Why phone explosions/fires should not make the news

July 11, 2013
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Incidents where smartphones overheat, catch fire, or explode occur regularly - a quick Google search will reveal plenty of cases. But in most situations, such incidents shouldn't be a topic for media.

burnt galaxy s3

Incidents where smartphones overheat, catch fire, or explode occur regularly. A quick Google search will reveal plenty of cases, which often garner hundreds of comments on Reddit, XDA, and other platforms where mobile users congregate.

Just this week, two incidents involving Samsung devices made the news.

Just this week, two incidents involving Samsung devices surfaced – in one case, a young woman in Switzerland suffered a bad burn on her thigh when the Galaxy S3 she had in her pocket caught fire without warning. In another case, a user in the United Arab Emirates woke up in the middle of the night startled by the smell of burnt plastic – his device, which was charging on the nightstand, was about to catch fire. Luckily, nothing was damaged besides the Galaxy S4 and the charger. In another case from a while ago, which went very popular on Reddit, a Galaxy S3 user suffered minor burns when his phone “exploded” and sent bits of molten plastic on his hand.

By coincidence, the three incidents I presented above involve Samsung devices, but examples of iPhones, Blackberries, HTCs, and other phones self-igniting are just a search away.

From time to time, incidents will make it to Android blogs (you’ll find a couple of posts on Android Authority too) and other tech sites, because they tend to attract readers. And that’s normal to an extent – we all tend to be fascinated by accidents, and the idea that the devices we regularly put to our faces and carry around in the pocket can go up in flames without warning is worrying.

explodedbattery

A burnt Galaxy S4 battery.

But most incidents of phones and other mobile devices catching fire should not make the news sites or the front page of Reddit.

Why?

First, they are unavoidable, and to some extent, normal. I am not saying that it’s normal for phones to burst into flames or explode. But every electric device, from desk lamps to airplanes, is exposed to such accidents. Where there’s an electric current flowing through a circuit, there’s a chance that a component will overheat and start a fire. Smartphones make no difference, and, with adoption rates growing every day, accidents are bound to happen.

Where there’s an electric current flowing through a circuit, there’s a chance that a component will overheat and start a fire

Second, in most cases, it’s hard to tell what exactly happened. The cause of the accident may be a faulty battery, perhaps a replacement one, or a malfunctioning charger. In other cases, the user may be at fault – it’s easy to understand why putting a pillow on a charging device is dangerous, or why you shouldn’t microwave a device to remove water from it. Some users will lie about the circumstances of the accident to obtain a refund or a replacement unit. Of course, in many situations the cause is the smartphone – it’s just that it’s hard to tell for sure.

So, why do smartphone accidents get so much attention? One reason is that users that suffered accidents are often refused warranty. If given the opportunity, some retailers and manufacturers will wash their hands, claiming that it was the customer’s fault. Naturally, users feel wronged and take their plea to forums and websites. Then the story goes viral, and manufacturers often accept to shoulder the blame, rather than suffer more public shaming.

So, what should you do?

There will be more and more cases of accidents involving mobile devices. More smartphones hit the market every day and, statistically, that means more accidents. From time to time, posts about them will keep popping up on tech blogs. It’s just important to avoid panicking and blowing incidents out of proportion.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself, other than the obvious – don’t use faulty chargers, don’t cover charging devices so heat can’t dissipate, use compatible chargers, use original batteries, and don’t try to fix the device yourself unless you know what you are doing. Check out this article from Gizmodo which explains why batteries, which are often the cause of accidents, explode sometimes, and what you can do about it.

In the very small probability that an accident does happen and you know you did nothing wrong, don’t hesitate to take it to the manufacturer. This may require you to send the device over to inspection, which can be a lengthy process. But if the phone was indeed at fault, you should get a replacement and potentially reimbursement for other damage that you suffered.

If the manufacturer refuses, yes, you probably should make it public. Just keep calm, don’t give up on your rights, and don’t blow things out of proportion.

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