You may have heard or read that plasma TVs are prone to catch fire. Perhaps that’s why they discontinued making them in 2014 or perhaps plasma is a dangerous substance. Regardless of the reason, you have a vague feeling so asking if they are a fire hazard is a reasonable question.
Plasma TVs have no higher risk of catching fire than other TVs. Those TVs that have caught fire are not due to the plasma but to other components. They give off more heat, so when people do not follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for where to place them, the TVs can catch on fire.
Whether you are thinking of buying a plasma TV from eBay or Craigslist or wondering if the time has come to replace yours with an LED or OLED television, you owe it to yourself to find out whether plasma TVs are dangerous or not.
Table of Contents
What Is Plasma?
Plasma sounds vaguely dangerous in the first place, like something out of a science fiction movie. So what exactly is plasma, and how likely is it to catch on fire?
In school, some of us were taught the three states of matter—gases, liquids, and solids. This view is still common enough that Google searches often bring up sites that only list three, such as this one from a Perdue education site. A Lumen for Learning site is titled “Three States of Matter,” but keep scrolling, and you’ll see that it mentions the fourth stage: plasma.
Plasma is the universe’s most common state of matter. The sun (and all stars) is made up of plasma, and there’s lots more sun than planets. Plasma, like gas, does not have a fixed form or volume. However, it behaves differently from gases.
That’s due to what happens with the protons and electrons. Gases contain an equal number of negatively charged electrons and positively charged protons. Atoms in plasma can lose or gain electrons, meaning they acquire a positive or negative charge.
Due to its ability to have charged particles, plasma can do things that gases cannot. For one thing, they can have magnetic fields. More importantly, plasmas can conduct electricity.
Can You See Plasma?
Yes. For example, in neon signs or fluorescent light, we see them through the following process:
- A gas like neon is subjected to high voltage.
- The electrons separate from the atoms.
- The gas now turns into a plasma that conducts an electrical charge.
- As the electrons return to their original energy levels, they emit photons.
- Those photons are the light we see.
You can also see it in plasma globes and the auroras at the poles. And, of course, TVs.
What Does the Plasma in a Plasma TV Do?
The plasma in TV works similarly to fluorescent light. Two gases, neon, and xenon are mixed and injected between two glass panels. Both neon and xenon are inert gases or gases that don’t undergo chemical reactions. Inert gases are often used in food preservation to prevent oxidation. In chemical plants, inert gases are used to prevent fires and explosions.
So plasma TVs take two inert gases, pass an electrical current through them, which turns them into plasma. As they smash together, they release ultraviolet light, which becomes visible because of phosphor coatings. That, at least, is the simple explanation.
The major takeaway from this brief science lesson is that the gases in a plasma TV are inert and not a fire hazard.
Can a Plasma TV Catch on Fire?
If the plasma in the TV cannot catch on fire, what could? After all, plasma TVs have heat vents, fire-retardant features, and have glass screens. So what are some potential causes of fires in Plasma TVs? Here are three possible causes with relevant questions:
Should I Put a Plasma TV Above a Fireplace?
Many people use their fireplace as a focal point, making sense to hang the TV above it. But is that a wise thing to do?
That depends on the temperature on the wall above the fireplace. To determine if you should hang a plasma television over the fireplace, you need to take the wall’s temperature where you will hang the TV.
To do that, tape a thermometer to the wall and build a fire. Let the fire get good and hot, and then check your thermometer. If the temperature climbed above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, you should reconsider hanging a TV there. Whether the temperature is radiating from the chimney or rising from the front of the fireplace, you risk damaging your TV set.
Plasma TVs are already plenty hot, but the fireplace’s heat will force the TV’s cooling system to work harder, most likely shortening the unit’s lifespan. However, if the outside temperature of your fireplace does not go above ninety degrees, then you can hang one above your fireplace. Plasma TVs are heavy, so make sure any anchors you use are rated for the unit’s weight.
In a study of flat-panel televisions and fire retardants, the authors made a surprising discovery. The goal of the study was to see if fire-retardant features added to the casings of televisions worked.
For comparison purposes, they used TVs sold to American markets, containing the retardants, and TVs from Mexican and Brazilian markets, which did not have them. Their first discovery was not surprising—the TVs without the fire-retardant features caught on fire more quickly and at lower temperatures.
What was surprising was that when the televisions for the American markets ignited, it was not due to the TVs, but to the mounting brackets and stands. Once the brackets ignited, the fire spread to the TVs. These stands did not meet a UL 94 standard for flammability.
When electricity jumps between two connections, electrical arcing, or a flash of electricity, occurs. This arc can be either seen or heard as a popping sound. Although we think of this as something that happens when we trip the circuits in our homes, electronics are not immune to arcing.
However, arcing problems can happen to any electronic device, including computers, microwaves, and light fixtures—basically, anything in your house that has an electric current running in it. Plasma TVs don’t have a higher incidence of fires from arcing.
In fact, in a recent study based on data from the U.S. Fire Administration, the top five causes of fires in homes were:
- Faulty outlets and old appliances with worn cords
- Light fixtures
- Extension cords
- Space heaters
Of course, if you’re watching TV and you hear a popping noise or see smoke coming from it, you should take immediate action, just like you would if a toaster or computer began smoking.
What Is Burn-In?
You might have heard people talk about plasma TVs and “burn-in.” This doesn’t refer to fire, but a phenomenon that happens to Plasma TVs when a static image was left on too long, like if you paused a movie and left it on for days on end. Burn-in could occur when a viewer kept the news on all day, and the headline bar became etched into the TV. This was a bug of early plasma TVs.
However, the term does not have anything to do with plasma TVs catching on fire.
If you still own a plasma TV or want one, don’t let the worry about it catching on fire stop you. The plasma inside the TV is created from inert, non-reactive gases. Plasma TVs get hot, but if you follow the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding placement from other furniture, they won’t get too hot.
Problems caused by faulty electronics are no more common in plasma sets than they are in any other electronic device.