Fires from exploding e-bike batteries are on the rise in NYC, sometimes fatally

NEW YORK – An average of four times a week in New York City, an e-bike or e-scooter battery catches fire.

Sometimes this happens on the street, but more often it happens when the owner is recharging the lithium-ion battery. A bad charger does not always turn off automatically when the battery is fully charged, and it constantly heats up. Or the highly flammable electrolyte inside the battery cells leaks out of its case and ignites, setting off a chain reaction.

“When these engines fail, they fail like a blower,” said Dan Flynn, chief fire officer for the New York City Fire Department. “We’ve seen incidents where people have described them as explosive — incidents where they actually have so much power that they actually knock down walls between rooms and apartments.

A fire in Brooklyn in April was traced to a faulty e-bike or e-scooter battery that ignited and gutted two homes.

And these fires are becoming more frequent.

As of Friday, the FDNY had investigated 174 battery fires, putting 2022 on track to double the number of fires that occurred last year (104) and quadruple 2020’s (44). So far this year, six people have died and 93 people have been injured in e-bike-related fires, compared to four deaths and 79 injuries last year.

In early August, a 27-year-old Venezuelan immigrant, identified as Rafael Elias Lopez-Centeno, died after his lithium-ion battery caught fire and tore through the Bronx apartment where he lived. Carmen Tiburcio, a neighbor, said Lopez’s aunt told her he tried to run out the front door, but the bike got in the way. Instead, he took refuge in the bathroom, where he tried to fill the bathtub with water to protect himself from the flames. But the smoke got to him, she said.

“He didn’t make it,” Tiburcio said. “His lungs were very bad.

Another hazard for delivery work

Many, if not most, fires in New York involve the batteries of e-bikes owned by restaurant delivery drivers who work long shifts and travel tens of miles a day.

“Motorcycles tend to take a beating when exposed to the elements,” Flynn said. “They’re not really made for our streets.”

The longer the batteries are used, the longer it takes to fully charge and can take up to 8 hours. This in turn makes it difficult for owners to keep an eye on the batteries the whole time they are plugged in, which is crucial for safety.

Batteries for e-bikes consist of many "cells," each is slightly larger than an AA battery.  If they are damaged and leak liquid, they can easily catch fire.
E-bike batteries are made up of many “cells”, each slightly larger than an AA battery. If they are damaged and leak liquid, they can easily catch fire.

Plus, new batteries are expensive, and the temptation to opt for a cheaper refurbished battery for a lot less money is great — especially for couriers, who earn an average of $12.21 an hour after expenses, according to a survey by Los Deliveristas Union, an advocacy and membership organization.

Several e-bike owners interviewed by NPR in New York said they were aware of the risks posed by batteries and had taken steps to reduce them.

“A lot of guys have four, five, six bikes in their apartment and they’re swapping chargers for other bikes when it doesn’t belong on that bike,” said Rafael Cardanales, who lives on the Lower East Side. “You can’t just use any charger, you know.

Musfiqur Rahman said that when he first got to the supply store, he bought two new Arrow batteries — for $550 each. He did this specifically to avoid fires.

“As far as I know, this brand has never been involved in this kind of incident,” said the 27-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant.

The FDNY says most batteries are so destroyed by fire when they inspect them that they can’t make any conclusions about which brand is safer than another.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by FDNY (@fdny)

The FDNY has begun posting videos on social media highlighting the dangers of recharging lithium-ion batteries.

Living in close proximity

Fires related to e-bikes have occurred elsewhere, including in London, San Francisco, Michigan and South Florida. However, nowhere does it seem to be as popular as in New York City, perhaps due to the prevalence of apartment living – as well as the prevalence of takeout.

While restaurants sometimes store bikes overnight for employees, fewer people now work for specific restaurants and more for themselves, using apps like Door Dash or Uber Eats to connect with customers. And these couriers often have no other place to store and charge their e-bikes than in their apartments.

This in turn creates a fire hazard not only for the workers but also for their neighbors. This summer, the New York City Housing Authority proposed banning e-bikes and batteries in its 2,600 buildings. But the proposal caused an uproar and the officials did not go through with it.

There are an estimated 65,000 food couriers working in New York City.  The vast majority use e-bikes or e-scooters to get around.

Matthew Schuerman/NPR

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NPR

There are an estimated 65,000 food couriers working in New York City. The vast majority use e-bikes or e-scooters to get around.

The city representatives proposed their own solution. One bill, for example, would ban the sale of used batteries within city limits. Another would require all batteries to be sold to be approved by a national testing service such as Underwriters Laboratories. Mayor Eric Adams recently announced he would direct $1 million to create hubs for delivery workers with charging stations and other equipment — though they will likely be used during the day and not provide overnight charging.

Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who sponsored legislation that would ban the sale of used batteries, says she recognizes that new batteries could be prohibitively expensive for delivery people.

“They’re doing, you know, God’s work, so to speak, because New Yorkers like to have their food delivered,” she said. “So now the question is, how do they get new batteries that won’t cause fires?”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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