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Exploding Batteries: What’s the Real Risk? September 29, 2006

Posted by farshadf in Funny, Interesting, Uncategorized.

Lately I’ve been hearing from countless people with Dell laptops who are concerned that their notebooks could blow up at a moment’s notice. People are trying to call the Dell recall phone number, and it’s completely jammed. Panic is rampant. People seem to think they’re sitting on a time bomb, and they want it off their desk immediately.

Well I’m here to tell you one thing: Relax.

Seriously. Calm down.

OK. Now listen: Should you return your recalled Dell battery for a new one? Yes. Do you need to do it right this second? No. Some of you have been using these computers for years and the battery hasn’t exploded yet. What are the odds that it’s going to happen this weekend? Or even in the next few weeks? Virtually nil.

But let’s look at this more thoroughly. What are the odds of a Dell notebook going up in flames? I put pencil to paper to figure it out.

Dell has reported that 4.2 million laptops are at risk (about 7 million total have now been recalled), and, as near as I can tell, about 8 known cases of batteries melting or exploding over the last two years. Let’s play pessimist and assume the problem is much worse than Dell knows about. Let’s assume that over the next three years, a full 60 notebooks will explode if left with at-risk batteries. Doing the math: That’s a 1 in 210,000 chance per year of a recalled battery exploding. Over the next two months, should you decide to wait a bit to replace your battery: The odds are 1 in 1,260,000.

Do those odds frighten you? I decided to cobble together some comparable statistics to put you at ease. Here’s your risk of facing death or damage due to some more realistic concerns. (Note that all odds below are for the event happening over the course of one year.)

Odds of being struck by lightning (though not necessarily dying) in a given year: 1 in 400,000 (Source: National Weather Service)

Odds of dying in a car accident in a given year: 1 in 18,400 (Source: National Safety Council [NSC])

Odds of getting killed somehow while walking around outside: 1 in 49,000 (NSC)

Odds of drowning: 1 in 88,000 (NSC)

Odds of choking to death: 1 in 97,000 (NSC)

Odds of dying in an air (or space) accident: 1 in 392,000 (NSC)

Odds of freezing to death: 1 in 469,000 (NSC)

Odds of death from falling off the bed or a chair: 1 in 347,000 (NSC)

Odds of choking to death on your own vomit: 1 in 740,000 (NSC)

Odds of getting killed by fireworks: 1 in 26,440,000 (NSC)

Odds of death due to overly hot tap water: 1 in 11,100,000 (NSC)

Odds of death due to burning pajamas: 1 in 97,000,000 (NSC, and no that’s not a joke)

Odds that you’ll kill yourself: 1 in 9,200 (NSC)

Surprisingly, your odds of freezing to death or falling off the bed to your doom are better than that of your Dell exploding over the next year, but those are major long shots. You’re less at risk with the Dell than you face with countless other hazards, like being stabbed to death (1 in 142,000), dying through surgical complications (1 in 102,000), or getting killed on a motorcycle (1 in 79,000). Let’s also note that these melting Dells haven’t killed anyone yet, either.

Now consider this: Time magazine says 591,000 laptops were stolen in 2001. I estimate there are about 100 million laptops in use in the U.S. right now (and that’s probably aggressive). Your odds of your notebook being stolen this year are at best 1 in 169, about 1,000 times as likely as the thing melting in your lap.

Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t replace your hazardous battery, not at all. If you own a notebook from a company doing recalls, check the recall website and see if your battery model is listed. (I keep a handy list of all the recall websites on one page.) But don’t kill yourself to do it immediately: What I am saying is that you might face a bigger risk of bashing in your own skull with your phone while you face endless busy signals and hold times if you try to get the replacement battery during the panic-stricken first few days of any recall. If you’re that concerned, simply remove the battery from your laptop and work on A/C power only for the time being.

Take a breather, folks. It’s gonna be all right.

Christopher Null

The Working Guy



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