28 March 2017

Losses and Lessons: Burned-out bikes ignite firestorm over trickle chargers

VEHICLE INVOLVED: 1945 Harley-Davidson EL

WHAT WENT WRONG: Losing everything in a house fire is a nightmare that you can never fully prepared for. The owner of a 1945 Harley-Davidson EL and 13 other classic motorcycles had been accumulating project bikes, tools and spare parts for years. He enjoyed repairing and restoring the motorcycles as time and money allowed, and he typically left a half dozen or so connected to trickle chargers in his garage. One night, one of the battery chargers sparked a fire that destroyed his home and all of its contents. Then things actually got worse …

DAMAGE/LOSS: Thankfully, no one was injured in the fire. But then the owner learned that he was underinsured, and his emotional and financial burden grew. Although the Harley was insured through Hagerty – and the owner was paid its $30,000 Guaranteed Value® – only two of the other 13 motorcycles were covered on a separate auto policy. And although the victim’s home insurance policy covered his house and its contents, the remaining bikes, spare parts and tools were not.

LESSON: First of all, whenever you use a trickle charger:

  • Stick to “smart chargers,” which shut off automatically whenever the battery is full and turn back on when they sense a drop in voltage. They also shut off whenever a short is detected. If you don’t have a smart charger, unplug it if it will be left unattended for an extended period.
  • Don’t overload plugs or circuits.
  • Avoid using extension cords, but if you have no other option be sure to use a dropdown UL Listed cord reel as opposed to a small-gauge cord that runs along the floor and can be stepped on.
  • Disconnect the battery from the car’s cables. Only the trickle charger should be connected to the battery.
  • Periodically check the charger and make sure it isn’t overly hot to the touch.

And when it comes to insurance, never assume anything. Unsure what’s covered? Ask. In this case, the motorcycle owner properly insured three “finished” bikes and assumed that his homeowner’s policy would soften the blow if anything else in his garage was damaged. He was wrong. Do your homework and ask questions when it comes to what coverage is required. Hagerty offers additional coverage for automobilia, spare parts and tools, as well as vehicles under restoration.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article described the battery charger referenced in the above article as a “battery tender.” It has been brought to our attention that Battery Tender is a registered trademark of Deltran. Hagerty has no reason to believe that Battery Tender branded chargers are unsafe or were the cause of the aforementioned fire.

22 Reader Comments

  • 1
    b. townes n/a March 29, 2017 at 17:06
    Does a battery tender or Battery Minder going onto "float" constitute one that turns itself off once a battery's full? How risky for Hagerty would it be for you to tell us just which tender caused this fire, or which ones are safer? Lawyers got you biting your tongue?
  • 2
    Bill Colorado March 29, 2017 at 17:24
    I know too well this scenario. We "thought" we were insured. But finding out after the fact that just because they are personal property (as in not a titled/road driven unit) the race cars were still considered "autos" by the insurer. Our uninsured loses were almost $500,000 including uninsured household items, several other uninsured cars in long-term storage or under restoration, 40 years of marque specific parts/tools collecting and most of the tools. They did replace "tools that a normal home mechanic might have" but only one box, a single of all hand tools and none of the specialty tools. Nine years later I'm still replacing tools as I can find them, many of which are NLA.
  • 3
    Totally Car Nutz Uppa' US March 29, 2017 at 18:03
    I've got 6 or so battery tenders running, some name brand, some cheapy made in China. But my genuine Battery Tender failed twice. I wonder how many other folks have had fires, large or small??? And what brand trickle charger was it? As if UL approval means anything...
  • 4
    Brakeservo New Mexico March 29, 2017 at 18:38
    So, how do we know if we have a "smart" battery tender? Is it the same as an "automatic" battery charger or a "float" charger?
  • 5
    Bill wisc March 29, 2017 at 20:31
    there's more to this story than your customer is letting on. Nobody wants to admit that they made a stupid mistake so they will go to great lengths to conceal the actual events. Battery chargers a can be the culprit in a situation as described, not battery tenders. 1.5 amps max with the tenders, verses 5, 10 or 20 amps with a charger. I do not work for a tender company, just like to see honesty prevail
  • 6
    Ernest Lawson Jr Boiling Springs, SC March 29, 2017 at 21:32
    Dear Hagerty. I think - not POSITIVE - that you need to issue a Correction on the loss of the Gentleman's 14 Bike Loss. All "Battery Tenders" (Trademark!) are Smart Chargers. "Trickle Chargers" ARE NOT! Trickle chargers do not constantly watch State of Charge, Ambient Temp, Etc. Battery Tenders Do watch and Turn off and on. I own about 6 Battery Tenders. I do NOT use Trickle Chargers for the Reasons You explained. Love Hagerty AND Battery Tenders!!!!
  • 7
    Jim MI March 30, 2017 at 17:48
    I too, had a Battery Tender boil out a battery on my motorcycle years ago. I did get a replacement, same Battery Tender brand and haven't had issues with the new one. I have been rotating the tender among 3-4 different batteries with no fry/boil over. They aren't all perfect, are they? If you use one, keep an eye on them. So much for hook it up and leaving it.
  • 8
    Mark North Dakota March 30, 2017 at 18:22
    I don't understand why you need a charger on all the time. A battery will hold a charge for several months before it drops off of full charge if you just unhook the battery cables. I have several vehicles (cars and boat) that are in cold storage with batteries unhooked. Full charge before i put away and once a winter I put the chargers on for day or so and have had very little problems with any batteries. Leaving a charger of any kind on your vehicle for long period of time in my opinion is looking for problems.
  • 9
    Ralph IL March 30, 2017 at 18:37
    As a former Fire Investigator, I wouldn't buy any electronic item from China. There is a lot of counterfeit "UL" tags appearing on items. Look at all of the hover boards that were confiscated at the port of entry last year. My department has responded to numerous fires that we believe we're caused by faulty items imported from Asia.
  • 10
    bryan Missouri March 30, 2017 at 20:10
    This comment is address remarks from Bill, I also had a battery tender Brand 1.5 volt or lower, smart charger on my motorcraft original style battery in my 56 mercury. I came out one afternoon after recently checking my batteries water levels. I leave the hoods open my vehicles when charging. there were battery case plastic parts over 30 from vehicle where the battery exploded.
  • 11
    Lee MBSC March 30, 2017 at 09:29
    Several years ago I had bought a group of Battery Tenders for my occasional use and collector cars. I checked them periodically. One afternoon my Z28 would not start. Turns out my Battery Tender boiled out a brand new Optima that it was designed to charge. I promptly ditched them all and bought Cteks and have had great performance out of them for years.
  • 12
    Dan Ontario Canada March 30, 2017 at 12:48
    In regard to Bill from Wisc comment. I'm not sure if it works the same in the US as in Canada but up here a fire is usually investigated by a fire marshall or an investigator with credentials to determine the cause. I'm no electrician but I've always been under the impression that anything plugged into an outlet can be potentially dangerous.
  • 13
    Andrew Nebraska March 31, 2017 at 14:20
    One of our members off GranTorinoSport.org suffered a failure on a high end sears battery charger set to trickle mode. His garage caught fire but the saving grace was his 1973 Q code Gran Torino Sport only got smoke damage inside and burnt roof/hood paint. It was worse due to plastic parts melting in the rafters and covering his original paint laser stripe car. Fire department was 1.5 minutes from his house and got it put out. Battery charger shorted and overheated. As a rule now I pull batteries and place outside on the driveway 10 feet from anything.
  • 14
    Mark Thistel Baltimore March 31, 2017 at 09:01
    Battery tenders are just a bad idea. I'm not sure why Hagerty, which has to cover total losses like this, doesn't take a stronger position on these devices, which work most of the time unless they burn down your house and everything in it. Not worth the risk. Disconnect the battery, or just count on jump-starting your car in the spring. Does a lot less damage and poses a lot less risk.
  • 15
    Tom PA April 1, 2017 at 10:46
    Ralph must own literally NO electronics. Almost every single consumer electronic item today originates in a factory in China with the rare exception of a few from Mexico. And not just about every single power supply and power adapter too. I agree - there is more to this story than was told. I am not worried about a battery tender (not charger) from a major company which is properly installed and located.
  • 16
    Andy Michigan April 3, 2017 at 17:17
    Any battery and any electronic device is prone to failure, it's only a question of when. Some may go 50+ years, but eventually most will fail. I've had fully charged / physically disconnected batteries freeze after only a few weeks in the winter and I've had relatively new batteries on tenders die beyond recovery after just a few months. As a rule, now I always pull batteries and store them inside during the winter and I only use tenders to periodically, cautiously top off charges.
  • 17
    steve knepper OR April 11, 2017 at 15:29
    I would love to see Hagerty do a deep research on this subject, I have at least several dozen tenders going all the time and now I am very concerned! please investigate, thank you.
  • 18
    Ron Patterson San Fernando, CA May 13, 2017 at 14:12
    In regards to the comment of why one needs a battery tender since batteries last several months without needing a charge. That may have been true years ago but with todays vehicles, especially in my experience with motorcycles, the electronics are drawing current even when parked. My Ducati will draw down the battery rather quickly if not ridden often.
  • 19
    Tim Harper PA May 13, 2017 at 14:26
    I just bought some lithium batteries, one battery tender brand and the other a Shorai.I also bought the battery tender charger, it has a lithium mode and a traditional battery mode so you have to be sure you it is set correctly . I admit this article has me a little concerned. I have a plug in adaptor for my Ducati so I don't have to pull off panels, but that article says you should disconnect cables when changing. We can't win can we!
  • 20
    AL Oakdale NY May 13, 2017 at 19:46
    They say disconnect from car under "Lessons" if you want to reach out to Vintage Motorcycle Owners don't call them cars!!! On another note. I installed a disconnect seitch on my 1975 FLH that allows the charger to just go to battery. Hardest part was locating it.
  • 21
    James H. Estes Oxnard May 16, 2017 at 16:25
    I have used battery tenders both name brand and generic, for the better part of a decade on cars, boats and motorcycles, all without incident. However, maybe I have just been lucky. Please do a study of the data and let your customers know which tenders are safe, and which are not. Please provide brand names and recommendations. By doing so you will not only best serve your customers and possibly save some lives, but help us keep your premiums down as well. Thank-you.
  • 22
    Jim Michigan May 21, 2017 at 08:44
    I have 2 older cars and a tractor that sit for extended periods over the winter. I take the battery out of one car and store in the basement. the other car and the tractor I disconnect but leave installed. I just charge the batteries once a month or so using a 10 Amp charge, have never had a battery fail prematurely. I don't see the need for a tender.

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