E-bike fires are in the news a lot lately, as well they should be. There have been hundreds of them in New York City alone attributed to the lithium-ion batteries in mobility devices such as e-bikes, electric scooters, and hoverboards. Those batteries also power our laptop computers, cell phones, cordless power tools, and the most stupid of all human inventions — electronic cigarettes.
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission says it has received reports of more than 200 incidents since the start of 2021 in which micro-mobility devices caught fire or overheated — incidents that led to the deaths of 19 people. “Destructive and deadly fires from lithium-ion batteries in e-bikes have reached a crisis level. The tragic loss of life from battery fires is heartbreaking and preventable,” said commissioner Richard Trumka last December.
E-bikes have exploded in popularity (no pun intended), particularly in cities like New York where people use them as their principal means of transportation to make micro-deliveries of food, packages, and important documents. It’s always possible to find a space to park a bicycle even when parking for the smallest of vehicles is nonexistent. Bike deliveries are faster, which means people in the so-called gig economy who make their living delivering stuff can earn more money in a given space of time than if they tried to do the same thing by car.
Having a battery to assist with the pedaling just makes the process that much more efficient and less tiring. And the best part may be that an e-bike can be carried upstairs to an apartment where it is secure from thieves and can be plugged in overnight so it is ready to go the next morning.
There are no accurate numbers on e-bike imports, but the Light Electric Vehicle Association estimates about 880,000 of them were imported to the U.S. in 2021 — double the number imported in 2020, and three times the total from 2019. There are estimated to be more than 500,000 hoverboards whizzing around in America. More devices means more fires, experts say, especially since the industry is relatively new and unregulated, and there are a lot of different companies and products on the market.
The E-Bike & Lithium-Ion Batteries
The first lithium-ion batteries were invented in laboratories in the 1970s, but did not begin to be used commercially until 1991. Most CleanTechnica readers know the basics about such batteries. They have an anode and a cathode separated by a thin layer of material containing lithium and other substances that hold an electrical charge. Then it is all wrapped up in what is popularly known as a “jelly roll,” inserted into a metal outer casing, and voila! A battery cell.
Put a half dozen of them together and you can power a laptop computer for several hours. Put thousands of them together and you can power an electric car for hundreds of miles. Make them flat instead of round and they can fit inside a cell phone. During operation, that lithium can create microscopic spikes called dendrites. If those spikes of metal touch both the anode and cathode inside a battery cell, they create a short circuit.
When that happens, the battery cell can quickly reach temperatures of 500º C. What takes place next is known in the battery business politely as “rapid disassembly.” Most of us would simply call it an explosion. If one cell overheats, that can cause adjoining cells to overheat, and soon there is a full on conflagration.
Lithium-ion battery fires are not new, but the number of devices powered by batteries has increased dramatically, which means the total number of fires has increased as well, even if statistically the odds of any one battery cell catching fire is infinitesimally small.
NPR reports that in 2006, Dell, Apple, and other major laptop makers urged millions of customers to return laptop batteries after Sony discovered a flaw in its battery manufacturing process. Chevy, Hyundai, and Chrysler have all been forced to issue recalls over battery fires in electric vehicles. Recently, Ford stopped production of its F-150 Lightning pickup trucks after the battery in one caught fire during testing. Federal Aviation Administration reported more than 60 incidents last year in which lithium-ion batteries — mostly battery packs, vapes, or cell phones — overheated, began smoking, or caught fire on airplanes. In 2013, Boeing had a problem with battery fires in early examples of its 787 Dreamliner airplanes.
Right now, the battery-powered micromobility sector is lightly regulated. Nobody knows how many lithium-ion batteries are in circulation, who manufactured them, or what chemistries they use. Conservatives despise regulation, but for normal people, a few ground rules that cover things like what side of the road we drive on or how many hours an airplane can fly before it is overhauled are appreciated.
This month, the New York City Council passed several ordinances that require all e-bike and other electric mobility devices sold, rented, or leased in the city to be certified by Underwriters Laboratory, a safety organization that has been testing electric devices for over a century, They also ban the sale of uncertified or used batteries. Retailers found to be in violation of the laws can be fined up to $1,000 per violation.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a letter in December calling on more than 2,000 manufacturers, importers, and retailers to voluntarily adhere to UL safety standards for e-bikes and other micro-mobility devices. Following the guidelines “significantly reduces the risk of injuries and deaths from micro-mobility device fires,” wrote Robert Kaye, the agency’s director of compliance and field operations. “Consumers face an unreasonable risk of fire and risk serious injury or death if their micro-mobility devices do not meet the level of safety provided by the relevant UL standards.” Additionally, the agency has vowed to pursue penalties against companies who fail to inform the CPSC of safety hazards.
There are a few recommendations from those groups that can reduce the chance of a battery fire:
- Always be present while charging. Don’t plug in and then go to sleep and unplug the charger as soon as the battery is fully charged.
- Use only the charger that came included with your device and to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for proper charging.
- Keep batteries away from flammable materials like furniture and pillows while charging.
- Don’t charge or store your device in a location that blocks your access to an exit.
- Look for the Underwriters Laboratory label when buying an e-bike or other micro-mobility device.
- Ask the seller who supplied the battery for an e-bike or other device you are considering buying.
NPR warns that some online sellers may falsely claim to have UL certification. Others may sell “re-wrapped” batteries, meaning counterfeit batteries produced to appear as though they’re made by reputable manufacturers. Here are few tips for buying a new battery.
- If your battery starts to fail, it may be safest to buy a new one.
- Do NOT attempt to repair a battery yourself.
- Always buy from a company that sells brand-name batteries.
- Only buy a new battery or charger from the company which manufactured your e-bike or micro-mobility device
To dispose of an old battery, bring it to a battery recycling center or other e-waste facility. Don’t throw away lithium-ion batteries in conventional trash. If you don’t know where your nearest battery recycling center is, visit the Call2Recycle website. Your local Home Depot may also have a battery recycling center.
Input From Lectric
A few months ago, I purchased an e-bike from Lectric. It folds for easy storage and transport and it is fun to ride. The way it handles and carves turns reminds me of my much beloved Mazda Miata. As I was researching this story, I began wondering about the battery in my Lectric XP Lite. I live in a condo community and if there was an issue, I would incur the wrath of my neighbors, so I contacted the company, and got the following response from Christian Dennis.
“Not all e-bike batteries are created equal. Most safety risks with e-bike batteries, like all lithium ion batteries, are caused by low quality aftermarket batteries and misuse. Our batteries are protected against deep discharge, overloading, overheating, and short circuiting by Electronic Cell Protection. In the event of a fault, a protective circuit switches the battery pack off automatically.
“Proper maintenance, charging, and storage is key for battery safety and health. Please be sure to read through your user manual for all of the safety requirements in regards to your bike. Safety guidance includes but is not limited to the following: To ensure that your battery is safely charged, do not leave your battery unattended while charging and only use the provided Lectric eBikes battery charger supplied with your eBike or one approved for your eBikes by the manufacturer and purchased from a trusted source.
“Do not connect the battery pack to the charger until it has reached an allowable charging temperature. Do not charge the battery with chargers other than the charger provided by Lectric eBikes. Only charge the battery indoors and in dry spaces which are not excessively hot or cold, in temperatures between 50 °F – 77 °F (10 °C – 25 °C). Ensure there are no flammable items, dirt or debris or water on the charger or nearby when using the charger. Avoid leaving the charger plugged in when the battery is fully charged.
“Do not charge the battery if you notice the battery is damaged, excessively hot, leaking, smells, or is discolored. Always check the charger, cable, and plug before use. Stop using the charger if you discover any damage. Do not open the charger. Damaged chargers, cables, and plugs increase the risk of electric shock.”
All common sense stuff that should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. All lithium-ion batteries are a potential source of trouble. Use them wisely. Christian did not respond to my question about UL certification directly, but this is an area that is developing rapidly. We as consumers should demand assurances from manufacturers that the batteries in the products we use are as safe as possible.
Now if you will excuse me, I am going for a ride in the Florida sun on my Lectric XP Lite.
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