Fire Risks of E-Bikes and Safe Storage Options
Though still some way behind our European counterparts, sales for e-bikes in the United Kingdom have been steadily growing in recent years, with annual sales in 2022 rising to around 165,000, accounting for close to ⅓ of overall bike purchases on the UK market. Annual sales in 2022 rose to around 165,000 and now account for close to 1/3 of overall bike purchases on the UK market.
Unlike e-scooters, which, under the Road Traffic Act 1988, are classed as motor vehicles and are actually prohibited from use in public spaces, on the road, and on Transport for London networks, e-bikes are classified as ‘electrically assisted pedal cycles’ and are perfectly legal to ride as long as they comply with the DVLA’s EAPC laws.
E-bikes offer benefits as a more sustainable and cost-effective method of travel that can be easily accessed by a wide demographic of people. With a top speed of around 15 mph, they offer enhanced speed, less resistance on hills, and arguably a greater range of travel distance for the average person in contrast to traditional pedal cycles.
Over the past 5 years, e-bike sales have tripled from around 55,000 bikes in 2017 to 160,000 in 2021. Only falling consumer demand due to the cost of living crisis and supply chain problems caused this surge to dip slightly in 2022. But this period of sustained growth is expected to return in 2024
The increase in popularity has been put down to more awareness of the benefits of e-bikes, particularly in urban areas, and a wider range of options on the market, from entry-level bikes to top-of-the-range frames with longer lasting batteries and high-performance components. As a specialist device, e-bikes are an investment. Prices have risen in-line with their popularity, with the average price through a reputable retailer falling around £2000.
The rising popularity of e-bike hire schemes in London has also been attributed to their development as an urban transport alternative, appealing to both city residents and visitors. Lime is the world’s largest shared electric vehicle company and began operating in the capital in late 2018, with Santander introducing e-bikes to their record-breaking Santander Cycles scheme in September 2022.
As public enthusiasm for battery-assisted travel has surged, however, the number of battery-related fire-incidents has more than quadrupled since 2020. There remains a lack of distinction over what constitutes a “bad” or “good” e-bike in terms of build quality. This has caused unsound components to enter the market, such as cheaply made lithium ion batteries that breach safety standards, incompatible charging equipment, and retrofit kits. Reported to be on the rise with delivery personnel, retrofit kits are potentially a lethal modification for e-bikes as they are often untested for safety faults and not designed for conventional pedal cycles, overloading the bike and endangering the user.
Fires involving lithium ion batteries have been steadily rising in the UK since 2020. Over the course of 2021, the London Fire Brigade was called to 104 battery-related fire incidents, with 44 of these said to be caused by e-bikes. This was close to double as many as the 26 recorded in 2020.
As of June 2023, there have so far been 70 e-bike, 14 e-scooter and 35 other lithium-battery fires in London, according to LFB data. This equates to an incident every 2 days, representing a 60% spike from 2022, with retro-fitted bikes said to be partially linked to this increase.
On a national scale, UK Fire and Rescue Services have provided information that shows, as of May 2023, there have already been 102 fires associated with e-bikes and scooters. At this current rate, incidents are projected to easily surpass the figures accumulated in 2022 (227), 2021 (159), and 2020 (77). In total across this time period, this amounts to 565 fires, demonstrating the severity of what can now be considered a national issue.
Like e-scooters, lithium ion batteries act as the e-bike’s rechargeable power component, driving the motor. These batteries can store 10x more energy in the same space than an ordinary lead acid battery and have seen widespread use in devices like mobile phones, laptops and electric cars; even seeing use in renewable energy generators. Ultimately, they have come to be regarded as an essential component of efforts towards decarbonising our planet.
However, our willingness to integrate lithium ion batteries across modern markets has arguably overshadowed our lack of knowledge regarding the risks and hazards involved. Lithium ion batteries are sensitive devices and highly flammable on the inside, while their high density means they can be susceptible to pressure and overheating, causing the cells of the battery to self discharge and enter a chain reaction process called ‘thermal runaway’ in the event of failure conditions.
Several conditions can ultimately lead to battery failure, such as manufacturing inefficiencies, exposure to heat sources and damage to the battery itself. An ebike battery is typically 0.75kwh, meaning it can produce 375 litres of explosive and toxic gas in intense thermal conditions, causing rapidly escalating fires that are hugely challenging to extinguish. Fire temperatures range from 1,000°C to 2,000°C, and oxygen released from the battery’s cathode can exacerbate the spread of the fire and quickly eliminate opportunities for safe escape.
Ultimately, these significant safety risks are a question of improper use of lithium batteries and build quality over any misconception that e-bikes are fire prone by themselves. Reputable e-bike manufacturers will undergo rigorous testing to ensure strict quality and safety testing standards. In residential building environments, however, the life safety risk this poses to tenants is huge, not to mention the firefighters called to tackle the fire.
Fortunately, lithium ion battery fires are preventable by being aware of the risks and following simple guidelines when it comes to storing and charging e-bikes.
While a number of industry stakeholders have sought to ease concerns from businesses relating to the risks of battery fires, some commercial office buildings and landlords have made the decision to place a blanket ban on e-bikes in light of escalating and troubling media reports.
Those involved in building management find themselves in a difficult situation. Faulty or poor quality batteries present a genuine fire hazard when charged internally in an apartment building. Employees or tenants cannot assume that risk for themselves, as they potentially subject the whole building to the dangers.
Consequently, the rising sales of e-bikes has raised concerns over the adaptability of UK building design and the lack of secure storage space on offer. E-bikes are modern devices and most older buildings simply weren’t designed or constructed with e-bikes in mind. Conversion works present a significant and costly challenge, while, in light of the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy, many high-rise buildings in London still require remediation and would be highly susceptible in the event that a battery fire did break out.
Like any electrical device, e-bikes and their battery components need to be stored and charged in a dry and cool environment that allows sufficient space and is removed from the elements. Any neglect of basic maintenance and storage will only cause damage and risks to safety, while it is strongly advised to store the battery separately from the e-bike itself.
The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) provides their own fire safety and storage guidance for e-bikes and scooters. Landlords are also obligated under the Fire Safety Order to ensure that tenants in rented dwellings are not exposed to fire risks, and many have felt compelled to adopt the relevant NFCC guidance in light of this legal responsibility.
However, a lack of appropriate internal storage space in residential buildings creates the situation where residents charge and store the battery overnight in their flat, or store their bike in communal areas in narrow corridors and stairways, blocking fire escape routes and causing serious fire safety risks. The consequences of such an event occurring inside a building are dire, and while the preventative steps outlined above should be taken to reduce the risk of fire, the safest and most effective means to remove the risk altogether is to establish secure external charging facilities.
In order to combat the dangers associated with internal storage of e-bikes, secure external storage facilities should be regarded as the primary solution for both short-term and long-term storage. The resources they offer, both as a means of ensuring safety for residents and the security of the e-bikes themselves, are essential.
The high-security storage solutions available on the market are designed to be installed outdoors as a means of ensuring safe containment away from respective buildings. They are ideal for residential properties and dwellings with available external spaces, offering a fully enclosed unit to ensure complete weather protection for the e-bikes inside.
To facilitate the safe and secure storage and charging of e-bikes, metroSTOR BIKE-E Storage & Charging Lockers have been developed in response to statutory fire safety guidance amid the increase in fires surrounding lithium ion batteries, enabling a fully weather protected storage solution for the hazards associated with internal storage in buildings.
The easily accessible facility achieves Sold Secure Bronze accreditation as standard, providing safely installed integral charging points inside the unit for up to 3no. e-bikes at any one time. The metroSTOR modular system accommodates the ever-increasing demand for e-bikes by enabling additional capacity to be integrated in the event that further storage space is required.
metroSTOR BIKE-E Lockers are customisable for fire-resistant enclosure specification if the recommended 6m distance by the NFCC cannot be achieved due to site constraints. metroSTOR Fire Resistant cladding specification integrates an internal fireboard lining system to all unit elevations and roof with intumescent seals to the eaves, with these specifications ensuring effective, proven containment in the event that a lithium ion battery fire breaks out.
What is evident is that the rising popularity of e-bikes has ultimately raised its own significant risks and concerns for the general public, landlords and commercial buildings. While offering well-rounded benefits as a device for personal mobility, exercise and cost-effective travel, the lack of knowledge regarding the risks and complexities of the lithium ion batteries powering these devices has been brought to light.
This has ultimately caused unsafe practices among end users to become commonplace, alongside poor quality batteries, retrofit kits and improper charging equipment to freely enter the market without regulation. The hope now is that efforts from UK Fire and Rescue Services to raise awareness of these dangers will convince the UK Government to introduce a regulatory framework to help mitigate the severity of the risks involved, with the facilities explored above providing an essential storage solution for what many regard to be the future of personal transport.