E-bikes powered by lithium-ion batteries in New York City accounted for 267 fires in 2023, 18 deaths, and 150 injuries, according to the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). In fact, in the past three years, lithium-ion battery fires have replaced electrical fires as the leading cause of fatal fires in New York City, surpassing blazes caused by cooking and smoking. For example, four people died last year when a fire that broke out at an e-bike repair shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was blamed on a lithium-ion battery. Another two youths died in a fire in Queens caused by an e-bike charging station at the entrance of their apartment building.
According to UL Solutions, nationwide there have been 445 lithium-ion battery fires, 214 injuries, and 38 deaths.
Why Do Lithium-Ion Batteries Cause Fires?
Thermal runaway, a phenomenon in which overheating causes a catastrophic chain reaction, can pose a significant risk in using lithium-ion batteries. Overcharging, puncturing, or excessive heat can all damage the battery’s exterior case. The electrolytes in the battery are combustible and can leak if the battery is broken. Leaks can cause spontaneous combustion, and flames can spread quickly throughout residential and retail premises. Additionally, charging difficulties might result in lithium plating, creating short circuits.
The Spike in Lithium-Ion Battery Fires
The Institute for Energy Research (IER) attributes the increased number of fires caused by lithium-ion batteries to various factors. These include a lack of regulation and safety testing for independently owned devices, unsafe charging practices (such as using mismatched equipment or overcharging), and a scarcity of secure charging spaces in a densely populated metropolis such as New York City with numerous apartment buildings and multi-family structures, where the majority of fires begin. City dwellers utilize e-bikes and other battery-powered devices to move around the city, make deliveries, and earn a living.
Even with standard safety precautions in place, improper handling or negligence can render these batteries hazardous. Furthermore, with the surge in lithium-ion batteries sourced from overseas vendors, batteries manufactured to lesser standards and with fewer safety measures can cause fires that harm or kill people.
Officials Take Steps to Mitigate Fires Caused by Lithium-Ion Batteries
In September 2023, New York City officials began banning the sale of e-bikes and other e-mobility equipment that do not fulfill established safety requirements. City and fire authorities have also advocated for increased state and federal oversight of the devices, the closure of unlawful battery charging stations, collaboration with food delivery apps to educate workers, and the displaying of public service messages with exploding batteries.
In November 2023, a new national campaign by the UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute (FSRI) named “Take Charge of Battery Safety” was launched. The campaign includes a new public safety announcement and tips to educate people on properly purchasing and safely using lithium-ion battery-powered devices. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission also plans to propose mandatory standards for these batteries and enforce them vigilantly.
Talk to Property Managers About Lithium-Ion Battery Safety to Prevent Fires
Property owners and managers should warn tenants about lithium-ion battery safety. FDNY recommends that tenants adhere to the following measures:
- Always use the manufacturer’s cord and power adapter.
- Keep batteries and devices at room temperature; don’t place them in direct sunlight.
- Store batteries away from anything flammable.
- Stop using a battery if it overheats, leaks, emits an odor, or changes shape or color.
- Don’t leave e-bikes/e-scooters unattended while charging.
- Don’t charge e-bikes/e-scooters overnight.
- Don’t throw rechargeable batteries in the trash or recycling; dispose of them at a facility that handles batteries.
- Avoid damaging lithium batteries and devices. Inspect them for signs of damage, such as bulging/cracking, hissing, leaking, rising temperature, and smoking before use, especially if they are wearable. Immediately remove a device or battery from service and place it in an area away from flammable materials if any of these signs are present.
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