Charging lithium-ion batteries inside apartments is rapidly becoming a burning issue for strata committees and fireys.
It seems a day doesn’t go by without another eBike or electric scooter battery going up in flames – and strata insurers are sitting up and taking notice.
Lithium-ion (li-ion) battery fires can be intense and explosive. As a result, some apartment residents are being asked to declare if they have any two-wheeled battery powered vehicles, and if so, where they store and charge them.
Failure to register their two-wheeled time bomb, they are warned, could result in the block’s insurance being invalidated.
Is that true? Possibly. It was only a matter of time before the big insurers calculated the risk, starting with “is it real?” and moving quickly on to “how bad is it?”
And any reaction by strata schemes to ban them from apartments may seem like a knee jerk to ebike owners, but could feel more like a sensible precaution to others.
Li-ion batteries have been in our homes for years, used to power everything from laptops and electric drills to vacuum cleaners.
But ebike and scooter batteries are much bigger and prone to more abuse and misuse, whether it’s being bashed around as they trundle through our streets, not being properly charged or discharged, connected to mismatched chargers or just not particuarly well made to begin with.
The problem is what the boffins call “thermal runaway” – which has nothing to do with escaping from a ski lodge when your illicit lover’s partner returns unexpectedly.
Most li-ion battery fires start with a short-circuit or overheating, or a combination thereof. When the battery catches fire, any overheating is accelerated and the short-circuits are multiplied exponentially.
The intensity grows rapidly as the fire feeds itself with combustible gases released as a result of the heat. That is thermal runanway and it’s why normal fire extinguishers may not work.
Temperatures in battery fires have been recorded at 700C and the recent video of the hostel fire in Kings Cross, Sydney is a vivid example of how quickly and dramatically the problem can get out of hand.
The problem for apartment owners, renters and investors is that, while the majority of ebike and escooter owners take reasonable care of them, there’s no way of knowing what other residents are doing with theirs.
Some schemes may offer e-bike “safe rooms”, although e-scooters are illegal in NSW – or, at least, riding them on public roads and pavements is.
But that is changing – think how quickly Airbnb and Uber overwhelmed laws just by the number of people choosing to ignore them. The fire risks from a properly maintained and responsibly used battery are pretty small; probably less than a chip pan or barbecue and no one is looking to ban them.
So what are strata committees supposed to do and how will restrictions on li-ion batteries affect you.
Banning them may only drive them underground, meaning if there is a li-ion fire in a flat, the fireys may have no idea what they are about to confront.
In the absence of providing an eBike safe room in your block, the best strategy I can think of for strata committees is a register backed by a by-law and a potential $1100 fine (in NSW) for not signing up.
You might even ask them to provide proof that they have insurance that covers damage from battery fires. Once registered, the e-rider could get a safety information pack that will tell them how to behave responsibly and what not to do with their batteries.
The ACCC’s Product Safety website has good advice about li-ion battery handling. The trick will be getting the e-riders to follow it.
A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.