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Electric transportation devices, like these rental bikes, are growing in popularity. However, manufacturing defects or damage to the battery can lead to dangerous battery fires.
Electric transportation devices, like these rental bikes, are growing in popularity. However, manufacturing defects or damage to the battery can lead to dangerous battery fires.
Electric transportation devices, like these rental bikes, are growing in popularity. However, manufacturing defects or damage to the battery can lead to dangerous battery fires.
Electric transportation devices, like these rental bikes, are growing in popularity. However, manufacturing defects or damage to the battery can lead to dangerous battery fires.
Electric transportation devices, like these rental bikes, are growing in popularity. However, manufacturing defects or damage to the battery can lead to dangerous battery fires.

How to Mitigate E-Bike Risks

Feb. 7, 2024
Battery-powered transportation devices can cause serious damage if they catch fire, but smart storage strategies can help mitigate the risks. Learn more.

Battery-powered transportation is booming in popularity, from electric vehicles down to electric scooters and e-bikes. Sales of e-bikes alone topped $1.3 billion in 2022, according to PBS, and the market research firm Circana found that e-bike retail sales nearly quadrupled between 2019 and 2022.

Consumers are looking for options and the market is responding. At the same time, the cost of e-bikes, electric scooters and even full-size vehicles has dropped significantly, further boosting adoption. Bikes and scooters are especially attractive for a number of reasons.

“They’re relatively inexpensive, you can charge them up anywhere, they get around quick and easy and there’s no maintenance,” explained Dan Colombini, principal at Goldman Copeland. “What comes with that rapid proliferation of these types of transportation devices, especially when they become inexpensive, is that you have a wide variety of quality and safety capabilities that come with them.”

What Are the Risks of Electric Vehicles and Transportation Devices?

Electric vehicle manufacturers tend to track manufacturing processes and quality issues, and the vehicles themselves usually have more sophisticated safety and monitoring systems built in, Colombini said. Smaller, off-the-shelf devices that can be plugged in anywhere are less likely to have the battery monitoring systems you’d find in an electric vehicle. That means there’s a higher potential for battery failure and thermal runaway, which can be caused by manufacturing defects or physical damage to the battery, Colombini said.

Thermal runaway is a physical failure within the battery that causes a rapid and sustained release of energy in the form of heat and fire. The type of battery monitoring system you’d find in an electric vehicle is meant to detect this phenomenon when it begins and try to stop the battery from discharging energy. It can happen in electric vehicles too, but the battery monitoring system makes it less common.

“Electric battery fires in electric vehicles are much less common than internal combustion engine fires,” Colombini said. “But they can be harder to deal with in terms of fire suppression and life safety.” The types of batteries used in electric vehicles and transportation devices release a large amount of energy and can’t be extinguished like a fuel fire.

“The energy of the battery basically has to run out,” Colombini said. “Another challenge in terms of firefighting specific to electric vehicles is that electric vehicles are all built a little bit differently, and there can be different firefighting methods that should be employed depending on the electric vehicle. The electric voltage equipment can be configured differently.”

Best Practices for Charging and Storing Electric Vehicles and Devices

Charging for electric vehicles and devices is an attractive amenity for tenants, and it’s not inherently riskier for building owners to have charging infrastructure on the property. However, there are some best practices you can follow to minimize the risks that are specific to charging and storage.

1. Provide fire-rated charging spaces for smaller devices. Scooters and e-bikes can be plugged in anywhere in your building, but it’s best if you make sure people are charging them somewhere safe. “Ideally, they’re stored and charged in a designated location, which could be a fire-rated room,” Colombini said. “We generally recommend that multi-tenant buildings, whether they’re residential or commercial, have designated locations separate from habitable space for these devices to be stored and charged.”

2. Put guidelines in place about charging. It’s especially important that people don’t leave devices charging overnight because of the associated fire risk. Require people to use the charging location you provide and educate tenants on the safety reasons why the charging space exists.

3. Understand your tenants. “Just like when we try to plan with our clients about how to accommodate electrification via chargers and parking spots, it’s about having a finger on the pulse of your tenancy,” Colombini said. “Understand who uses this equipment, when they use it and what they need to use it. If you don’t figure it out, your tenants are going to figure it out on their own. It’s not only about trying to anticipate their needs for safety purposes, it’s about delivering value for your tenants. Society is electrifying, and you need to be ready for it.”

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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