External hard drives provide a convenient way to store and backup large amounts of data. As with any technology, external hard drives come with both benefits and potential downsides. One concern for some users is whether external hard drives can overheat or catch fire.
While external hard drive fires are relatively rare, there are some factors that can potentially increase the risk. Electrical failures, manufacturing defects, and improper use or storage of the drive can all contribute to overheating. Understanding what causes external hard drive fires and how to prevent them can help you use these devices safely.
In this article, we’ll look at the fire risks associated with external hard drives and steps you can take to avoid potential problems. We’ll also discuss what to do in the unlikely event your external hard drive does catch fire.
What Is An External Hard Drive?
An external hard drive is a portable data storage device that can be attached to a computer via USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt, eSATA, or wirelessly. It provides additional storage space and allows data to be backed up or transferred between computers.
External hard drives evolved from early removable and portable magnetic disk drives developed starting in the 1950s. IBM’s 1956 RAMAC 305 system, which used fifty 24-inch platters, is considered the first hard disk drive. It had a storage capacity of 5 MB and was the size of two refrigerators. Over the decades, hard disk drives shrank in size while exponentially increasing in capacity.
The first portable external storage drives emerged in the late 1970s with capacities between 5-10MB. In the 1980s, external hard disks were sold as aftermarket add-on storage for personal computers. The 1980s also saw the introduction of the SCSI interface, allowing external hard disks to transfer data faster. By the late 1990s, USB enabled plug-and-play disk drives that could be connected without rebooting the computer. External hard drives became commonplace for consumers by the early 2000s once capacities reached multiple gigabytes at affordable prices.
Common Causes of External Hard Drive Fires
There are a few key factors that can cause an external hard drive to catch fire:
Overheating – Excessive heat buildup inside the external hard drive enclosure can lead to fire. The drive itself generates some heat, and poor ventilation combined with hot ambient temperatures can push the temperature to dangerous levels. Prolonged overheating can damage drive components, leading to short circuits and sparking.
Electrical shorts – Faulty wiring inside the enclosure can lead to sparks or overheating that can ignite nearby materials. Short circuits in the power supply, controller board, or bridge connector are common culprits. Damage to the internal drive from drops or shocks may also expose bare wiring. 
Faulty wiring – Low quality cables used to connect the drive to your computer can overheat and melt the protective insulation. Exposed wiring can short, spark, and start electrical fires. Using under-rated cables that can’t handle the power draw is another issue. 
There are a few key warning signs to watch out for that could indicate your external hard drive is overheating or at risk of catching fire:
Unusual Smells: A burning or smokey smell coming from your external hard drive is a major red flag. This likely indicates overheating components or short circuiting. Unplug the drive immediately if you notice any unusual smells.
Excessive Heat: External hard drives are designed to stay cool during normal operation. If your drive feels very hot to the touch, that’s a sign something is wrong. Overheating can damage components and increase fire risk.
Smoke: You should absolutely unplug an external hard drive and stop using it if you see any smoke coming from the device. Smoke indicates a dangerous electrical fault has occurred and a fire could be moments away.
Pay attention to all these warning signs. If you notice any, unplug the drive and do not try using it again until professionally inspected. Catching these problems early could prevent a catastrophic failure or fire.
Preventing External Hard Drive Fires
There are several simple steps you can take to reduce the risk of your external hard drive overheating or catching fire:
Proper ventilation – Make sure your external hard drive has adequate airflow and is not covered or cramped. Do not place it in enclosed spaces like drawers or cabinets. Use a laptop cooling pad or small fan to improve airflow if needed. Avoid setting your drive on heat-generating surfaces like carpet.
Surge protection – Always connect your external drive to a surge protector or UPS battery backup. This will protect your drive from power spikes that can damage the electronics and lead to overheating or failure.
Handle with care – Avoid dropping, jostling, or shocking your drive while powered on and connected. Sudden impacts can damage internal components. Also refrain from unplugging the drive while it is writing or reading data.
Keep updated – Install the latest firmware and drivers from the manufacturer to ensure your drive is running efficiently and safely.
Monitor health – Keep an eye out for signs of failure like strange noises, slow performance, or excess heat coming from the drive. Address any issues promptly before they turn into catastrophic failures.
What To Do If An External Hard Drive Catches Fire
If your external hard drive catches on fire, it is important to act quickly and cautiously to avoid injury and further damage. Here are the recommended steps to take:
First and foremost, unplug the external hard drive from any power source immediately. This will cut off electricity to the device and prevent the fire from spreading or getting worse. Trying to unplug a device that is actively on fire does carry some risk, so use caution and avoid directly touching the device if possible.
Next, extinguish any flames using a fire extinguisher if one is readily available. Aim the extinguisher at the base of the flames and sweep from side to side until extinguished. Foam and carbon dioxide extinguishers are generally recommended for electrical fires. Avoid using water if possible, as this can cause electrocution risks.
If the fire grows rapidly or threatens to spread, call emergency services right away. Fires can quickly grow out of control, so don’t delay seeking professional help if needed to fully extinguish the flames and prevent property damage or bodily harm.
Once the fire is fully extinguished, allow the external hard drive to fully cool and ventilate any smoke before handling the damaged device. Severely fire-damaged drives may be impossible to recover data from, but specialized data recovery services can sometimes retrieve files depending on the extent of the damage.
Data Recovery After A Fire
If an external hard drive is damaged in a fire, recovering the data is possible but should be handled by professionals. Do not attempt to power on or access the drive, as this can further damage the platters and make data recovery more difficult or impossible. The first step is to contact a reputable data recovery service that specializes in fire and water damaged drives.
The data recovery process involves carefully disassembling the drive in a clean room environment to access the disks inside. The platters are then imaged or cloned using specialized equipment. Next, the images are analyzed to reconstruct the file system and extract recoverable data. This is a complex process that requires specific skills, tools and a dust-free space. The success rate depends on the severity of fire damage.
DIY data recovery methods are not recommended for fire damaged drives. Attempting to repair and access the drive without proper equipment can make the damage worse. While there are some commercial data recovery software tools available, they are generally ineffective for fire or water damaged drives. It’s best to leave it to the experts if the lost data is valuable or important.
Fire Risk Of Popular External Hard Drive Brands
Some external hard drive brands have higher reported failure and fire risk rates than others. According to multiple analyses and consumer reports, certain brands seem more prone to issues:
Seagate – One of the most popular hard drive manufacturers, Seagate has faced multiple class action lawsuits related to failure rates and fire risks of certain drive models, including the Seagate Barracuda model. One analysis found Seagate drives had a significantly higher annualized failure rate than competitors.
Western Digital (WD) – WD drives have also demonstrated higher than average failure rates, with some drive models (such as the WD20EARS) recalled due to fire concerns. However, overall WD drives tend to be more reliable than Seagate according to backblaze data.
Toshiba – While not as prone to failures as Seagate or WD, some Toshiba external hard drives have been recalled due to overheating and fire risks. This includes the Canvio model in 2011.
LaCie – Owned by Seagate, LaCie drives inherit the same reliability issues. Multiple LaCie external hard drive models, like the Blade Runner, have been recalled for fire hazard reasons.
Overall, it’s important to research failure rates and recalls before selecting an external hard drive brand. Paying more upfront for established, reliable models from trustworthy brands can save headaches down the road.
Alternatives To Traditional External Hard Drives
While external hard disk drives have traditionally been a popular way to expand storage and backup files, there are some compelling alternatives that provide benefits.
Cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and iCloud provide abundant capacity without having to plug in an external device (source). Files are accessible from any device connected to the internet. Cloud backups happen seamlessly in the background. And there are often collaboration features for sharing files and working as a team.
For photographers, videographers, or other creative professionals needing to edit large media files directly from a drive, external SSDs are much faster than external HDDs. Top options like the Samsung Portable SSD T7 Shield and SanDisk Extreme Pro offer transfer speeds upwards of 1,000 MB/s compared to typical HDDs at 100-200 MB/s (source). The fastest external SSDs now rival speeds of internal drives.
An internal SSD upgrade is another alternative gaining popularity. Replacing an old platter-based hard drive with a speedy solid state drive can make a huge difference in performance. Boot times, application launches, file transfers – everything happens noticeably faster.
While external hard drives have historically posed a fire hazard in rare cases, technology and safety standards have improved to make them much safer in recent years. By being aware of the potential risks, choosing a quality brand, properly ventilating your drive, and taking care when transporting it, you can enjoy the convenience of external storage with significantly reduced chances of overheating or fire.
Look for external hard drives with built-in heat sensors, ventilation, and durability features. Avoid low quality budget drives that cut corners. Position your drive carefully to allow air circulation and don’t stack objects on top of it. Periodically inspect cables for damage and don’t leave a drive powered on unattended for very long. With proper precautions, external hard drives remain reliable devices for expanding your computer’s storage and backing up critical data.
Though the risk of an external hard drive fire is very low, still be vigilant and don’t ignore signs of overheating. Always unplug a malfunctioning drive and have it repaired by the manufacturer instead of continuing to use it. Store your data redundantly across multiple locations to protect against data loss. While no data storage is completely fail-proof, a bit of care goes a long way in safely maximizing the convenience and capabilities external hard drives provide.