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Tuesday, August 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Laptops in flames lead to big recall by Dell

DALLAS — Dell said Monday it will recall 4.1 million notebook-computer batteries made by Sony because they can overheat and catch fire.

The company negotiated conditions of the recall with the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which called it the largest electronics-related recall ever involving the agency.

A Dell spokesman said the Sony batteries were placed in notebooks that were shipped between April 1, 2004, and July 18 this year.

"In rare cases, a short-circuit could cause the battery to overheat, causing a risk of smoke and/or fire," said spokesman Ira Williams. "It happens in rare cases, but we opted to take this broad action immediately."

The battery packs were included in some models of Dell's Latitude, Inspiron, XPS and Precision mobile workstation notebooks. Dell planned to launch a Web site overnight that would describe the affected models. Williams said the Web site would tell consumers how to get free replacement batteries from Dell.

Rick Clancy, a Sony spokesman, said the companies have studied problems with the battery packs intensely for more than a month, after getting reports of about a half-dozen fires or smoking laptops in the United States.

The problem of lithium-ion batteries overheating is not new. Battery packs have cells that sometimes contain microscopic metal pieces, which can become overheated when they come into contact with other components. Usually, when a battery overheats, it causes the computer to shut down. Sometimes, however, the battery ignites.

Battery recall

Dell is recalling battery packs made for the following models of notebook computers that were shipped between April 2004 and last month:

• Dell Latitude D410, D500, D505, D510, D520, D600, D610, D620, D800, D810.

• Dell Inspiron 6000, 8500, 8600, 9100, 9200, 9300, 500m, 510m, 600m, 6400, E1505, 700m, 710m, 9400, E1705.

• Dell Precision M20, M60, M70, M90.

• XPS, XPS Gen2, XPS M170 and XPS M1710.

The batteries were also sold separately for $60 to $180, including to customers on service calls. Each battery bears an identification number on a white sticker. Customers should have the number handy when they call Dell to learn if the battery is covered by the recall.

The company planned to launch a Web site, Customers can also call a toll-free Dell number, 866-342-0011, weekdays from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. PDT.

The Associated Press

There have been numerous recent news reports about Dell laptops bursting into flames, and pictures of some of the charred machines have circulated on the Internet. Dell confirmed that two weeks ago, one of its laptops caught fire in Illinois, and the owner dunked it in water to douse the flames. Other reports have surfaced from as far away as Japan and Singapore.

No one has died in such an accident, the CPSC said.

Last month, Thomas Foqueran, 62, of Arizona was loading his truck and smelled smoke. Flames were shooting out of his Dell Inspiron laptop, which he had placed on the passenger side of the vehicle, and the fire spread as it ignited ammunition that was also in the truck. The truck, a 1966 Ford F-250 passed down from his father, was destroyed by the fire.

"I see Dell commercials half a dozen times a night, saying 'What can we build for you today?' " Foqueran said. "And I say, 'grandpa's truck.' "

Consumers with affected laptops should run the machines only on a power cord, after removing the battery, said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the CPSC.

The recall Monday is not the first for Dell, which has recalled more than 330,000 batteries in the past five years because of overheating problems.

The most recent recall came in December and involved about 22,000 notebook-computer batteries. Dell had received three reports of batteries overheating. No injuries were reported. In May 2001, Dell voluntarily recalled about 284,000 batteries, warning they could "become very hot, release smoke, and possibly catch fire," a CPSC news release said.

Seven months earlier, Dell had recalled about 27,000 batteries, saying they could "short circuit, even when the battery is not in use."

Problems with overheating rechargeable batteries have led to recalls at several other well-known laptop computer retailers, including Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer.

The National Transportation Safety Board last month held a hearing about the safety of lithium-ion batteries on airplanes after a fire occurred Feb. 7 on a cargo jet. The United Parcel Service plane, which was carrying batteries, among other items, caught fire in flight but landed safely in Philadelphia. Investigators have not announced the cause of the fire and have not made any safety recommendations about the transportation of such batteries.

Clancy said Sony would help Dell pay for the recall, but neither he nor Dell officials would estimate how much it would cost. The larger potential cost for Dell is that such a huge recall could dampen future notebook sales.

The recall comes as Dell battles other questions about quality and customer service. Last year, the company absorbed a charge against earnings of $338 million to repair faulty computer components.

Dell's sales have grown this year, but less rapidly, causing shares in the company to lose nearly half their value in the past 52 weeks. The shares closed Monday — before news of the recall — at $21.24, up 17 cents on the Nasdaq Stock Market. They fell 24 cents in after-hours trading.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company



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