WHERE THERE’S SMOKE, THERE’S FIRE
Are e-bikes sparking more than just your curiosity?
Viral videos of burning e-bikes resembling a low-budget parody scene from some Hollywood action film have been hard to miss on social media of late. An inferno of flames shoot out the side of lithium-ion batteries as the individual cells take to flame one by one. It has caused a minor stir among e-bikers and potential new customers. The fact that sales of e-bikes haven’t slowed, however, is proof that their benefits and versatility remain irresistible. It doesn’t mean that consumers and owners shouldn’t be concerned, though.
Truth be told, all the viral hype stems from more than just e-bikes. The majority of the documented fires have included scooters, hoverboards and electric cars more than e-bikes. The publicity is not at all unwarranted, but we do have some statistics that will give a perspective on the actual magnitude of e-specific-related fires.
Even with the small chance of a fire, people are still putting their money down to purchase a new e-bike. This begs the question of how serious and frequent these fires are. Neighbors haven’t been knocking on our door warning us of these fires, which suggest that they’re far and few between. Don’t take the odds for granted, though. A fire is always a serious hazard and, in very few cases, e-bike fires have even caused death, not to mention the cost in property damage and injuries to people near the catastrophes.
STATISTICS AS A REFERENCE
The development of lithium-ion batteries has made electric vehicles, and especially e-bikes, more functional and lighter. And yet, critics of an electric future have seemed happy to share videos of electric bikes and cars going up in 4th-of-July-worthy pyrotechnics. As spectacular as a battery catching on fire is, we should consider some stats before declaring e-bikes the sole culprit.
Owing to their own vested interest on the issue, the Tesla car company has been posting Tesla-related fire data on their website. They claim 85 cases of Tesla fires between 2013–2022 out of nearly two million units on the road. That comes to .004 percent, basically less than a 100th of 1 percent. Hopefully, a truthful attempt at transparency and if the data is as accurate as they claim, those are great numbers! They also state that with that data, their cars are 11 percent less likely to start a fire than a gas-powered car.
It is technically a hard comparison when the amount of Teslas on the road far under-weigh the number of gas cars. Our point is that out of nearly two million Tesla vehicles sold, a very small amount have caught on fire. More evidence that quality-built, battery-powered products are statistically less dangerous than poorly manufactured ones. Go figure!
WHICH E-BIKES DID YOU SAY STARTED ON FIRE?
Quality standards on battery safety for the e-bike industry as a whole have been impressive and extensive, particularly with household names like Bosch, Yamaha, Shimano, etc. These fires that have been associated to e-bikes have mostly been generic, homebuilt e-bikes. In fact, we can’t find any reports of a Bosch, Yamaha, Shimano or Brose battery having started on fire. It’s not to say that it didn’t happen somewhere out there, but we can’t find any reported cases.
Television stations in New York City, for instance, have misled the public. Instead of calling the culprit what it is—a scooter or hoverboard—they have irresponsibly referred to them as e-bikes. Except, the “e-bike” fires that were being reported on didn’t even have pedals. These cheap products are extremely hard to pass up, but it’s a dangerous and costly gamble in many cases. Worse yet, a fire could break out with the potential to harm you, your loved ones and maybe even your home!
“Bosch actually put a nail through the battery and explained how if one of the cells is damaged, it automatically disconnects from the rest of the system. ”
Some of these reported fires in New York were attributed to people taking in several bikes to repair in their apartments. It can be dangerous to charge a battery with the wrong charger or a faulty one, and so many of the less-expensive bikes have the same charge connector and no name on them. Plugging the wrong voltage charger can overheat the battery and cause it to catch fire.
Larry Pizzi, head of the commercial division of ALTA Cycling Group, told Bicycle Retailer that most of the low-budget e-bikes and scooters are coming from “rogue” importers. He warns that the industry has a responsibility to implement third-party testing of batteries. The right thing for consumers to do is avoid buying from random companies that they for one have never heard of, and secondly have not been proven in at least some way.
As far as we have found, there are no safety standards implemented into the hoverboard and scooter market. As far as we can gather, companies can hook up a bunch of budget lithium-ion batteries, put them inside a plastic case and have themselves a battery. It’s possible that bargain products made by companies overseas are giving e-bikes a rap that may be overstated falsely.
VARIOUS REASONS FOR FIRES
Lithium-ion batteries, as profound as they’ve been for e-mobility, can be assembled in a variety of ways. Panasonic, LG, and Samsung are names you may have seen around and may even be using as we speak. These are high-quality batteries made with cells and components that are meant to last. The Fire Protection Research Foundation told Tech Radar, “Many of the e-bike fires have resulted from those made with low-quality components”.
Of course, there will always be the chance of a manufacturing defect, and that’s part of the consumer’s inherent risk. There could also be factors like crashing and damaging internal parts, using chargers that weren’t meant for your battery, and overheating the battery too many times. This could be even more related to hub-driven motors that are not as efficient and tend to overheat on long climbs. Too many trips up the hill on a budget hub drive might lead to premature wear and potential melt-down or fire.
Another factor could be extreme heat combined with a battery plugged in to the wrong charger, or maybe sitting in the sunlight for too long with an already poorly manufactured battery. If a cheap battery was punctured by an object and it was hot already, it could be at risk.
Our local e-bike dealership did tell us about their experience at the Bosch academy and some things they learned. Bosch actually put a nail through the battery and explained how if one of the cells is damaged, it automatically disconnects from the rest of the system. This will tremendously lower the chances of a fire breaking out and is proof that the big players of the industry put advanced design efforts into safety.
Using the charger that came with the bike should be a primary practice, and if you don’t have to leave it plugged in overnight or when you can’t keep an eye on it, don’t. This is especially the case with cheaper Chinese e-bikes. If you start to smell things out of the ordinary, get off your bike, shut it off if possible and let it cool down. Then, do not continue to ride it; instead, call the manufacturer for advice. If you can’t get a hold of them, do not ride the bike again in hopes that it will fix itself.
If you really feel like you’re in danger, call 911 and stay away from the bike until they arrive. Maybe the most obvious tip would be to park the bike away from anything flammable. Even just plugging a bike in around a gas can or flammable materials could be risky. If the charger shorts out while plugging it in and there are gas fumes in the air, it would be instant flames.
Remember, it may be illegal to throw a lithium-ion battery away in your area, plus it’s just irresponsible because of all the hazardous and flammable waste inside the batteries. Please recycle batteries responsibly, especially now that certain facilities are providing outlets to do so. Search for battery recycling programs or drop-offs in your area for the safest disposal, ask your local bike shop, or contact a company like Li-Cycle, Call2Recycle or Redwood Materials. Those companies can reclaim almost 96 percent of the materials in your battery.