The e-bike revolution started with the pandemic and has been hailed as the answer to everything from traffic jams to greenhouse gas emissions to fitness to depression. Granted, this has the potential to spark real change, but there’s a deadlier side that has left some consumers disappointed.
We’ve all seen the headlines over the last few years. “Mother and two children die in fire caused by e-bike battery”; “4 killed, 2 seriously injured in NYC e-bike shop fire”; “FDNY says that e-bikes have doubled this year.”
The prevalence of warnings about fires sparked by e-bikes and other light electric vehicles stands in stark contrast to the current urban zeitgeist touting electric micromobility as the answer to creating safer roads, more efficient transportation and greener cities. So which one is it? Will e-bikes and e-scooters kill us all in the lithium-induced blaze? Or will they save the world by turning would-be drivers into micromobility users?
Amidst the hype and hellfire, there has been a lot of confusion around what types of vehicles pose a risk of starting fires, why lithium battery fires are so common and deadly, how to stay safe, and what governments are doing to reduce those risks as electric bicycles and scooters reign supreme.
The bad news is that the e-bike, e-scooter, and e-moped battery fires are not going away anytime soon. The good news is that we can stop it from spreading by raising awareness about why it happens and how to avoid it.
Why can the battery burn?
There are chemical and practical answers to this question. The chemical answer is that lithium-ion cells undergo a process called thermal grounding, which results in a sharp increase in the temperature and pressure of the battery cells, accompanied by the release of flammable gases. Flammable gases can ignite from high battery temperatures, producing fast, hard-to-extinguish flames and emitting toxic fumes.
What causes the release of flammable gases and high battery heat? The answers vary, but there is some consensus.
Experts Zero2Billions spoke to say cheap e-bikes and low-quality batteries — often imported from China — are more likely to explode due to low-quality manufacturing processes. If a battery company cuts corners or uses cheap materials, there’s likely a defect that can cause the cells to expand and swell, according to Leo Raudys, president and CEO of Call2Recycle, a non-profit battery recycling program. If they swell, they can burst, which can also cause a thermal runaway.
“You just have to remember, you get what you pay for,” Raudys told Zero2Billions. “These batteries are highly engineered devices, and if you only spend a few hundred dollars on a battery, you might get one that cuts corners in a number of different places.”
In New York City, where food delivery workers rely on e-bikes to do their jobs, fires have increased at a staggering rate — doubling every year from 2020 to 2022, according to New York Fire Department data. As of July 3, 2023, there have been 114 investigations into lithium ion fires, 74 injuries, and 13 deaths. That’s 13 deaths this year as a result of lithium batteries, compared to six in 2022 and four in 2021. Although the FDNY doesn’t break down their statistics into what types of devices cause fires, 80 of the fires occurred in buildings such as homes. , buildings and offices.
Many have speculated that many of the fires started because so-called deliveryistas – low-income gig delivery workers – had purchased cheap or used vehicles online to do their job. Not only have those bikes and batteries started out badly for being cheap, but they’ve also had their way.
Deliverista can drive up to 100 miles per day, according to workers who spoke to Zero2Billions. If they ever crash their e-bike or drop it or damage the battery in any way it can increase the chances of battery explosion. Especially if workers, likely exhausted from a long day on the road, leave their batteries to charge overnight while they sleep. Overcharging a battery can cause overheating, which can ignite the flammable gases mentioned above in lithium batteries.
Even high-quality batteries have the potential to cause a fire if tampered with. George Kerchner, executive director of the Rechargeable Battery Association, an industry trade group, told Zero2Billions that updating batteries or making DIY modifications can cause fires because tinkering with them can compromise the safety features built into batteries.
How can I stay safe?
Battery fires can happen to anyone, but there are various safety practices you can follow to ensure good battery hygiene.
The most important thing you can do is buy equipment with Underwriting Laboratory mark, which will let you know that the product has been tested and certified for safety. Look for “UL” in the circle. And remember, this applies to all lithium-ion batteries, not just electric micromobility vehicles.
Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions for charging and storage, and always use the manufacturer’s power adapter and cable made specifically for the device.
Don’t charge your device under a pillow, in bed, or on the couch, and try not to overcharge it or expose it to direct sunlight. If you can, keep them away from exits so you can make a quick escape in the event of a fire.
If your battery overheats or you notice a strange smell, strange sound, change in shape or color, or anything else that rings your alarm bell, take action. If it’s safe, keep the device away from anything that could catch fire and call the police.
Disposing of batteries properly is also important. Do not throw it in the trash or recycle it at home. Check out local battery recycling locations near you. Call2Recycle has a very user-friendly program with more than 50 e-bike brands participating. Whether you bought your bike new or used, you can take your old battery with you participating bike shop and they will take care of recycling it for you.
And if you don’t own an e-bike but you live near a store that sells or refurbishes them, keep an eye out. Nobody likes complainers, but stores that don’t store, charge, or dispose of batteries properly have been the cause of several fires, and New Yorkers are reporting them.
In New York City in June, a a fire started at an e-bike shop which eventually killed four people and critically injured two others. A week later, as part of the FDNY’s crackdown on illegal batteries, the agency found a “ticking time bomb” of dozens of lithium-ion batteries in a different store in Lower Manhattan. FDNY found multiple fire hazards, damaged batteries, and overloaded power strips.
What about used e-bikes?
“Have been checked. Make sure it’s roadworthy,” said Raudys. “I don’t think the risk goes up right away just from being used, but as with anything, buyer beware. So if you bought a cheap bike, the battery is old, worn out, or the battery was recently replaced and you don’t recognize the manufacturer, think twice because the quality of the battery is paramount.
Many of the leading e-bike shops today can check the battery health for you, especially if you bought a bike that uses the Bosch connected e-bike system, where there is Lots.
What is the government doing to keep you safe?
At the federal level, very little. But there is hope.
Several bills have been submitted to Congress to regulate the import of low-quality, uncertified batteries, as well as to incentivize consumers to buy high-quality e-bikes.
A New bipartisan billthe so-called Import Safety and Fairness Act, would limit unregulated imports of e-bikes and batteries into the US
Currently, China and other countries can sell products directly to US consumers without customs inspections and border patrols if the product costs below $800. An e-bike under $800 is the kind of bike that is most likely to have an uncertified battery or a bad battery management system. The law would violate provisions allowing products under $800 not to be inspected.
Other proposed billintroduced to the Senate in March, will require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to establish end-consumer product safety standards for e-bikes and e-scooters to protect against fire risks.
Finally, policymakers reintroduced the Electric Bicycle Incentives for the Environment (E-BIKE) Act in March, a bill that would give Americans a federal discount of up to $1,500 on e-bike purchases. If passed, this bill could help make quality e-bikes more accessible to lower-income Americans.
Most importantly, only e-bikes with UL certified batteryor equivalent certified battery, eligible for the tax credit.
The E-BIKE law was originally introduced in 2021 as part of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better (BBB) Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives but not approved by the Senate. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which is the negotiated version of the BBB, was passed and signed into law in August 2022. However, the E-BIKE Law was not included in the language of the bill.
Note that the IRA does give Americans up to $7,500 in tax credits to incentivize the purchase of electric cars, a decidedly less eco-friendly transportation option.
The federal government also gave New York City, the epicenter of the battery fire, a $25 million emergency grant to fund the installation of 170 micromobility charging and storage stations in 50 locations. The aim is to provide a safe place for senders to recharge their batteries.
NYC also issued a forbid on the sale of non-UL-certified batteries, but experts say that would be hard to enforce.
Some say support for safe charging practices and access to high-quality batteries should fall not only on governments, but on app-based gig companies like Uber Eats, Grubhub, and DoorDash. In cities like New York, e-bike delivery is the backbone of the business.
“E-bikes with batteries cost $1,600 to $1,700 or more,” William Medina, a member of Los Deliveristas Unidos, a group of New York City delivery workers, told Zero2Billions. “These are operational costs incurred by workers. He assumes 100% of the cost of the machine to run, and the application does nothing. They have to be responsible for helping us in some way.”