HUD Warns Site Owners & Managers of Lithium-Ion Battery Risks
E-bikes, e-scooters, e-mopeds, and other small electric mobility devices have experienced a surge in popularity. These devices use a small electric motor to increase their range and reduce the effort it takes to reach a destination. For example, e-bikes look and behave like traditional bicycles with the addition of an electric motor and battery for extra power when pedaling. This extra boost allows the rider to traverse hills and travel further distances with greater ease than with a traditional bicycle.
Although the benefits of micromobility devices in lower emissions and easier transportation are considerable, there has been a growing number of injuries and deaths from fires started by lithium-ion batteries in micromobility devices. HUD recently issued a memo from its Office of Asset Management and Portfolio Oversight to multifamily owners and management agents that highlights the potential fire hazards of these devices and prevention tips.
Fires caused by lithium-ion batteries have been more prevalent in cities where these electric scooters and bikes are perceived as safer, more eco-friendly alternatives to other modes of transportation. According to the memo, from 2017 to 2021 annual injuries spiked 127 percent to 77,200 for these devices, and the annual number of deaths rose from five to 48. Fires caused by the lithium-ion batteries in these devices is one of three main causes of these injuries and deaths, the other two being motor vehicles collisions and user-control issues.
In November 2022, a fire in a New York City apartment building injured 43 people and forced firefighters to rescue a woman dangling from a 20th floor window. The cause of the fire was determined to be a micromobility device residents left charging overnight by their front door. According to FDNY Chief Marshal Daniel Flynn this fire was the 200th fire caused by lithium-ion batteries in the city in 2022, and there have been more deaths and injuries from e-bike fires in 2022 than in the prior three years combined.
We’ll take a look at the particular dangers caused by lithium-ion battery fires and what owners and residents can do to help prevent electric scooter and bike-related fires. We’ve also included HUD’s flyer, “E-Scooter and E-Bike Safety Tips,” that you can post in prominent locations in your buildings to remind staff and residents about these lithium-ion battery dangers and prevention tips.
Dangers of Lithium-Ion Battery Fires
Nearly all micromobility vehicles are powered by lithium-ion battery packs. Lithium-ion batteries are popular because of how much power they can put out at a given size and weight. However, lithium-ion batteries are extremely sensitive to high temperatures and inherently flammable. These battery packs tend to degrade much faster than they normally would, due to heat. If a lithium-ion battery pack fails, it will burst into flames and can cause widespread damage.
Batteries can fail and become dangerous due to manufacturing defects, improper usage such as keeping the battery very close to a heat source, charger issues, or low-quality components such as a poor battery management system that keeps battery cells in sync to make sure that cells don’t overcharge or release too much energy at once.
While elaborating on the nature of these types of battery fires, Chief Marshal Flynn stated, “These bikes when they fail, they fail like a blowtorch. We've seen incidents where people have described them as explosive incidents where they actually have so much power, they're actually blowing walls down in between rooms and apartments.”
NYCHA response. The rising number of fires caused by lithium-ion batteries has at one point prompted the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the largest public housing authority in North America, to propose entirely banning e-bikes from their buildings. NYCHA went as far as issuing a Notice of Rules and Regulations change that proposed to make it a lease violation “to keep or charge an e-bike or e-bike battery in in a NYCHA apartment or in a common area of a NYCHA building.”
The proposed change was met with pushback from advocates of delivery workers and micromobility, arguing that a blanket ban would punish low-income and immigrant delivery workers and generally discourage e-bikes as a lower-carbon means of getting around. At the time, City Council Member Alexa Aviles, whose district has a high population of delivery workers, wrote to NYCHA and offered her owner recommendations, which included issuing rules on the storage and safety of batteries, rather than banning all electric bicycles; hosting special disposal events for e-waste products like batteries; and enforcing NYCHA’s policy of not operating a business out of one’s home, which includes charging multiple batteries at once for the purpose of business. Since the proposal, NYCHA hasn’t implemented the change and has stated that it’s looking to come up with better and safer solutions.
Lithium-Ion Battery Safety Guidelines
Lithium-ion batteries supply power to many kinds of devices, including electric scooters and electric bikes. If not used correctly, or if damaged, these batteries can catch on fire or explode. The concern from a fire safety perspective is that these batteries store a large amount of energy in a small amount of space. Sometimes batteries are not used the right way, and batteries not designed for a specific use can be dangerous. Also, like any product, a small number of these batteries are defective. They can overheat, catch fire, or explode.
HUD’s memo offers the following safety recommendations from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission:
- Always be present when charging devices using lithium-ion batteries. Never charge these batteries when away from the apartment;
- Only use the charger that came with your device. Unapproved chargers may cost less, but they carry a higher risk of fire;
- Only use an approved replacement battery pack. Unapproved batteries may cost less, but they carry a higher risk of fire;
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for proper charging and unplug the device when done;
- Never charge while sleeping;
- Never use these devices with a battery pack that has been modified/reworked by unqualified personnel or with re-purposed or used cells; and
- Never throw lithium batteries into the trash or general recycling. Instead, take them to your local battery recycler or hazardous waste collection center.
Danger signs. HUD’s memo to owners and managing agents doesn’t mention what residents or staff should do if there are signs of a problem with lithium-ion batteries. However, as part of the New York City Fire Department’s response to the dangers posed by lithium-ion batteries, the department updated its Fire and Emergency Preparedness Bulletin with this information. Residents should stop using the lithium-ion batteries if they notice any danger signs. If it’s safe to do so, residents should move the device away from anything that can catch fire and call 911. The bulletin instructs residents to stop charging devices immediately and to call 911 if they see any of the following danger signs:
- Fire or smoke;
- Battery leakage;
- Signs of battery overheating;
- Strange battery smell; or
- Battery making odd noises.
See The Model Tools For This Article
|HUD Flyer: E-Scooter and E-Bike Safety Tips|