A fire ignited by an e-bike lithium-ion battery at Balgowlah on Friday morning has prompted NSW Fire and Rescue to declare it an escalating problem. So how can we best manage the risks?
The fire was sparked at 9.15am Friday 14 April, at a property on Sydney Road, Balgowlah. A 13 year old boy and a 12 year old girl were treated for smoke inhalation and taken to hospital. The thirteen year old, who is now recovered, later contacted Manly Observer to say the e-bike battery had been charging when there was a “boom” followed by a number of other explosions. The lounge room is now destroyed, he said.
NSW Fire and Rescue Superintendent Adam Dewberry, who attended the scene at Sydney Road yesterday, confirmed the occupants were alerted to the fire because the battery had exploded. The fire was initially extinguished but then reignited – to the occupants’ surprise – as can often occur.
The Fire investigation unit attended as part of a broader investigation into lithium battery fires, with Superintendent Dewberry confirming the team is busy piecing together information across the state following the incidents as part of broader investigation.
Recent incident data from the first quarter of 2022 indicated that one in one hundred fire calls to Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) involved a battery in thermal runaway, which is an uncontrolled and excessive rise in heat within a battery cell or several battery cells often leading to cell venting and fire.
Among more recent cases locally was an e-scooter lithium battery which caused significant damage in a home at Little Manly in October, and a lithium battery was also blamed for an incident at Northern Beaches Hospital a few months prior.
“We are putting the pieces together because there seem to be a number of factors in these events,” Sup Dewberry said.
There is a general lack of guidance and provisions in building codes, standards, and legislation in relation to safety to address the potential risks from these emerging technologies. Part of the problem is that we do not yet know enough about their probability of failure, their mechanisms of failure and potential consequences of failure.
To better understand these issues and risks, FRNSW is currently leading a collaborative research and testing program largely focused on lithium-ion batteries: the Safety of Alternative and Renewable Energy Technologies (SARET) Research Program, which will run for another year.
Why the focus on e-bikes?
The issue has stood out with e-bikes because of the surge in use, particularly by teenagers and delivery riders, Superintendent Dewberry said. However, the safety concerns extend to all lithium-ion batteries which are common also in household power tools. We are aware of reports of fires in garbage trucks because some households have disposed of the batteries in their regular garbage and they have ignited during the trucks crushing process.
On the matter of e-bike battery fires, one of the contributing factors, Superintendent Dewberry added, was the use of lower-quality batteries bought online; ill-equipped batteries being used to modify e-bikes and e-scooters. Often it is also the wrong charger being used to power the battery.
Attention grows on lithium battery safety
Safety campaigns have commenced internationally focusing on safe charging of lithium batteries and risks to avoid. One such campaign is London Fire Brigade’s #ChargeSafe campaign, aimed at informing consumers about the dangers of modifying e-bikes or using non-reputable suppliers. They reported last month that they had been attending an e-bike or e-scooter fire once every two days, a 60% increase on the previous year.
The fire risks arise primarily from poorly regulated or improperly used e-bike conversion kits, batteries and chargers purchased via online marketplaces.
Users are learning how to make modifications – such as putting a more powerful battery in a smaller model bike – via Tiktok and YouTube.
Preaching to the converters
Owner of Manly Bikes Francisco Furman said e-bikes had moved from a side focus to the core of his business with ownership skyrocketing in the last year. He agreed the conversion kits were causing an increasing number of issues.
If you’re building your own he said it’s “essential to have a thorough understanding of electrical systems, invest in high-quality components, and follow safety practices diligently.”
“Many DIY enthusiasts may lack the technical skills and knowledge required to safely assemble an e-bike. This can result in improper installation or configuration, leading to overheating or short-circuiting of the battery.”
“Professional e-bikes typically have built-in safety features, such as temperature sensors and fire-resistant materials. DIY kits may not include these components, leaving the battery more susceptible to damage and ignition,” he said.
From the firies
We asked Superintendent Dewberry, ‘What are the main things we need to do to know about these lithium batteries?’
“Lithium batteries are great convenience, but they also come at times with a significant risk,” he said. “You can lose your home you can lose your life and there’s a couple of things that you can do to make yourself safer. Make sure that you buy from that reputable retailer and that includes the battery and the charging system as well.
“If you do have a battery that catches on fire, always call triple zero because you can think you’ve got it out but these batteries can continue to heat up and then reignite with explosive force causing more damage.
“Where we’re starting to see problems is people modifying batteries to suit the different bike or scooter or using a different charger on the modified battery and that is starting to show to be a cause of fire in and around the homes. A fire in a home can actually develop to take out the whole home in a matter of minutes. In ten minutes you can lose your home, lose your life.
“If you do have a battery that catches on fire, always call triple zero because you can think you’ve got it out butt these batteries can continue to heat up and then reignite with explosive force causing more damage. We don’t want you to pick them up or do anything with them; call the firefighters who have got specialist equipment to monitor and extinguish it and resolve the issue for you… Like I said, they’re a great convenience, because you must treat them with respect.”
In the pipeline
Bicycle NSW CEO Peter McLean said it was an issue his organisation was also paying close attention to. The group is considering its own education and awareness campaign, he added.
“There are Australian standards for batteries and battery chargers, so we always advise people to ensure they are buying quality products which are AS certified (For Battery chargers is AS/NZS 60335.2.29). There are strong indications that a number of uncertified products and chargers are being purchased online and in some cases that modifications are being made to rapidly charge batteries and this has caused many of the concerning incidents we read about.”
Recap: how can you stay safe?
If you already own or use a device, don’t continue to charge the battery once it’s full, never use charging equipment that didn’t come with your device, and stop using your device if the battery shows signs of damage, such as an unusual odor or change in color. If your device needs repairs, have them performed by a qualified professional. More information here.
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