Getting all fired up about ebike batteries in flats


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.

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      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 wi
      [See the full post at: Getting all fired up about ebike batteries in flats]

      The opinions offered in these Forum posts and replies are not intended to be taken as legal advice. Readers with serious issues should consult experienced strata lawyers.
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    • #71196

        This danger is also very real (with greater heat intensity)for L-ion batteries in electric cars.

        Apartment dwellers have a real problem here as to my knowledge, underground carparks are unable to safely contain these fires. In recent discussions with Architects who work in this area they have mentioned this – and there appears to be very little media on this issue.

        The public would appear uninformed. The consequences to persons living in a single dwelling with a downstairs carpark that houses an Electric car and charging station would also appear to be fatal.

        I recall there was a recent EV battery fire in an outside carpark adjacent to Sydney airport control tower that consumed three ? adjacent vehicles. The firefighters on this site responded very quickly but could not effectively control the fire.

        I would appreciate any comments.

        Sir Humphrey

          Here is a place to start for reliable information on this topic that is neither alarmist nor dismissive about the risks:

          Re the fire at the airport, the details that are often left out are that the vehicle’s battery had been seriously damaged by some sort of collision. It had been removed from the car but then left out in the weather on the ground next to the car and then other cars were parked in all around it in a hire car depot. For a week that included some severe weather it was left like that. Eventually, presumably with rain water inside the breached casing, it caught fire and then burned the cars packed in around it. It should never have been left like that by people who knew it was severely damaged.

          There have been 6 fires involving electric cars in Australia. Another was also caused when an EV following a truck was unable to avoid running over something from the load of the truck that fell off. The EV provided warning to the driver. The driver and passenger were able to safely pull over and get out of the car before anything happened.

          Three EVs have burned because they were inside buildings that burned for reasons that had nothing to do with the EV. ie not the fault of the EV.

          One EV was deliberately burned. ie arson.

          Surveys in the US and Europe found EVs 20x, 80x or just over 100x less frequently catching fire than ICE cars. However, when they do catch fire, the fire behaviour is different from a petrol car fire, which requires a different response. Interestingly, in the US survey, hybrids were more likely to catch fire than either pure ICE or pure EV.

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