Fire! Fire! Help me!

The title says it all. A mid-to-late 2000s reference any Graham Linehan fan will be familiar with.

On the long list of things we weren’t expecting on a normal Sunday, fire was towards the bottom, but there it was. A scary occurence, but I’m here with the story, after the lithium has settled.

Prime Suspect

Tonight I’m writing on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7+, which is a pleasant enough experience. The keys are a little smaller than I’m used to and the keyboard cover doesn’t feel quite as responsive as my laptop keyboard, but what else is there to do when your laptop explodes. A bit. It wasn’t a massive explosion, but it was sitting on the charge on our sofa when we heard a really odd, slightly otherworldy popping sound. And that was the beginning of the end for my 2017 Dell Inspiron 15 7000 gaming laptop. Even the 4K screen couldn’t give me the clarity to foresee this calamity.

Lithium powers our lives, but every so often we get an all too real reminder of what that power is capable of

The casing of the laptop had started to swell, and smoke was billowing out of it and the sofa underneath it. Having been in emergency situations before, I switched into “deal with a rapidly emerging problem” mode and ran into the kitchen to get oven gloves. The first priority was to remove the laptop and get it outside where it was at less risk of causing any harm. The second priority was the sofa. Acrid smoke had filled the room by this point, and it became rapidly evident that the fire had burned through the rug covering the sofa. And the sofa fabric. And into the core of the cushions. Apparently lithium batteries are the thermite of soft furnishings.

The fire was still smouldering inside the sofa cushion so I shoved the garden hose into the hole and doused it thoroughly. Fire out first. Damage control after. At this point the laptop was still smouldering, and I was conscious of having it near anything that could be potentially flammable (even though every outdoor surface is at least a little damp this time of year through until about Spring). As the battery appeared to be calming down, my mind turned to data rescue. I had no external hard drive backup of the laptop contents, but the heat appeared to have been directed through the case and out, relatively preserving the surrounding contents. Could something be salavaged from the smoking wreck?

The laptop with the back cover removed. The internals are laid out really well, and surprisingly well protected in this kind of event

I donned work gloves and a pair of safety glasses and started to unscrew the backets holding the battery in place. The whole battery assembly had swollen, making it difficult to remove without prising it out. This was exactly what I was trying to avoid as traumatising the other (unexploded) cell could start a further fire. Treating it with the care normally reserved for a crate of old nitroglycerine, I removed the battery and placed it in the firepit, which is definitely not the drum from our old washing machine.

Once the battery was made safe, I could remove some of the most valuable components. The memory modules and the NVME SSD. I wasn’t confident that I would be able to recover anything, but miraculously the SSD was undamaged and I was able to access it using a USB 3 enclosure. I am yet to test the memory, but visually it also looks unharmed. Unfortunately some connectors underneath the battery were in the firing line, and the casing around the trackpad is thoroughy toasted. The screen appears to have also taken a hit.

I have made Dell aware of the issue, and I’m currently awaiting their response. The laptop wasn’t a spring chicken, but I wouldn’t expect a battery from 2017 to be that dangerously unstable.

So the moral of the story? Don’t be unlucky. That isn’t very satisfying, is it. There should be warning signs with something like this, but the battery hadn’t even started to swell, and although the capacity had waned over the years, it was still functional. It gave me no shortage of service, and got me through my first medical jobs, multiple exams and an academic placement crunching some pretty heavy data. It owed me nothing, but I am sad to see it go. Off to techno-heaven for you, my sweet sweet Dell.

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