Early in the morning of June 20, 2023, four people were killed and two others were critically injured in a Lower Manhattan fire caused by a lithium-ion battery used to charge an electric bike.
This deadly blaze was the latest in a series of over 220 battery-related fires since 2022, according to a March press release from the City of New York. Multiple news outlets reported that this brings the death toll to 23 people killed by lithium-ion battery fires since 2021, with hundreds more injured.
Among the most vulnerable to battery malfunctions and fires are delivery workers, who make up a majority of e-bike users in New York City. These workers often can’t afford to buy brand-name bikes and batteries and are often forced to make do with inferior quality products that are a danger to use and charge.
Beyond the immediate danger they pose, the lack of city-run facilities to recycle these batteries has long-term environmental consequences that also apply to batteries used in cars or phones.
Epicenter-NYC contributor Hari Adivarekar spoke to Damon Victor, who owns Greenpath, an electric-bike distributor and repair shop that has been around for almost 15 years, about the causes of these lithium-ion battery fires and where generic batteries come from. He also spoke to master bike technician, K.B. about the best practices in the usage of non-brand batteries.
Epicenter-NYC: What kinds of batteries are dangerous and what kind of batteries are safe?
Damon Victor: Basically, it’s the generic Chinese (made) lithium-ion batteries that are not safe. The ones that you could buy online, the ones that you could buy from the non-affiliated brand names. The ones that you want to buy are the batteries and systems produced in Japan and Korea by Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, and Bosch outta Germany. Those are the ones that are getting the United Lab certification.
Epicenter-NYC: What makes the generic batteries catch fire?
Damon Victor:There’s a couple ways it could have happened. Firstly, they were probably being charged incorrectly.These delivery guys have to have their bikes on the road as often as possible and as quickly as possible. Inevitably, they’ll use generic chargers to make a faster charge. It gets them back on the road faster. Secondly, they open up the battery, to try and pump it up.
Then there’s economics. The generic battery manufacturers are out to make a buck. There are internal components to these batteries that are just not up to snuff. There’s something called a battery management system. It’s a computerized device that controls the amount of voltage that is maintained in the battery. If you have a cheap one and it doesn’t survive the voltage surge, it will fail. This will cause a problem.
Another way for the fires to happen is the material between the cells inside the battery. There are 86 cells inside these batteries. Inside each battery there’s a positive and a negative terminal. Then there is what they call an electrolyte. An electrolyte is a membrane or barrier that allows electrons to flow through, but also keeps the cells completely separated so it doesn’t short out the battery.
The generic Chinese made batteries have electrolytes with the density of cellophane. In the Korean or Japanese name-brand batteries the material that separates the cells has the density of a credit card so it’s much more effective.
If the bike hits a real hard bump or if the battery is dropped, this could cause a rip in this membrane, if it’s a generic make. This causes the material from the different cells to leak into each other and become more volatile. There’s something called thermal runaway that happens when the battery is creating more heat than it can dissipate or release. So when the batteries are charged or overheated or even just plugged into a high-performance charger that’s not regulated to that particular battery, there’s an increased danger of fire.
Epicenter-NYC: Who manufactures these batteries and how do they reach American markets?
Damon Victor: They’re mainly available online, through generic stores. We don’t sell those, so there are stores that are making a choice. We only sell name-brand bikes and batteries. We have all the UL (Underwriter Laboratories) certificates. We will not sell anything without those certifications and the FDNY comes in from time to time for inspections to make sure we only have certified inventory. There are just four to five stores across the city that sell legitimate bikes and batteries. But there are over 60,000 electric bikes on the streets of New York City. There’s no way four or five stores sold all those. Many come from the online stores, the non-name ones. Those are the places to stay away from.
Epicenter-NYC: So is it purely economics that those end up being sold or is it just convenience?
Damon Victor:It’s purely economics, the way the Chinese make ’em just ends up being cheaper. They use cheaper materials. If I have a battery that could easily go for $700, they sell one for $300 to $400. For the bikes, the branded ones may cost between $1500 and $1800 but the ones you get online are $600 or$800.
Epicenter-NYC: Are there any regulations that exist around e-bike batteries right now?
Damon Victor: There will be starting September. The Department of Consumer and Worker Protection sent us an email informing us that there will be regulations in effect. (This will be under NY Local Law 39 of 2023 stating “DCWP is also proposing a new penalty schedule to implement Local Law 39 of 2023, which creates requirements for the sale, lease, and rental of powered bicycles, powered mobility devices, and storage batteries for such devices.”)
Epicenter-NYC: What are the best practices around battery sales and maintenance from a seller’s perspective?
Damon Victor: Only buy name brands. Stop playing with your lives. Stop buying online. You don’t know where the batteries come from. You don’t know how they’ve been transported. You don’t know if the carton’s been dropped and the battery has already been damaged. I tell people, if you don’t buy from me, buy from my competitor but don’t buy online. UL certification is also very important.
K.B., an Electric bike technician at Greenpath, has a list of dos and don’ts while using e-bike batteries, especially if they are non-brand
- Try to use name brand batteries that you buy in a store and not online.
- If your batteries have any visible damage, you need to replace them.
- Only use chargers made by the manufacturers that originally made the bike.
- Don’t charge overnight or for over 12 hours. Don’t wait ‘till it’s dead to charge it either.
- Don’t charge near a heat source or anywhere hot.
- Make sure your batteries are at a neutral temperature before charging. If you come in from really cold or really hot riding, let the battery temperature neutralize before charging.
- Keep your bike relatively dry to prevent any rain or salt water from getting into your batteries and causing corrosion.
- Don’t drop the batteries or you will need to replace them.
- Shelf life of these batteries is around 3 to 5 years. After that you need to replace them.
- Take your battery off the bike and place it on a fire blanket to charge it, so in case of a fire, you can wrap it up safely and get it out of your home.
- Keep a bucket or drum of water near the battery charger so it can be placed under water in case of an emergency. This will not stop the fire but it will contain it.
- Do not open up the battery yourself or allow an unauthorized person to open it up.
The FDNY (Fire Department of New York) has also put out safety tips and educational materials for the safe usage of lithium-ion batteries.