Home Tech News E-bikes are catching fire in America. Here’s how to stay safe.

E-bikes are catching fire in America. Here’s how to stay safe.

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Lithium-ion batteries are the juice for nearly all rechargeable devices you might own, including your smartphone, laptop, electric toothbrush and leaf blower.

They’re also the fuel in electric cars and other climate-friendlier ways to move around.

After a string of deadly fires in New York that officials blamed on lithium-ion batteries in electric bicycles or similar transportation, there are renewed safety concerns about our battery-powered devices.

Safety experts say the fire risk – particularly for higher-energy lithium-ion batteries in electric bikes and scooters with wildly varying quality — is small but real. Fires from lithium-ion batteries can spread fast and are tough to put out.

I have tips for staying safe, including steering clear of products that are too cheap and taking it seriously when your batteries look damaged or you ram your e-scooter into a tree.

Even if you don’t own an electric scooter or e-bike, you’re at risk if people around you have unsafe ones. And you definitely have products with lithium-ion batteries at home.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the benefits of lithium-ion batteries and greener transportation. We just need to limit their risks. Here’s how.

Buy from reputable stores and look for UL certification

It’s likely that the reported fires of electric transportation devices were caused by products from manufacturers that cut corners with battery design and testing, said Chris Cramer, senior vice president and chief research officer for the safety organization UL Research Institutes.

That means if you’re buying a product with a larger lithium-ion battery like an electric scooter or bike, buy from a trusted website or store. Be wary of brands that are far cheaper than those of competitors. You get what you pay for.

Buy products that are certified for meeting safety and testing standards. Look for the letters “UL” in a circle. You can typically find the symbol on the product box, label or manual, said Daniel Flynn, chief fire marshal with the New York Fire Department.

The European safety standard, marked with a “CE,” is also solid. If you don’t see the certification label on a product website, ask before you buy.

“The well manufactured devices really are quite safe,” Cramer said.

Most bike retailers will only sell and service battery-powered products from brands that meet those quality safety standards, said Matt Moore with the bicycle manufacturing trade group PeopleForBikes.

Flynn said his team is investigating whether some electric transportation manufacturers are more risky than others.

This advice is tailored for products powered by lithium-ion batteries for individual purchase. People I spoke with said it’s generally safe to rent electric bikes and scooters from reputable companies such as Lime.

It’s possible that many of the reported fires were caused by hefty electric transportation devices often used for delivery jobs or other work. I won’t detail the challenges of safe and affordable electric transportation for low-wage commercial workers, but this Vice article goes deeper.

David Mitlin, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said regulators need to do more to protect us from shoddy imported electric transportation products.

Read more battery safety advice from The Washington Post’s Climate team

Be mindful of the battery’s health and how you charge it

If you run over your phone with your car, notice that your laptop is swelling or crash your e-bike, know that damaged batteries can be a higher fire risk. (Flynn said fires from working smartphones are rare.)

It’s smart to have the product checked by a repair expert. You might stop using or charging the device.

(Here is how to find reliable electronics repair help. Or check with a bicycle shop about e-bike service and repairs.)

Also take it seriously if you notice an electrical smell or unusual heat from a product with a rechargeable battery.

Particularly for products like electric bikes and scooters with higher-powered batteries, Flynn said you shouldn’t use a charger unless it was designed for use with your product. “Just because it fits doesn’t mean that it’s safe,” he said.

Flynn said we should also take seriously the potential fire risk, even from electric transportation products from reputable manufacturers.

Have a plan to get out if there’s a fire, he said, and don’t leave an e-bike or another large rechargeable device blocking the exit to your home.

Mitlin also said if the battery in your phone or other rechargeable device doesn’t hold a charge, that may be a sign of an internally damaged battery.

Read more: 5 ways to make gadget batteries last longer

Why lithium-ion batteries can be a fire risk

Lithium-ion batteries hold more energy than conventional batteries in your smoke alarm or flashlight, Cramer said. And the bigger the lithium-ion battery, the more energy it holds.

The relatively small lithium-ion battery in your smartphone is less risky than the larger battery in your laptop. Those are both less risky than the even larger batteries in an electric scooter, electric car and home batteries that store solar energy.

When a lithium-ion battery catches fire, it releases its energy as heat — and fast. A lithium-ion battery fire can spread quickly in a chain reaction, Cramer said.

Flynn said a home fire extinguisher won’t put out a fire from a lithium-ion battery. If you see a fire, smoke or bubbling from a lithium-ion battery, get away from it immediately and call 911.

Given the deadly fires from electric transportation, I asked Cramer whether we should stop using lithium-ion batteries in so many products. He said no.

Cramer believes the benefits, particularly from shifting to climate-friendlier transportation like electric vehicles and e-bikes, far outweigh the risks. He said we should also invest in safer technologies such as sodium-ion batteries.

Mitlin said he’s more nervous about the fire risk from the gas-powered lawn mower and gasoline can in his garage than from products with lithium-ion batteries.

Please don’t throw anything with a battery in the trash – but especially products with lithium-ion batteries. This is causing fires all over America.

Instead, lithium-ion batteries need to be handled by qualified recycling centers. If your product is rechargeable like a phone, wireless headphones or a power tool, it’s probably a lithium-ion battery.

If you want to be sure, look for the name “Li-ion” and a blue seal, if the battery is visible.

Recycling is better for the planet and it’s smart economics, too. Materials from old lithium-ion batteries can be repurposed into new ones, said Leo Raudys, CEO of the battery recycling organization Call2Recycle.

Look for information from your local government for safe electronics and battery recycling in your city. Or search for locations near you for drop-off locations operated by Call2Recycle. This includes many Best Buy, Home Depot and Staples stores.

Call2Recycle also works with manufacturers of some e-bikes to recycle those higher-powered lithium-ion batteries.

Recycling and fix-it specialists told me there needs to be more investment in lithium-ion recycling, reuse and repair as we buy more products with powerful batteries.

In China, where electric bicycles, scooters and cars are more common, there is a thriving market for safe, reused lithium-ion batteries. Some people sell used electric car batteries for reuse as generators and energy storage.

I’m planning a follow-up edition of The Tech Friend with more on safe repair and recycling of lithium-ion batteries. Let me know what questions you have at [email protected].

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Abraham
Expert tech and gaming writer, blending computer science expertise