Dell Inc.’s record-setting recall of 4.1 million notebook computer batteries raised safety concerns about the power source of countless electronic devices, but experts said the laptop problem appears to stem from flaws in the production of the batteries, not their underlying technology.
Customers began calling the company and surfing to a special Web site Tuesday to order replacements for the lithium-ion batteries that could cause their machines to overheat and even catch fire. The batteries were supplied to Dell by Japan’s Sony Corp.
Lithium-ion batteries are not only used to power laptops, but also digital cameras, music players, cell phones and other gadgets.
Dell, the world’s largest PC maker, announced the recall Monday night with the Consumer Products Safety Commission. It was the largest electronics-related recall involving the federal agency.
The recalled batteries were shipped in notebooks sold between April 1, 2004, and July 18 of this year. The were included in some models of Round Rock, Texas-based Dell’s Latitude, Inspiron, XPS and Precision mobile workstation notebooks.
Consumers with affected laptops should only run the machines on a power cord, said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Replacement orders would be filled on a first-come, first-served basis, said Dell spokesman Ira Williams. He said he couldn’t estimate how long customers would have to wait for new batteries, adding that it could vary by model.
Dell said it received more than 100,000 phone calls, 23 million Web site hits and took 77,000 orders by late in the day.
The replacements are coming from Sony and a handful of other battery manufacturers.
Rick Clancy, a Sony spokesman, said the company has “taken steps to address the situation ... to Dell’s satisfaction,” but wouldn’t describe the steps more fully.
Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, called the situation “a nightmare for Sony” but said the recall wasn’t likely to scare manufacturers away from using lithium-ion batteries.
“Well-made lithium-ion batteries are perfectly safe,” he said. “This is a manufacturing problem and not an indictment of lithium-ion technology.”
Sony provides battery components for other computer makers, including Lenovo Group Ltd., which said it gets a “handful” of reports each year of overheated batteries but does not plan a recall. Spokesman Bob Page said Lenovo’s machines have other features, including software that disables the machine if it detects unsafe conditions.
Dell has been using Sony battery parts longer than other manufacturers, and Lenovo and others may eventually develop similar problems, Kay said.
Apple Computer Inc., which analysts say also uses Sony battery cells, said it was investigating the situation. Hewlett-Packard Co. said it does not use Sony batteries and was not affected by the recall. Fujitsu said it builds its own batteries.
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, the world's largest maker of personal computers, 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.
Monday's move was at least the third recall of Dell notebook batteries in the past five years.
Dell recalled 22,000 notebook computer batteries last December after they had symptoms similar to those that prompted Monday's recall. The company also recalled 284,000 batteries in 2001.
The safety agency knows of 339 incidents in which lithium batteries used in laptops and cell phones — not just Dell products — overheated between 2003 and 2005, Wolfson said.
The list of problems ranged from smoke and minor skin burns to more serious injuries and property damage, Wolfson said.
Most of the incidents reported to the CPSC occurred around the home, but transportation-safety officials have become increasingly concerned about the threat of a laptop causing a catastrophic fire aboard a commercial jetliner.
Dell's recall comes as it battles other questions about quality and customer service. Last year, Dell absorbed a charge against earnings of $338 million to repair faulty computer components.
Dell has not given an estimate for the recall’s cost but said it won’t materially affect the company’s financial results, which suggested that Sony would bear most of the cost. Analysts’ estimated the recall could run $200 million to $400 million.
Investors brushed aside the news, pushing up shares of both Dell and Sony in Tuesday trading.