By Daniel Colombini and Vinod Palal
The growing use of electric bicycles (ebikes) and electric scooters – and the increasing number of fires associated with them – poses a potentially deadly challenge for facility executives. The fires can be both sudden and consuming, and facility managers must deal not only with the storage of those micromobility devices but with the fact that the batteries can be removed for charging.
The challenge with ebikes and electric scooters is totally different than with larger electric vehicles (EVs) for several major reasons:
- Cars and trucks must be parked in designated settings, separate from office and residential spaces.
- Cars and trucks must be charged on specialized equipment.
- Car and truck batteries cannot easily be removed, and their safety and use are heavily regulated.
In large part due to regulation, EV fires are far less common than in traditional vehicles with combustion engines, even when controlling for the number of sales.
As with the rapid growth in EVs in the United States, ebike use is growing quickly as well. It is even estimated to be outpacing electric cars. Research estimates that, while 608,000 electric cars and trucks were sold in 2021, more than 880,000 ebikes were purchased.
The Growing Need For Safe Storage
With that growth in usage comes the need to store micromobility devices and charge their batteries. It also fuels a second-hand market that leaves more and more ebikes and electric scooters in varying conditions.
Micromobility devices are often stored in commercial and residential facilities, where a sudden fire can be extraordinarily damaging. NPR reported in March, “As firefighters battled a five-alarm fire at a supermarket in the Bronx earlier this month, New York City officials gathered beside what they said was the cause of the fire: the blackened shell of what was once a sit-on electric scooter. Officials said that a faulty lithium-ion battery in the scooter had suddenly burst into flame, as captured on surveillance video. The resulting fire was so intense, they said, that it enveloped the building in a matter of minutes.”
Even if the devices are parked in a safe place, the batteries are often removed and charged in settings where office or household belongings are nearby, making a fire all the more damaging. The fact that those batteries can typically be charged using a standard electrical outlet only magnifies the problem — with potentially catastrophic effects.
As The New York Times recently reported, “Two people jumped out of an apartment complex window in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco to escape a fire that was spreading in their unit on Monday. One of them was seriously injured and taken to a hospital burn center, officials said. That terrifying blaze was probably caused by an overheated e-scooter battery that firefighters later spotted plugged in to a charger near the unit’s front door… It was the 24th fire in San Francisco this year that has been linked to rechargeable batteries.”
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), “While there are no national or international statistics on how often e-bikes or e-scooters catch on fire, it does happen with some regularity — and the numbers are rising.” More than 200 fires in New York City alone last year were caused by batteries from ebikes, electric scooters, and similar devices.
Lack of regulation supports the problem. The New York Times states, “Victoria Hutchison, a senior research project manager at the Fire Protection Research Foundation, said the lack of safety regulations and testing requirements has allowed cheaper, low-quality devices and batteries of questionable safety to enter the market. ‘That’s really the root of the problem,’ she said.”
Six Steps Toward Safe Ebike Battery Storage
The challenge for facility executives is that the growth of micromobility devices is way ahead of future regulation. Even when regulation occurs, there will still be too many ebikes and electric scooters stored — and batteries charged — inappropriately unless incentives are offered to alter behavior.
Those incentives should include the following six steps:
- Provide a designated micromobility storage space where devices can be stored and charged for free. The space can be provided much as traditional bike storage is.
- Reinforce the space from a fire prevention standpoint, making it fire-resistant and separated from flammable objects. This will ensure that, if a fire breaks out, it is contained. This would be achieved with a combination of strategies, including fire-rated walls, fast-acting sprinkler heads, and fire detection devices within the space. Self-closing doors will ensure that fire and smoke cannot spread to other areas of the building.
- Provide sufficient electrical outlets so that each device can be charged while in the designated storage space. This will avoid the dangerously informal and often haphazard battery charging that too often results in fires in highly flammable settings. The design of these outlets must take into account the volume of load that would be on at a single time in order to reduce the risk of fire from circuit overloading.
- Provide ongoing monitoring of that space with cameras displaying images at the security desk. Security officials can then monitor the safety of the devices and be alerted if a fire occurs. Having events reported to a 24-hour monitored site would ensure that coverage is continuous.
- Ensure that batteries are properly charged and not over-charged. Batteries for micromobility devices typically do not have a battery management system that can often detect and arrest battery issues before Thermal Runaway. As a result, it’s important to keep an eye on the batteries and how long they are being charged.
- Train security personnel in how to deal with a lithium-ion battery fire in any micromobility device. Ensure that they know precisely what to do, if a fire occurs. Training and fire action plans for personnel to respond to this type of event are crucial.
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Once these steps are taken, prohibit the storage and charging of micromobility devices – or their batteries – elsewhere. Workers at relevant facilities and apartment residents should understand the dangers of lithium-ion battery fires. If properly informed of the dangers and of the advantages of the designated storage area, they should be willing to comply. It’s in their interest as well.
Failure to comply can also be written into leases as reason for eviction, as the consequences of improper storage and charging of these devices are literally a matter of life and death.
Ebikes and electric scooters offer great advantages from an environmental perspective, and they can be an important element of a national strategy to move away from fossil fuels. But they also pose a significant fire danger. Even if regulations are enacted, facility executives will still have a key role to play in ensuring that they are stored and charged properly.
Colombini, PE, LEED AP and Palal, PE are Principals at the New York City-based consulting engineering firm Goldman Copeland.