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Preventing E-Bike Fires in New York City’s Commercial Buildings

E-bikes and e-scooters can play an important role in reducing carbon emissions in New York City and other major urban areas, but they pose a growing fire hazard that must be addressed. Commercial property owners should take six steps to reduce those hazards.

The danger of fires from e-bikes and e-scooters is significant and growing. It is significant because of the frequency, suddenness and intensity of the fires. More than 200 fires in New York City last year were caused by batteries from e- bikes, e-scooters and similar devices, according to NPR.

The New York Times recently described how sudden and intense these fires can be, by reporting on a fire in the third-floor Queens apartment that Alfonso Villa Muñoz shared with his girlfriend. He had been charging an extra-large lithium-ion battery for a secondhand e-scooter.

“The battery exploded in the living room, unleashing flames that engulfed the apartment. Mr. Muñoz screamed for their eight-year-old daughter, Stephanie, who was asleep. He could not breach the wall of black smoke to get to her. Stephanie died from smoke inhalation,” the report said.

The challenge is only growing, as the number of micromobility devices increases. Research estimates that while 608,000 electric cars and trucks were sold in the United States in 2021, more than 880,000 e-bikes were purchased.

The fire hazard posed by micromobility devices is completely different from electric cars and trucks, which are far less likely to have fires than traditional vehicles. The difference arises from the following conditions: the cars and trucks must be parked in designated settings, separate from office and residential spaces; they must be charged on specialized equipment; their batteries cannot easily be removed and their safety and use are heavily regulated.

The lack of regulation is especially important. The New York Times stated, “Victoria Hutchison, a senior research project manager at the Fire Protection Research Foundation, said the lack of safety regulations and testing requirements has allowed cheaper, low-quality devices and batteries of questionable safety to enter the market. ‘That’s really the root of the problem,’ she said.”

New York City is taking action on that front. In March, Mayor Eric Adams signed legislation that prohibits the sale, lease or rental of e-bikes, e-scooters and batteries that fail to meet safety standards; prohibits the assembly or reconditioning of used lithium batteries; develops a public information campaign on lithium battery fire risks and requires the FDNY to submit annual reports on lithium battery-related fires.

That still leaves commercial property owners in a precarious position, because e-bikes and e-scooters can easily be stored in office and residential settings. Even more challenging, the batteries can be removed and charged using standard electrical outlets, often near flammable personal belongings.

Even when regulation occurs, there will still be too many e-bikes and e-scooters stored — and batteries charged — inappropriately unless incentives are offered to alter behavior.

They should include the following:

First, a designated space for storage of micromobility devices should be provided where devices can be stored and charged for free. The space can be created much like traditional bike storage.

Second, that space should be reinforced from a fire prevention standpoint, making it fire-resistant and separated from flammable objects. This will ensure that, if a fire breaks out, it is contained. This would be achieved with a combination of strategies, including fire-rated walls, fast-acting sprinkler heads and fire detection devices. Self-closing doors will ensure that fire and smoke cannot spread to other areas of the building.

Third, sufficient electrical outlets should be provided so that each device can be charged while in the designated storage space. This will avoid the dangerously informal and often haphazard battery charging that too often results in fires in highly flammable settings. The design of these outlets must take into account the volume of load that would be on at a single time in order to reduce the risk of fire from circuit overloading.

Fourth, ongoing monitoring of the space should occur, with cameras displaying im- ages at the security desk. Security officials can then monitor the devices’ safety and be alerted if a fire occurs. Having events reported to a 24-hour monitored site would ensure that coverage is continuous.

Fifth, the monitoring should ensure that batteries are properly charged and not over-charged. Batteries for micromobility devices typically do not have a battery management system that can detect and arrest battery issues before Thermal Runaway. As a result, it’s important to keep an eye on the batteries and how long they are being charged.

Sixth, security personnel should be trained in how to deal with a lithium-ion battery fire in any micromobility device. They should know precisely what to do if a fire occurs. Training and fire action plans for personnel to respond to this type of event are crucial.

Daniel Colombini, PE, LEED AP and Vinod Palal, PE are principals at the New York City-based consulting engineering firm Goldman Copeland.