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Your electric bike or scooter could be a fire hazard

Urban areas have faced a rash of fires traced to overheated batteries

Photo (c) Solskin - Getty Images
Over the weekend New York City firefighters were called to the Bronx where a grocery store was engulfed in flames, injuring seven people.

The cause of the blaze is one fire officials say has become more common in recent months. Investigators quickly traced the origin of the fire to an electric scooter with a lithium-ion battery.

That simple device resulted in a five-alarm blaze, requiring over 50 emergency vehicles and more than 200 firefighters to bring it under control.

The city’s fire department reports the number of fires caused by an electric bike or scooter, usually being charged overnight, more than doubled to 216 over the last 12 months. The department says the fires killed two people and injured more than 40.

E-bikes and scooters have proliferated in large urban centers like New York in recent years because they give people who would ordinarily walk or take public transit the ability to cover a couple of miles fairly quickly. But because they have batteries they can become a hazard.

Safety experts say consumers should not leave their bikes and scooters plugged in overnight if they are inside a building. If they are left in a hallway, for example, the resulting fire could trap people inside the dwelling, especially if it occurs in the middle of the night.

Last month New York City Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh told reporters that she believes the devices are “incredibly dangerous” if owners don’t follow safety guidelines. She and other safety officials have expressed concerns as the number of these fairly inexpensive devices increases.

Consumers considering the purchase of an electric bike or scooter should be aware of the risks. According to Ion Energy, there are several reasons lithium-ion batteries are prone to overheating and sometimes burst into flames.

Design flaws

Because bikes and scooters are small, the battery must fit in a small space. Designers try to come up with compact designs by putting more power cells into smaller spaces.

In many cases, a flawed design leads to damage to the battery’s components. If the damage causes a short circuit, the battery can overheat and catch fire.

Manufacturing defects

Even when the battery is properly designed, if the manufacturer cuts corners it can reduce safety. For example, if metallic particles get into the lithium-ion cell during the manufacturing process sparks can fly.

While companies manufacturing the batteries need to adhere to industry standards, bike and scooter manufacturers should use only the best quality batteries.

Other factors

Even if the bike and its battery are of high quality, the way the vehicle is used can also affect its safety. If a collision causes the penetration of the battery packs a short circuit could result in a fire. Storing the bike or scooter next to a heat source can also be dangerous.

Just as with a cellphone, using a poorly designed or insulated charger can cause damage to the battery. Safety experts say bike and scooter owners should always use a charger that was designed for the vehicle.

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