If you think you’re seeing an increasing number of electronic bikes on the streets, it’s because you are. They’re economical, convenient, and sustainable, and their use is on the rise across the country. E-bikes are a practical alternative form of transportation, but they have also proved to be potentially dangerous for any property storing them. E-bikes, more specifically, the lithium-ion batteries that power them, can pose a major fire hazard. There are no national safety standards in place for lithium-ion batteries in e-bikes, and a faulty battery can ignite a fire that could engulf an entire property in flames in short order. It’s not just a problem in New York City, where more than 100,000 e-bikes are in operation and where a June 2023 fire at a ground-level e-bike repair shop spread to the residential apartments above, resulting in the loss of four lives. It’s a national problem; as e-bike use goes on the rise, so too are e-bike fires.
E-bikes can constitute a threat to practically every property type. The apartment buildings where owners keep them, the office towers where employees park them, and the retail shops that sell them. While local governments and even federal entities work on establishing mandates to address such issues as mandatory safety standards for batteries, property owners have to find ways of addressing the issue. In the multifamily arena, some building owners have banned the storage of e-bikes in residential units, storage areas, and parking garages on the property. New York City luxury apartment owner and manager Glenwood Properties instituted such a ban across its 26-property portfolio in fall 2022. In August 2023, Yale University announced that it would prohibit the presence of e-bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters, and e-skateboards from the campus entirely. However, given the expansion of the e-bike market and the convenience, if not need, for micro-mobility in high-traffic, high-population areas like New York City and San Francisco, e-bike bans may not be entirely realistic. A better solution may lie in specially constructed storage facilities designed to prevent lithium-ion battery fires from occurring.
Aufgang, a New York-based architectural firm, has conceived a design for a multifamily bicycle storage room featuring a fire protection system that would contain a fire. The storage room model features a high number of electrical outlets, allowing for a dedicated outlet for each e-bike and the accommodation of potential loads. The storage facility also incorporates sprinklers that yield a substantial 0.3 gallons of water per minute per square foot for a 10-foot-by-10-foot grid. Other features integrated into the room are smoke and heat detectors that not only set off alarms in the event of a fire but also immediately notify building staff. And then there are the practical aspects of the storage room, including space to allow clear and easy access to firefighters and their equipment in the event of a fire. Finally, the entire room is contained inside a concrete masonry unit, which would limit the spread of flames. The same model could be retrofitted for office buildings, many of which already offer bicycle storage rooms.
The problem is that lithium-ion batteries store a large amount of energy confined within a small compartment, and they can overheat, trigger flames, or even explode, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Additionally, this battery type emits toxic gases that burn very, very hot. Something as simple as continuing to charge a battery after it’s fully charged can cause a problem that could lead to a fire. Buildings need the space and proper tools to allow for the safe charging and storage of e-bikes. NFPA recommends that devices containing lithium-ion batteries be kept a a safe distance from any item or material that can catch fire. The agency also suggests that the batteries be charged in a space that is no colder than 32 degrees Fahrenheit and no hotter than 105 degrees Fahrenheit. So, any e-bike storage facility would need temperature control as well, especially in climates that experience extremes in temperatures, and the number of such climates is growing.
Specially designed and outfitted e-bike storage facilities are something that large office buildings and apartment properties can likely accommodate. On the other hand, smaller office destinations often don’t have any excess square footage available for the addition of such a room. And small retail shops face the same problem. In such situations, cities may decide to add such facilities to public parking garages. But the problem with e-bike fires won’t be solved entirely by the creation of new storage rooms. First off, there’s the issue of time. Construction projects don’t happen overnight, and not every property owner or public jurisdiction has the infrastructure and the funds for such projects. While the powers that be decide how to provide safe charging stations, legislators are looking into rectifying the issues with the source of the fires, the lithium-ion battery. However the institution of official regulations can take longer than construction.
In the meantime, the prevention of e-bike fires boils down to safety measures. Looking forward, many are pushing for changes to lithium-ion batteries that could go a long way toward eradicating the e-bike fire problem. The U.S. Consumer Safety Commission held a forum on e-bike fires in August 2023. Experts floated a series of ideas for improving the batteries, including incorporating “check battery” indicators, automatic shutoff mechanisms, and tamper-proof battery containers. E-bikes are not going away, and widespread bans are impractical and highly unlikely to occur. Owners of multifamily buildings, office properties, and retail destinations would be wise to address the issue before tragedy strikes.