How Safe Are Solar Battery Storage Systems?

The Australian solar battery revolution is well underway.  Installation numbers are surging, and system safety is a significant concern.  The main worry of most homeowners is the possibility of a battery fire, but others are also concerned about environmental safety issues when they reach the end of their lives.

The good news is that I can reassure you that home batteries are very safe.  If you get one installed, you have little to worry about. 

But I’m not saying there’s no risk at all. 

Battery risks are acceptable

Home battery fires have occurred, and there have been recalls for LG Chem and SolaX home batteries.  Both recalls involved battery modules produced by LG Chem between March 2017 and September 2018.  Similar safety issues and recalls could always occur in the future.  But while many batteries were recalled, very few burst into flames — or even just smouldered.

While I can’t deny there is a remote chance a fault will cause a battery to catch fire and another small chance that fire will spread and become dangerous, the risk has always been small and has decreased with improving technology.  The risk is at a level we accept daily whenever we drive a car, cross the street, or dance like no one’s watching.

Why home batteries are safe

This high level of safety is thanks to Australia’s strict standards.  These apply to the battery itself as well as its location and installation.  While the red tape can be annoying, the benefits are worthwhile.

If there were long-term studies on home battery safety, I’d show them to you.  But because it’s a relatively new technology, these don’t currently exist.  And because Australia is leading the way, we can’t get information from overseas.  But I can give you several reasons to believe home batteries are safe:

  • Around 200,000 home batteries have been installed in Australia, about 41,700 in 2022 alone.  While there have been plenty of teething problems with the new technology, safety issues have been rare.
  • The Canberra Battery Test Centre took 26 home batteries and used accelerated testing to work them hard for several years.  While they found plenty of problems, none involved safety.
  • Australia is the home battery trailblazer, so we can’t look to overseas information. Still, the world currently has around 40 million electric vehicles, and the NSW Department of Transport says, “All new EVs have a level of safety at or higher than comparable internal combustion engine vehicles.”  Batteries are not the only thing affecting EV safety, but that is a good sign.  Australia’s EV FireSafe company says from 2010 to June 2023, they have verified under 400 EV fires globally.

If you don’t find what I’ve written above convincing, you can also consider my actions.  I’ve had a home battery standing next to the wall of my house, made of straw, for the past seven years.  I definitely wouldn’t have done that and installed a battery on an investment property if I wasn’t convinced the risks were minimal.

Lithium batteries are the only real option

Unless you go out of your way, any home battery you buy these days will be lithium.  Many battery types have arrived on the Australian market over the past eight years, and lithium is the only one that has stayed.  There’s no other practical option for an on-grid battery at this time. 

But there’s more than one sort of lithium battery.  The two most common are…

  • Lithium iron phosphate or lithium ferro phosphate (LFP):  This is the most common lithium chemistry used in home batteries.
  • Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC):  These are widely used in EVs and some home batteries.

All else equal, LFP is the safest type of lithium battery.  But all else is rarely equal.  What determines a battery’s actual level of safety is…

  • Its design and safety features
  • The quality of its battery cells and other components
  • The care taken with its manufacture and quality control

If a manufacturer does well in all these areas, a battery will be very safe regardless of its type.  I feel more secure with a Tesla Powerwall 2 — an NMC battery — installed at my home than with one of the cheaper LFP batteries on the market.  This is because I know Tesla has put a tremendous amount of engineering effort into making their batteries safe. At the same time, I’d be less confident that a manufacturer of cheap batteries hadn’t cut corners. 

Steps you can take to improve battery safety

By this point, I hope I’ve convinced you home batteries are safe, and you’ll have no problem sleeping at night in a home with one.  But just because Australian standards require a high degree of safety doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty you can do to help ensure you get a home battery installation that has above-average safety:

  1. Buy a quality battery from a manufacturer likely to go above and beyond on safety.
  2. Use an installer who does high-quality work.
  3. Have the battery inspected by a professional every five years.
  4. Keep it clean and clear of any fire hazards.
  5. Know what to do in a worst-case situation.

1. Buy a quality battery:  While all home batteries must meet strict safety standards, you can improve the odds by buying from a manufacturer that goes above and beyond what the standards require.  While it’s difficult to say which are the safest batteries, I’m confident they won’t be the cheapest ones around.

2. Use a high-quality installer:  Tragically, there are dodgy installers out there who will cut corners when it comes to battery safety.  Avoid them like they’re on fire and extremely difficult to extinguish.  You want an installer who will follow all the rules for safe battery installation and do an excellent job.  You’ll also want someone happy to return and deal with any minor issues to make sure they don’t become major issues.

3. Have the battery inspected:  Even if it appears to be running fine, it’s still a good idea to have it professionally inspected every five years so you can be confident there are no problems. 

4. Keep it clean and clear:  While lithium battery systems require no user maintenance, you should still prevent dirt from building up and keep vents free of cobwebs.  Most importantly, keep the area free of flammable materials.  You’ll undo a lot of your installer’s good work in giving you a safe battery installation if you stack old newspapers next to it.

5. Know what to do if the worst occurs:  Be prepared for a worst-case situation and know what to do if a battery fire does occur.  Information is provided here by Fire and Safety New South Wales.  The steps to take are:

  • Keep clear of the battery and evacuate the building.
  • Call Triple Zero (000) and inform the operator a home battery is involved.
  • Make sure no one goes back inside the building for any reason.
  • Wait in a safe location for firefighters to arrive.

While the chance of being electrocuted by a home battery is low, like any electrical appliance, it is a potential shock hazard.  Do not allow anyone to go near a home battery that has suffered an impact, flooding, or other damage and immediately contact your battery installer or an electrician.

End-of-life issues

While they can last many years, they don’t last forever, and eventually, home batteries will need to be safely disposed of.  The good news here is manufacturers are generally eager to take them back.  This isn’t just because they want to show corporate responsibility.  The batteries contain valuable materials that can be recycled, so they also have an economic incentive.

If the battery has reached the end of its life and your installer is no longer around, you can contact the manufacturer, and — hopefully — they will arrange to have it removed.  If the manufacturer isn’t around or refuses to help, you can get a battery installer to have your system removed and taken away for recycling.

Don’t stress!

In short? Don’t skimp on solar energy storage system quality or installation costs. Get the job done right, and your home solar battery will operate safely and hopefully have a long service life.

>> Next: What kind of payback periods can you expect for a hybrid solar system? >>

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