacts on the 510 connection meet the battery at once. That causes an instant dead short and potentially an exploding mod.

When the force of the battery’s energy is released, it takes the path of least resistance and the atty (or part of it) flies off the end of the mod. Right in the mouth. Those pictures of people with bloody mouths and missing teeth aren’t fake. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids didn’t plant them, despite what conspiracy theorists may tell you.

The bottom line is that there’s no real reason for anyone to use this style of mod anymore. But if you do, you had better be an expert. You need to know what kind of 510 connection is safe — and I mean you need to know it. Don’t take the word of the guy at the vape shop who said it’s cool.

Improper charging

Improper-charging vape explosion

A rare cause of exploding e-cigs is improper charging. It’s possible in rare cases for the wrong kind of charger to overcharge a battery. Sometimes people use chargers that are meant for higher capacity batteries to charge small pen-style vapes or cigalikes. Overcharging can create instability in the cell.

Likewise, a defective battery charger can overcharge 18650 or similar cells creating a similar dangerous situation. Vapers often advise letting batteries rest for a while after charging to let the volatile electrolytes settle after charging — though it’s debatable whether that is necessary.

The best chargers have safety features. Some even have digital readouts that show when the battery has reached full. Common vape batteries are designed to put out 3.7 volts, but they usually charge up to 4.1 or 4.2 volts.

The wonderful world of Facebook

vape-fake-news-on-facebook

Remember, this is mostly an optics problem. People who know nothing about vaping see these stories in the news, or on social media, and they think this is common. They don’t understand that many, many millions of people vape, and the number of times that a vape blows up is tiny compared to those that don’t.

When these stories hit Facebook, they get shared hundreds of thousands of times. And you can count on a high percentage of non-vapers seeing those stories and believing that exploding vapes are the rule rather than the exception. We should never, ever share those horrible Facebook posts and spread that dangerous propaganda.

Cell phones are used by nearly everyone on earth, but even those have a remarkably low battery failure rate. Vapers can point to the infamous Samsung Galaxy Note 7 episode when explaining vape explosions. That got massive media coverage — and rightfully so — but, according to Samsung, the actual problem only occurred in 0.1 percent of those phones. And those were actually defective batteries, a situation seen rarely.

Until that happens, expect to see more outrageous headlines and TV news stories.

Most phone fires or explosions happen because of improper charging. If phone users carried batteries with exposed contacts in their pockets commonly, we’d see even more news stories about the “exploding phone menace.” But most smartphones nowadays have internal batteries that can’t be swapped quickly.

And that may be the future of vape batteries too. If we can’t offer products to new users that can be counted on to never explode in a rookie vaper’s face, or vent and start a fire in their pocket, retailers are going to have to demand safe equipment, and manufacturers are going to have to provide it. Until that happens, expect to see more outrageous headlines and TV news stories.

Jim McDonald
I spend most of my time studying the regulatory, legislative and scientific challenges to vaping, advocating for our right to exist, and talking with others who do the same. Consider me a source for information, and feel free to agree or disagree with anything I say. I love good coffee and sweet Michigan cherries. My childhood hero was Gordie Howe.
  • bumrocks

    Better article without this paragraph…

    “The bottom line is that there’s no real reason for anyone to use this style of mod anymore…Don’t take the word of the guy at the vape shop who said it’s cool.”

    I prefer an unregulated device because I prefer regulating it myself, opposed to a device whose settings can mysteriously change in your pocket with potential adverse affects…All the while, generally being bigger and bulkier than an unregulated device. Last, no vape employee or guy at a vape shop (highly highly unlikely at least) has ever told told some that they should get a device with hybrid connection cause it was “cool”.

    My point is your article would have been best with simply the facts minus your opinion or media inflated bravado…They are the things we vapers are fighting, as it is.

    • Jim McDonald

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. You may be right.

  • Craig Harrison

    Couple of things.

    Firstly, for all documented/reported explosions during 2016, the breakdown is:

    Regulated: 19
    Mech: 16
    Battery only: 30

    Blaming unregulated/mechs for a problem that exists across the board is just wrong.

    Also, you neglected to mention one of the leading causes of hard shorts, which is damaged wraps.

    I can appreciate the points you did raise, but given the volume of reporting done along these lines already, you shouldn’t be missing major points or jumping on the “ban mechs ” wagon that folks like Dave Dorn started in error.

    • Jim McDonald

      Fair points. I never said to ban mechs though — just that I don’t see a reason for inexperienced users to choose them.

      • bumrocks

        :/ You did not say that either?! As the adage goes, it is in black and white…

        ” …there’s no real reason for anyone to use this style of mod anymore.”

        Anyone is pretty specific to being everyone and not who you mentioned as being inexperienced users, in your comment.

    • Jim McDonald

      Craig, I updated the article and addressed the problem of damaged battery wraps. Thanks for reminding me!