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Photo of burned E-scooters provided by the New York Fire Department.
23 Nov 2022

Rapid fire developments caused by micro mobility lithium batteries a growing problem

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"The lithium-ion battery adds a different degree when we talk about the fire dynamics of it... These rooms flash over in just a mere matter of seconds"

New York has had almost 200 fires started by lithium batteries during 2022. Most recently a high rise fire which injured 38 people is suspected to have been started by a lithium battery.  

 

New York has a particular problem with E-Scooters and E-Bikes not only because of the high density of the city, but also because of the large number of delivery couriers depending on their small electric vehicles to do their their job every day. 

However, fires caused by lithium batteries in small vehicles are happening all over the country.  On Monday November 20, firefighters rescued two adults from an apartment in Michigan after a wheelchair battery caught fire.

The fire was very much an example of an everyday situation which could occur anywhere: Firefighters say an electronic wheelchair’s lithium-ion battery was charging when it caught fire. There was a thermal runaway inside the battery, explosive gas was released inside the battery casing and the resulting jet stream lit the apartment on fire. 

The Fire Chief of the city of Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan, where the incident occured, said to WAGMTV.com that the situation could have easily been much worse. 

These individuals were “very, very lucky. This easily could have been a double fatal fire because they were both very, very close to where this was at,” he said.

Chief Kennedy recommends not charging a lithium battery during night time, or when residents are asleep: At least one person should be awake, and if the device is as large as for instance a wheelchair, it shouldn't be placed charging in or near an exit path. 

Even if a resident manages to extinguish a battery fire themselves, or if the thermal runaway is mild, it is important to call the fire department. As Chief Kennedy points out, a battery which has once caught fire, it can catch fire again, up tp several hours or even days later. In the case of the Michigan fire, the fire department encased the burnt battery in a protective polymer and transported it away from the apartment building in a special fire resistant bucket.

 

Rapid fire development common with batteries in small electric vehicles

According to a People.com article on November 7, the FDNY Deputy Assistant Chief Frank Leeb told ABC News about the particular intensity and rapid fire development of these types of batteries:

"The lithium-ion battery adds a different degree when we talk about the fire dynamics of it... These rooms flash over in just a mere matter of seconds", he said. 

 

 

Read more about lithium battery fires on CTIF.org 

 

Both the NFPA and the NYFD have released safety tips for how to charge and handle lithium batteries after several recent large fires determined to have been caused by lithium batteries. These safety sheets can be downloaded below. 

 

Photo of burned E-Bikes provided by the New York Fire Department.
Photo of burned E-Bikes provided by the New York Fire Department.

190 fires allegedly started by e-bikes in New York in just 10 months

In New York, it is allegedly primarily e-bikes which are being blamed for the nearly 200 fires reportedly started by lithium batteries in the city during 2022.

According to a graph published in The City.NYC, 190 fires was allegedly started by e-bikes in New York between January and October, and it has been a growing trend with only four fires per month during the three first months of the year, and as many as 27 during October. 

According to the article, "these fires, triggered by poorly maintained or damaged lithium-ion batteries, have caused 10 deaths and more than 200 injuries in the five boroughs in just the last two years alone".

And the problem isn't new: In all of 2021, the fire department investigated a total of 104 lithium-ion battery-related fires, according to the FDNY, says an October 21 article in NY1.com. 

In September, an 8 year old girl died  during  an apartment fire in Queens which investigators say was sparked by the battery in an E-Bike, according to an article on CBS News. 

After another large fire in an e-bike store in Queens on October 20th, both the New York Fire Department and the NFPA published recommendations to the public for how lithium batteries should be charged and handled. 

 An Apple iPhone 3GS's Lithium-ion polymer battery, which has expanded due to a short circuit failure. The battery is shown in situ on top of the rear phone case; pictured behind is an intact iPhone 3GS for size comparison. Date	15 September 2013 Source	Own work Author	Mpt-matthew
 An Apple iPhone 3GS's Lithium-ion polymer battery, which has expanded due to a short circuit failure. The photo illustrates one of the signs to look for when it comes to trying to determine a potentially dangerous battery.  Date: 15 September 2013 Source:  Own work. Author Mpt-matthew.

Since then, a Manhattan high rise fire on November 5, which injured 38 people, has been determined to have been caused by a lithium battery. 

Recently appointed FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanaugh told the media that the cause of the fire "was a lithium-ion battery "connected to a micro-mobility device," according to a November 7th article in People.com.

According to Chief Fire Marshal Dan Flynn, these micro mobility devices have cause over 200 fires in New York City alone.

 

E-Bikes, E-scooters and hoverboards lead to particularly intense fires

The term "Micro-Mobility Devices" refer to smaller types of vehicles which often need to keep battery weights down in order for their owners to operate them. They can by E-bikes but also various types of sports toys such as hoverboards. 

Officials at NYFD claimed in the New York Times on November 5, that the batteries found in micro-mobility transportation devices such as electric bikes, scooters and hoverboards cause fires that "are typically intense, and can quickly gain momentum with any combustible objects around them".

 

Micro-Mobility vehicles banned in some apartment buildings

According to the NYTimes article, some apartment complexes have recently gone as far as partly banning smaller  E-vehicles on the premises.

A sign outside a NYC apartment complex allegedly read, “No pedal or e-bikes allowed beyond this point.” Fire officials said any device that used the powerful lithium-ion batteries could cause a risk, not only those in bicycles".

 

In mid November, New York City Council held a public hearing about the recent Micro Mobility battery fires and what can be done about them. The city council heard from both members of the fire department, and from members of the public who have been  involved in fires and near misses with their E-Bikes and E-scooters:

"The City Council is considering bills to prevent destructive lithium-ion battery fires. They are the same batteries used in electric bikes and scooters. The move comes after several recent fires in our area linked to the batteries, including some that were deadly," says a November 14 article on the CBS News site. 

The same article has a video which interviews eyewitnesses to fires and explosions with micro mobility batteries. A graph in the video refers to stats from NYFD, showing a growing trend for both deaths and injuries relating to these fires in NYC: 188 investigations into lithium-ion related fires, 139 injuries and 6 deaths in 2022, compared to 104 investigations, 79 injuries and 4 deaths in 2021.   

 

 

Screenshot from the FDNY safety sheet on lithium batteries.
Screenshot from the FDNY safety sheet on lithium batteries. 

FDYC: After Market batteries mostly to blame

According to the New York Fire Department, the batteries that tend to combust are aftermarket products e-bike users buy online or in scooter stores as supplements or replacements for the scooters’ original batteries. According to many industry experts, factory-installed scooter batteries are apparently safe and adhere to industry standards

In a recent NYFD safety sheet regarding all lithium batteries, including those in phones, laptops and watches, etc, ,consumers are encouraged to be #FDNYSmart, and make "sure that the equipment has the Underwriters Laboratories Mark. The UL mark shows that the product has been safety tested".

Some of the other safety regarding lithium batteries from the NYFD:

· Do not charge a device under your pillow, on your bed, or a couch.

· Always use the manufacturer’s cord and power adapter made specifically for the device.

· Keep batteries/devices at room temperature. Do not place in direct sunlight.

· Store batteries away from anything flammable.

· If a battery overheats or you notice an odor, change in shape/color, leaking, or odd noises from a device discontinue use immediately. If safe to do so, move the device away from anything that can catch fire and call 9-1-1.

 

 

Screenshot of the NFPA safety sheet for E-bikes and scootersSafety Sheet from the NFPA on E-Scooters and E-Bikes

The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA.org) says in their recently published safety sheet for E-Bike batteries that "damaged or defective batteries can overheat, catch fire and explode". The NFPA's advice is to only buy and use devices, batteries and chargers which have been listed by a nationally recognized testing lab and labelled accordingly. 

Other safety tips from the NFPA are: 

Do not keep charging the device or device battery after it is fully charged.

• Only charge one device or device battery at a time to prevent overloading the circuit.

• Keep batteries at room temperature when possible. Do not charge them at temperatures below 32°F (0°C) or above 105°F (40°C).

• Do not store batteries in direct sunlight or inside hot vehicles, and keep them away from children and liquids. 

• Store e-bikes, e-scooters, and batteries away from exit doors and anything that can get hot or catch fire.

• Only have device repairs performed by a qualified professional.

Do not put lithium-ion batteries in the trash. Recycling is always the best option. Take the batteries to a battery recycling location or contact your local waste department for disposal instructions.

Signs of a Problem: Stop using the e-bike or e-scooter if you notice any of these problems with the battery: unusual odor, change in color, too much heat, change in shape, leaking, smoking, or not keeping a charge.

 

Download the E-Bike/Scooter Safety Sheet from the NFPA