A so-called “green” future involving machines powered by high energy batteries is showing significant danger signs, according to warnings from the New York City Fire Department.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the NYFD reported that the city suffered 216 e-bike fires in 2022, more than double from the year prior.
But most concerning was statistics from the Department that stated that although 2023 hasn’t even completed an entire fiscal quarter, 40 people have been injured and two have died from incidents related to e-bikes and “micromobility devices” such as scooters.
A March 2 press release by the New York City Council states that 2022’s fires also caused 147 injuries and 6 deaths.
The release stated the Council had voted to “restrict the sale, lease, or rental of powered mobility devices, such as e-bikes and electric scooters, and storage batteries for the devices that fail to meet recognized safety standard certification.”
The trend has been so serious that the FDNY Foundation held a symposium titled Lithium Ion Batteries: Challenges for the Fire Service in September of 2022.
“FDNY has experienced a rapid increase in the frequency of fires involving e-bikes, e-scooters and other battery-powered micromobility devices,” reads the website for the event.
The message adds, “Fire severity, rapid fire spread and atmospheric toxicity, combine to pose a growing threat to the public and numerous challenges to firefighting operations.”
Up in smoke
One of the most recent examples was shown to the public by the FDNY on March 6, who released security camera footage of an e-bike parked in the backroom of a Bronx bodega suddenly igniting and catching fire.
New York Post reported, “An EMS worker and a civilian were seriously hurt when the fire broke out around 10:40 a.m., officials said. Five firefighters also suffered minor injuries.”
The outlet added that the blaze was rated at 5 alarms, requiring the summons of 50 units and 200 firefighters to battle.
The problem is limited to neither the Big Apple nor e-bikes and e-scooters.
In November of 2022, Wisconsin NBC affiliate WWPI reported that a battery in an electric wheelchair had ignited while charging, causing an apartment fire in an assisted living building causing $200,000 in damage.
Fortunately, nobody was killed. Two adults were taken to hospital with injuries from smoke inhalation while residents had to be evacuated due to water damage.
Ann Arbor Fire Chief Mike Kennedy explained the problem to the outlet, “So, basically, all lithium-ion batteries, it’s these individual cells, and this had what’s called the thermal runaway.”
“And when these take off, it has explosive gas…And basically, this created a jet of flame that set the chair on fire and also set the apartment on fire,” he added.
Kennedy added that he was aware of the problems in New York with scooters and bikes, but this was the first time he’d heard of a wheelchair igniting in the same way.
A February article published by Slate explained that the issue appears to be the rising popularity of devices sold with batteries that do not meet certification standards.
“The problem is that as the popularity of e-bikes soars, more and more people are relying on batteries without protections. They’re doing it for good reason, many of them say. But those batteries can still lead to disaster,” the article reads.
Another aspect of the use of uncertified batteries is performance, Slate reported as it paraphrased an expert from Northeastern University as explaining, “Lithium-ion battery packs are made up of dozens of cells, each roughly the size of a AA battery. The cells are packed closely together. But the electrodes in each cell have to be kept apart. If they come into contact with one another, they can short-circuit.”
And this is what causes the thermal runaway. To prevent this danger, manufacturers that meet safety standards use high quality separators to keep the cells apart.
The expert explained this is “because if very thin separators are used, more electrodes can be fit in the extra space to provide higher capacity.”
Professional bike couriers Slate interviewed said that bikes using certified batteries are too heavy and don’t maintain power long enough to meet the demands of their work.
Slate explained that the problem is also a product of modern economic conditions, “Delivery workers say they have to push their bikes harder than ever before because the delivery apps keep giving them larger geographic areas to cover.”
“Years ago, most delivery workers would work for a restaurant and have to cover only that business’ delivery area. But now, with most working for delivery apps, they can find themselves going anywhere,” they added.
In February, website NYC Street Blog reported that FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh wrote the Biden administration’s Consumer Product Safety Commission asking the division to be “proactive in…seizing imported devices at the ports that fail minimum industry standards, levying penalties against manufacturers who fail to inform [regulators] of hazards posed by their products, and seeking additional recalls of unsafe products.”
Slate explained how the danger is that the fires caused by lithium ion batteries exploding are far from ordinary, “The flames quickly reach temperatures above 1,000 degrees. Anything combustible nearby will catch fire.”
“The battery cannot be extinguished with water or foam or any regular firefighting material. It just has to burn itself out,” they added.
In February, an e-bike fire torched an Upper Manhattan apartment building, injuring three children. The FDNY described two of the kids as “critically” injured, New York Post reported.
John Esposito, Chief of Operations for the FDNY told the press that the family was asleep when the fire broke out, a situation made worse because, “The battery was charging overnight, and it was charging in the path of egress to get out of the apartment.”
Esposito added, “So when the battery overheated and started the fire, it blocked the egress out of the apartment trapping the family.”
The article explained that the battery had been removed from the bicycle to charge on its own at the time it caught fire.
The FDNY responded in under 3 minutes, but had to break the door down as the fire was already raging.