Why are fires from electric mobility devices trending up in New York?

Americans are increasingly purchasing and using electronic devices that rely on Lithium-Ion batteries for power, including eBikes, power tools, lawnmowers, laptop computers, and more. The vast majority of these devices will work perfectly over their lifespan. Unfortunately, low-quality and unregulated batteries often used on electric scooters and eBikes pose a fire risk. New York is the city attracting the most media attention, with the New York Fire Department indicating that more than 200 fires in 2022 have started because of batteries in micro-mobility devices.

Why do fires from electric mobility devices seem to be increasing in New York?

Electric bicycles, sit down and stand-up electric scooters, and electric motorcycles have massive usage in New York City. Food delivery services already enjoyed wide adoption, and exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic as the desire for meal delivery soared. Many services previously used traditional analog bicycles, but also gas-powered mopeds and scooters before switching to electric mobility devices. Those devices are 1. ridden hard, with multiple charging cycles in a single day as the operators push them to the limit for work and 2. tend to be "least common denominator" designs, because the riders seek out the most economical options.

Unfortunately, the cheapest products use batteries of questionable source, design, and engineering, which has led to safety problems. It's important to note that the vast majority of eBikes are safe! In fact, many of the so-call "eBike" fires in the news recently have actually been electric scooters, not eBikes... but nonetheless, as a prospective eBike buyer or owner, there are steps you can take to increase safety of your eBike and battery. Here's what you need to know before making a buying decision.

#1 - purchase a reputable, name-brand eBike and/or battery

Many of the fires in the news have been started by "no-name" products offered by anonymous sellers on sites like Amazon or eBay. In the market? It's worth a phone call or email to the seller. If you can't reach a person in the United States for support in English, that's a red flag, because support post-purchase will get worse, not better.

Call the seller or manufacturer to chat. Reputable, established sellers will answer the phone and respond to your inquiry promptly.

An eBike is an investment. Unfortunately, some sellers are treating eBikes like a disposable good instead, which is sad. Good eBikes are serviceable and repairable, so you can keep them running for a long time. If you can't fix it, it goes in the trash. Please don't buy a product destined for a landfill.

If you purchase a reputable brand of eBike, you should expect: 

  • ready availability of service and warranty parts needed to keep your bike running in the future
  • phone / email / in-person support for your questions
  • a published warranty policy in the event something goes wrong

#2 - use the correct charger supplied by the manufacturer

Many chargers look alike or similar, but the charger and battery that came with your eBike are actually a system designed to work together. Modern chargers work with your eBike battery to monitor voltage, temperature, and other factors, and rely on communication with the battery management system to make those features function. If you substitute a different charger, those advanced features might not work.

Any eBike you consider should come with a "smart" charger that turns off automatically to prevent overcharging. Keep in mind you might want a second charger in the future - perhaps a spare to keep at the office, or you might misplace the original charger, so make sure the eBike brand you select has replacement chargers in stock and available to you. If you can't get a replacement charger, your eBike becomes unusable!

#3 - look for certified, approved chargers and batteries

You don't have to be an expert to inspect a charger and battery. Popular certification and regulation programs include Underwriters Laboratories (the "UL" mark) and the "CE" mark (which is found on products worldwide, that are manufactured to the European Economic Area standards.)

Note: at this time there is no federal law in the United States that regulates eBike batteries! It's up to you - and the brand you support - to make good decisions that lead to increased safety. Choosing an eBike that uses the CE or UL inspection program is an easy way to avoid "bad actors" who skipped this important safety step.

#4 - store and charge your battery in a safer location

You can dramatically decrease the likelihood of an incident with some free, easy steps:

  • charge in a temperature-controlled location (not a hot garage or freezing basement).
  • put the battery and charger on a flat, hard surface - think a concrete floor, not shag carpet. This allows airflow around the charger and battery during charging, while also keeping flammable material at a distance.
  • don't overcharge. Use a smart charger that shuts off automatically and remove it from the wall power when charging is complete.
  • never charger in damp or wet conditions.
  • when you aren't riding, put the battery in a safer location - many riders are now using metal toolboxes, for example.

#5 - buy a battery built with LG, Panasonic, or Samsung cells

A "battery" actually describes a sophisticated system of components - a plastic or metal exterior casing that provides structure and shape, a charging port, a battery management system (BMS) that monitors cell health, temperature, and other factors, and finally, the cells themselves. The cells are the portion that look similar to AA or C batteries, with many wired together to form a large capacity battery.

It's a best practice to choose an eBike that uses a battery that uses name-brand cells, with LG, Panasonic, and Samsung considered to be the premium options. Note that LG, Panasonic, and Samsung make cells, not the entire battery "system" on your eBike. Reputable brands will disclose what cells are used inside their battery.

#6 - watch for danger signs when charging your eBike battery

Your eBike battery and charger should not change shape, bulge, leak fluid, or emit funny odors. Stop using any battery or charger that behaves abnormally immediately. Seek help from the manufacturer if it's under warranty (you did choose a brand with a warranty, right?) or recycle it properly if it's out of warranty.

#7 - eBike battery recycling programs

Every battery - eBike, laptop, mobile phone, and so on - has a limited lifespan. After repeated charging and discharging (called a "charging cycle") you'll notice that your battery doesn't hold a charge the way it used to. On a laptop, this means less time for working unplugged. On your eBike, this translates into reduced range before it's time to charge again.

Most brands warranty their batteries for a specific number of charging cycles. For example, a battery might be warranted to have 80% of its original capacity after 500 charging cycles. Eventually, it will be time to replace the battery and recycle the old one.

It's generally illegal (not to mention unsafe) to simply throw an eBike battery in the trash when at end of life. Most cities and counties have a hazardous materials disposal location that is free for residents. If you're unsure, it's probably the same location near you that takes motor oil, paint, and so on.

#8 - if it seems too good to be true, it probably is

Just the battery alone from a reputable eBike sells for $300 at minimum, and $500, $700+ batteries are very common. Trek's Range Boost extended battery, which adds an additional 500Wh Bosch battery to select Trek eBike models, sells for $1099.99. That battery alone costs more than some complete, no-name eBikes! 

If you consider that the battery alone is $300, minimum, you can understand why it's impossible to build a safe, approved, reliable eBike for under $1,000 - the bicycle frame, electric motor, brakes, wheels, and other components would only be $600! That doesn't include the cost of shipping, either, which costs $100 or more from a brand to you, or to your local bike shop. Corners have to be cut somewhere to reach very low price points, and it's not worth your safety.

Want to talk battery and charger safety? Call (877) 755-2453 or write anytime.

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