Hoaxes & Rumors

Can Laptops Cause Fires?

Can Laptops Cause Fires?

Did a laptop cause a fatal fire as online rumors have claimed, or is this yet another fake internet story? Today we take a closer look at the story and its implications.

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History

Let’s take a look an early social media rumor which floated around Facebook as early as 2010:

A couple lost their 25 year old son in a fire at home on June 4th. The son who had graduated with MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison two weeks earlier had come home for a while. He had lunch with his dad at home and decided to go back to clean up his hostel room. His father told him to wait, to meet his mother, before he went back for a few days. He decided to take a nap while waiting for his mom to come back home from work. Some time later their neighbors called 911 when they saw black smoke coming out of the house.

Unfortunately, the 25 years old died in the three year old house. It took several days of investigation to find out the cause of the fire. It was determined that the fire was caused by the laptop resting on the bed. When the laptop was on the bed the cooling fan did not get the air to cool the computer and that is what caused the fire. He did not even wake up to get out of the bed because he died of breathing in carbon monoxide.

The reason I am writing this to all of you is that I have seen many of us using the laptop while in bed. Let us all decide and make it a practice not to do that. The risk is real. Let us make it a rule not to use the laptop on bed with blankets and pillows around. Please educate as many people as you can.

“Please pass to everyone you know, you might save one’s life”

Is the Story True?

Originally, the article contained the name of an actual fire victim named Arun Gopalratnam, who did in fact perish due to a fire in 2010. One curious footnote is that since the story first appeared on Facebook, the name of the victim has disappeared from the article, perhaps to distance the rumor from the actual event. Updated information from a variety of sources seems to indicate that it was determined that a laptop was not the cause of the fatal fire.

Can Modern Laptops Cause Fires?

Although the internet rumor quoted above is untrue, it may cause one to ask whether or not a laptop could be a potential fire hazard. Consider the following news stories:

  • Washington Post (8/15/2006) – Dell issues a recall of 4.1 million lithium-ion laptop batteries. It is stated that the recalled batteries could overheat and burst into flames.
  • CBC (7/26/2009) – According to CBC News out of Canada, a laptop was blamed for a house fire which resulted in the death of a 56-year-old man in Vancouver. The article states that the laptop was plugged in and had been sitting on a couch for an hour when the battery overheated and caught fire. Included at the end of the article are a number of safety tips in regards to laptop operation.
  • BBC  (5/17/2010) – The BBC covered a science study on lithium laptop batteries by Cambridge University. Researchers found that charging could cause very small fibers to form on lithium batteries that could catch fire due to overheating.
  • WBAL TV 11 (5/5/2011) – An overheating laptop was the cause of a house fire in Jarrettsville, MD. A male house resident reportedly left the laptop charging on a leather-covered coffee table for half an hour. According to the article, the man and his wife who lived in the home had to spend 6 months in a hotel while the house was restored.
  • WBTV 3 (11/31/2011) – House fire due to a laptop left charging overnight on a bed. House renter Stephen Vorwek was quoted in the article, “Our whole second story is covered in black soot… We have no clothes, no mattress, no pillows, no bed sheets, nothing. It’s all gone just from leaving a computer plugged in and charging.”
  • Israel National News (5/15/2012) – A laptop left on a bed resulted in the deaths of six members of one family in Israel. The laptop reportedly overheated and caught a mattress on fire. Among the dead were a father and five children who perished due to smoke inhalation… the mother was the only survivor. Israeli fire services issued the following warning: “Placing a laptop computer on a soft surface blocks the ventilation openings, causing heat to build up within the computer box. In some cases, such heating could cause a fire to develop”.
  • WCVB 5 (4/6/2013) – Small fire in a Framingham State University dorm room is caused by a laptop which overheated on a bed.
  • WTVY (5/1/2013) – Claims a laptop placed on a soft surface for a long period of time could cause a fire due to overheating. A computer expert interviewed in the story admits that the biggest danger is destruction of the computer’s central processing unit (CPU), yet also admits the possibility of physical harm due to a fire does exist. They recommend cleaning dust from computer fans to reduce possibility of fire.
  • KMSP (1/16/2013) – Fox affiliate in Minneapolis reported on a serious house fire caused by a two-year-old laptop left on a couch. The owner of the house conceded that she had left for work while the laptop was charging on a couch.
  • 4 NBC Washington (7/9/2013) – Reports of a condo fire caused by a laptop in Manassas, VA. The article states that the laptop had been left on a bed and had been running for 16-18 hours. Manassas fire marshal Frank Teevan stated that the fire had been caused by a recalled laptop battery, and that the owner was not aware there was a recall. No one was injured in the fire, but it is noted that the fire caused $40,000 of damages, and three people were displaced from the condo.
  • New York Times (4/11/2014) – Sony issues a warning about the batteries in their new Vaio laptops. The batteries apparently have the potential to overheat and catch fire.
  • CBS 3 Philidelphia (6/30/2014) – 72-year-old woman is injured by chemical burns when the lithium-ion battery pack from her laptop exploded causing a 6-8 foot debris field.

Bottom Line

While the rumors floating around the internet may not be 100% accurate, fatalities from laptop fires have been reported by multiple legitimate news agencies. It is not a common occurrence for laptops to catch fire, but it does happen, and it is always a good idea to make sure they have proper ventilation. Do not leave your laptop on soft materials which can block the airflow and catch fire.

Updated October 16, 2014
Originally published May 2012

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  • Elias

    I’ve always been one of those people who thought this was a myth or that the odds of happening to me were so unlikely, I never worried about it. However, the day (or night as it so happens to be) has finally come. My 2008 MacBook battery just exploded and started smoking excessively! Luckily, I’ ve made it a habit to always leave my laptop on my night stand over night as it’s made of glass. I will admit that I never power it down so I don’t have wait for to it to start up again whenever I open it. What is most unsettling about this incident is that it wasn’t plugged in! So I’m not sure how this could have happened. The one thing I do know, is that is getting woken up by an exploding battery in the middle of the night on a Sunday is a pretty scary thing. I’m very thankful this didn’t occur when we weren’t home and or while the laptop was on something flamable like a bed or a couch.

  • Meg Meyer

    For Pete’s sake, people. Every time a ‘laptop’ has been the cause it was something wrong with that individual laptop/battery/charger. It is so uncommon to be virtually non-existent (percentage-wise). If you are afraid a laptop will burn your house down, you better not have anything electrical in the house at all. Faulty wiring on any appliance, or in the walls themselves cause far more fires than laptops.

  • Barman

    What about desktops? I have seen people in my laboratory who keep their desktop on for months so that they can access it remotely. Albeit the laboratory is fully air conditioned, is there any possibility of danger?

    • waffles

      Usually desktops shut themselves down when the CPU starts to overheat.

      • Nitin Reddy Katkam

        All modern laptops and desktops can shut themselves down when they overheat. I had to perform maintenance on a few computers because they kept shutting down and I determined the cause to be overheating. An additional fan, some fresh thermal compound, and removing the dust from the heat sink and fan helped get those computers runnin normally.

  • Danni

    They cause fires when left on beds. Our property is gutted as the tenant went out leaving the laptop on charge on the bed . Neighbours saw smoke , fire brigade called who kicked down the door. The place is wet and smoke damaged. Now to get the insurers to pay out

  • Tisket Winfrey

    It depends upon the person using the laptop. For me, batteries can all be fire hazard, not only HP ones. But still, be careful.

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