Dell Inc.–the nation’s No. 1 provider of personal computers to education–on Aug. 14 issued the largest electronics-related recall ever conducted under the auspices of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). This latest action was at least the third recall of Dell notebook batteries in the last five years.

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

“In rare cases, a short circuit could cause the battery to overheat, causing a risk of smoke and/or fire,” said the 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, XTS, and precision mobile workstation notebooks. Dell has launched a web site that describes the affected models. Williams said the web site tells 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.

Lithium-ion batteries have been around for about a decade and are used in devices such as cell phones and digital music players. Clancy said tiny metallic particles sometimes short-circuit the battery cells, adding that the configuration in an electronic device can contribute to problems.

“But it begins with the [battery] cell, and we acknowledge that,” he said. “That’s why we’re supporting Dell in this recall.”

Clancy said Sony would help Dell pay for the recall, but neither he nor Dell officials would estimate the campaign’s price tag or say how the companies would divide the cost.

The larger potential cost for Dell is that such a huge recall could dampen future notebook sales.

Dell rival Hewlett-Packard Co. said it does not use Sony batteries and was not affected by the recall. Apple Computer Inc. is investigating whether its notebook batteries meet safety and performance standards, spokeswoman Lynn Fox said.

There have been numerous recent news reports about Dell laptops bursting into flames, and pictures of burning computers and the charred machines have circulated on the internet.

Dell, the world’s largest maker of personal computers, confirmed that in late July 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.

Dell recalled 22,000 notebook computer batteries last December after symptoms arose similar to those that prompted this latest recall. The company also recalled 284,000 batteries in 2001.

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

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 incidents ranges from smoke and minor skin burns to actual injuries and property damage, Wolfson said.

For Dell, the recall comes as it battles other questions about quality and customer service. Dell’s sales have grown this year, but less rapidly, causing shares in the company’s stock to lose nearly one-half their value in the past 52 weeks.

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, 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 has launched a web site to provide more information on the recall. Customers also can call a toll-free Dell number, 1-866-342-0011, weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CDT.

Dell said the notebooks can be safely used on an A/C power cord if the battery is removed first.