The Wrap has gone all-electric this week, starting with Sue resolutely defending her e-scooter in the face of growing fears about fires from Lithium-ion batteries (and Jimmy’s column from the AFR).
So what causes ebike and escooter battery fires? How do you prevent them? What is “thermal runaway”?
And what can apartment blocks do to keep its residents safe when there are potentially dangerous batteries being charged up inside units in the block?
Also, without the slightest sense of irony, we discuss the NSW government plans to offer $80 million in grants to more than 100 apartment blocks to help with the costs of installing EV charging points in apartment block car parks.
And Jimmy talks about the initial AGM of a new apartment block where efforts to pass embedded network contracts were up for a challenge. (Just to continue the electrical theme, there was another embedded network contract for electricity that was debated but we don’t really talk about that in the pod).
And finally, there’s this week’s Lock Up and Leave – a hike in southern France which sounds like it involved more eating than walking.
That’s all in this week’s Flat Chat Wrap.
TRANSCRIPT IN FULL
Are you feeling under siege?
I am a bit, from lots of directions.
Including the other side of the desk today.
That would be because of my column in the Fin Review…
Yes, about E-bikes and E-scooters. As you know, I’m a very proud owner of an E-scooter. I love my E-scooter, against all the odds really, because that was a surprise present from you. I think the Christmas before last?
Yes. You came back and you’d met a friend who scooted around in her E-scooter and caught the train so far to work and then used her E-scooter. It was two or three weeks before Christmas and I thought “oh my god, that’s a hint; it’s such a clear hint.”
And it wasn’t at all. It was just I was saying “oh, how interesting, that she’s got an-E scooter.”
And then when you opened the parcel…
This huge parcel and I thought “what on earth can it be?” And when I saw it was an E-scooter, I thought “what on earth would I want with an E-scooter?”
And now I wouldn’t live without one.
There you go. So that’s the argument for; the argument against is, they have a tendency to burst into flames.
Oh, only a minute proportion of them, Jimmy; come on!
Okay, well, we’ll be talking about that today. We’ll be talking about electric cars today and we’ll be talking about how important it is to go to your first AGM. Plus, because we had the Strata Commissioner on last week, we didn’t do our ‘lock up and leave,’ so we’ll have a ‘lock up and leave’ at the end. A lot to look forward to. I’m Jimmy Thomson, I write the Flat Chat column for the Australian Financial Review.
And I’m Sue and I write about property for Domain.
And this is the Flat Chat Wrap.
Yes. Well, I mean, it’s a bit worrying that there have been a few fires; mostly E-bikes, not so much E-scooters.
There was a news thing the other day, that said an E-scooter had burst into flames and then when they actually came to the track on the news bulletin, it was actually an E-bicycle. I mean, the two are a bit different.
People use the terms very loosely.
Well, you know one of the big differences is that the battery on an E-bike can easily be removed for recharging purposes.
Oh right, but on an E-scooter, it’s quite hard to remove the battery, isn’t it?
It’s not a standard fitting, to have a removable battery. I’m sure some of the bigger ones, the really fast, really illegal ones, they might have removable batteries, but it seems to be it’s that connection element. What these fires are caused by, they call it ‘thermal runaway.’ A short circuit, which causes overheating in the battery, or overheating in the battery causes a short circuit. But basically, it’s a cycle that very rapidly gets out of control. And there have been instances of lithium ion batteries reaching temperatures of 700 degrees centigrade in fires.
Wow! The thing is, you kind of think, well, if you have a fire extinguisher nearby, that might help, but in fact, from pictures I’ve seen of the fires that have been caused, they explode with such ferocity, you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near them, to use a fire extinguisher anyway, would you really?
Not really. The fire extinguishers are handy for the things that the burning battery sets alight, as it’s not just going to go alight in isolation. But it does seem to be a thing of lack of care of the battery. I mean, it’s the the short circuit; the short circuits are caused by inappropriate use of the battery, letting the batteries get too flat, letting the batteries get overcharged.
Okay, I know overcharging is really bad, but I didn’t realise there was a problem when they were too flat. You know, there are some battery appliances where it’s good to run them down from time to time and start them again. Obviously, not with lithium.
Lithium ion actually likes a bit of a recharge in the middle. It doesn’t have a memory. Old-fashioned rechargeable batteries used to have a memory. Lithium ion apparently, works well on a mid-cycle charge.
So top-ups all the time.
But the problem is that… We’re talking about apartments, but near us, there’s a couple of backpacker hostels and outside them you see a stack of E-bikes, chained to the railings. The batteries are obviously inside, being recharged. That would be my first concern, about the potential for loss of life in a battery fire. If you’ve got hal-a-dozen backpackers and delivery riders staying in a hostel and exchanging chargers, where one charger might not be ideally suited for the battery that’s being recharged… That’s where I can see problems happening. And it was a hostel here in Kings Cross.
There was a big fire from an E-bike; I can see that. But then, a lot of strata owners or strata residents; you kind of think an E-scooter or an E-bike are really handy to get around, because lots of apartments are near train stations, so therefore you can just get on the train with your scooter, or a bike and then at the other end, you can go wherever you need to. So it’s really, really convenient. You kind of think they’re going to take off. The difficulty is in New South Wales, they’re still illegal. But in many other places; I mean, in Victoria and Melbourne, in Adelaide and Canberra… We’ve ridden E-scooters in Melbourne and Canberra; communal ones.
That was fun.
At the moment in New South Wales, we don’t have that many E-scooters. When they get made legal (which surely they have to be, at some point), then there may be a lot more and then there may be a bit more danger.
You wonder which way it’s going to go, because the local government… I know that the City of Sydney decided not to participate in the experiment with the hired communal ones and maybe, they will be looking at the stories and going “we don’t want to encourage this. We’d rather keep them illegal.” I mean, it hasn’t happened to you and I haven’t seen it happen to anyone else, but you could easily be stopped, riding along the pavement and be told that’s illegal.
Absolutely. It was funny; the other day, I was waiting at a traffic light. I was on the pavement and I was waiting for the traffic light to change, and crossover and there were three policemen next to me. I thought “gosh, I’ve got my scooter here and they could easily book me.” And then I thought “I’m just going to cross the road,” because there was no traffic and then I turned to one of the police officers and said “If I just jaywalk now, you’re not going to book me, are you?” And he just laughed and said “no, go ahead.” Maybe, he didn’t even notice the scooter. I don’t think they’re particularly bothered about booking people, unless they are a menace. I met a guy the other day with his scooter and he had been warned by a police officer once, for not wearing a helmet. But I always wear a helmet, anyway. So maybe they’re kind of more about safety of the user. And also, if somebody’s riding quite dangerously, too fast on the pavement and pedestrians just have to scatter… I mean, that might be a case in which the police might do something. I ride very carefully. I have had one little accident, where I ran over somebody’s foot, at a bus stop. But she was sitting in the dark. She was very nice about it. Obviously, I stopped immediately and I was profusely apologising and she was great. Generally, I’m always really careful around pedestrians.
I was just thinking about E-bikes and wondering… You know, we see them flying around here in Kings Cross, which must be delivery like Central in Sydney. And I wondered, don’t they need a motorbike licence, because they travel just as fast as people on motorbikes? And then I thought well, maybe there’s a limit (and there is a speed limit for E-bikes, that everybody ignores, which is 25 km/h). But the real significance apparently is, do they have pedals, like the old mopeds? And is it an electrically-assisted bicycle, rather than a motorised bicycle? So if those pedals were…
Just there for show…
Then it would be illegal, unless they had a motorbike licence, or a scooter license.
Interesting. I hadn’t realise that.
I don’t know if it makes a lot of difference, but you don’t see a lot of pedalling going on, with these guys on their bikes. I remember being in France years ago, and being amazed that the French loved their mopeds. This was 30-odd years ago. They used to ride around; they’d put their feet up on the front strut, behind the front wheel. So they didn’t pedal at all, they just motorised around. But those batteries are being taken out now. What does that mean for strata?
So maybe with strata, they could have regular inspections of E-scooters and bikes.
By the building manager, if there is a building manager…
How’s the building manager going to know what’s safe and what’s not?
Basically, you want to make sure that people have the right batteries with the right scooters or E-bikes don’t you?
And the right chargers.
Yes. They shouldn’t have cheap imported batteries that are generic.
Because they lost one in their last backpacker hostel.
So they need to have that. Well, maybe have a rule, to say that people have to have the original batteries, or a replacement battery that actually goes with the vehicle.
How about you said to people ‘if your E-vehicle causes a fire and we discover that you used inappropriate attachments or whatever, or you left it charging for too long… All of these things can be proven, then you will be held liable for the damage caused.’
But if it is somebody like a delivery rider, they might not have very much money anyway. So that’s the difficulty. I mean, the idea is not to kind of retrospectively punish people, but to get people to act more responsibly in the beginning, and some people may not realise that it is irresponsible, getting in a cheap generic battery. They might not realise that.
That’s true. So how about you register your scooter or your E-bike with your building, and they hand you a piece of paper that says ‘how to look after your battery?’
That sounds a good idea.
That would be a start, wouldn’t it? How about asking them to be insured?
Yes, that’s a possibility as well. Because another thing, apart from having the wrong batteries and chargers, is people who ride badly, and they bash their battery. With an E-scooter, your battery is underneath the platform you ride on, usually. I’ve seen people bashing up and down steps…
Curbs and things like that.
That’s right. And that’s probably incredibly bad for the battery. So maybe, a few rules around riding, as well.
Somebody has invented an anti-combustion gel. You build it into the battery, and you put it around the battery components. And if the battery starts to heat up, the gel melts I think and then seals off…
Wow, that’s clever!
The electrical components and so it all calms down.
So when is that going to be readily available for us?
Who knows? Check it out on eBay. But it’s the battery manufacturers; they’re the ones who would have to pay extra and charge extra to have that installed in the battery, when it’s being manufactured.
But then again, there’s so much bad publicity about them at the moment, they might think that that’s a worthwhile expense to go to.
And it could be that at some point, that the authorities (wherever they might be), will say “you can’t have an E-bike or an E-scooter, unless you’ve got this kind of battery attached.”
And I know in your column, you mentioned how some buildings are looking at having a safe room, where you store your E- vehicles and when you charge them, as well. So if there’s any problem, it can be sealed off. Maybe that’s a really good idea, or some rules around where people can charge their vehicles, as well. I charge mine on the balcony, because I kind of reckon that’s a bit safer.
Safer for us; a shame about the people upstairs.
Surely it would be safer, wouldn’t it?
Maybe there could be some rules about that kind of thing, as well.
The other thing that’s been suggested is that you should only charge your battery if it’s plugged into a timer. You know, we have timers for lights and things? So you’ve got to have a timer that will automatically shut off the electricity after two hours, or whatever. That would cut down the risk.
That’s a really good idea. I want one of those timers whenever I run a bath as well, because I always forget I’m having a bath and then I suddenly remember.
You see the water lapping from the bathroom and think “oh, yes, I’ve forgotten something.”
That’s a really good idea about the electricity timer.
So we’ve mentioned electric vehicles and there’s a big New South Wales Government initiative at the moment, to assess buildings for putting in electric vehicle charging and you can get a grant. We’ll talk about that, after this.
While everybody else is getting worried about electric scooters and bicycles blowing up, the New South Wales Government is ploughing ahead with its plan to get more electric vehicle charging points in apartment buildings.
This is for E-cars?
This is for cars, yes.
Well, they can blow up as well, can’t they?
To be fair, statistically there’s more chance of a petrol-driven car causing a fire, than an electric one. The really dangerous ones are the hybrids, that have got both the battery and the petrol in it. If they go up, they really go up.
But how many of them go up?
I don’t know if those are the statistics; it sounds quite specific. But one in quite a lot, is probably more accurate. Now the government has got this thing and there’s a webinar; there’s a thing about it on the website. On the 18th I think it is; it’s certainly next week. Maybe it’s the 15th… You can go on that and they will tell you all about the latest stuff about E-vehicles and EV-charging. You can apply through SmartyGrants, which is a funny name for a serious organisation. You can apply for a grant with them and they will come around and assess whether your building is suitable for EV-charging, or if there are suitable spots for EV-charging. And then if there are, they’ve got $10 million (which actually doesn’t sound like all that much), to do a 50/50 installation with the owners corporations. So that’s good.
What did you say the company’s called?
I thought you were going to pronounce ‘Smarty Grants,’ and I was going to say that doesn’t work, does it?
You mean it rhymes with smarty pants?
It’s a good name.
That’s a really handy thing, for buildings, to get in early and see if they can get in there and get some advice. I got caught in the rain once, in a terrible thunderstorm and my scooter got really wet and when I got home, I left it, hoping it might dry off….
You mentioned the car that went on fire; I think there was one at Sydney Airport, in the long-term carpark and it took out four cars near it. But that battery had been disconnected and that was the problem. Somebody had disconnected the battery and left it and this is the thing about the battery running flat, and then you get the short circuit. All it needs is a little bit of excessive heat. The other thing about batteries, if you have an E-bike or an E-scooter, don’t leave them in hot sunshine. Same rules as dogs and babies and cars apply to scooters and bikes. Don’t let them get too hot in the sun, because that may trigger the thermal runaway that we’re talking about This is how fires start, by the way.
In the middle of the night, suddenly this red light filled my bedroom and it was a flashing red light and I thought “oh my god, it’s a police car.” Well that’s bizarre, on the 15th floor! It was just all these flashing lights and it really scared me and then I woke up properly and went out and saw it was my scooter. All its lights were flashing; the headlight, the stop light, everything. But then it seemed to dry out and it functioned well.
I do recall seeing somebody riding around on a scooter just like yours, with cling film over the little control panel at the top.
Maybe that’s a good idea. Warning, if you see me coming, give me a wide berth!
She could explode at any time. People think that E scooters are like toys and they are essentially unsafe, but I remember when you got yours, the lock is actually your mobile phone. And it wouldn’t let you ride it, until you had sat through a video on the mobile phone, a safety video. Only when you had played that safety video would it then unlock the scooter. I thought that was really clever, and really responsible. When we come back (talking about responsible), we’re going to talk about going to your initial AGM. That’s after this.
Jimmy, a couple of weeks ago, you were talking about an apartment off-the-plan and how you’d been through the paperwork and discovered there were a few embedded networks, or one embedded network in particular….
In all the contracts. And so you were going off to go to the AGM to raise those. How did you get on?
It was interesting… We had a pre-meeting; one of the other owners organised about a dozen people. We met in a pub and had a chat about what we wanted and what we didn’t want. But in the meantime, there had been a bit of publicity in the paper and people had put two-and-two together, because I never named the apartment block, for obvious reasons (and some less obvious reasons). But somebody else did and and so the developer was getting quite concerned about some of the negative responses that they were getting. I don’t know if that affected the way the meeting went, but when I got there, first of all, there were a couple of people at the pre-meeting, who were saying “the developer just wants to do the right thing. We don’t need this to be a big conflict.” Okay… I got to the meeting, and the developer turned up, and we’d been told that he wasn’t going to use his votes…
Because he had more votes than anyone else, didn’t he?
He had just a couple of votes less, than all the people at the meeting put together, but there were a couple of people in the owners group who were in favour of the developer, so he could probably have knocked over anything that he didn’t like. Some of the things that did get knocked over, or certainly postponed, are going to cost the developer money, because they were embedded networks that were designed to transfer the cost of installations from the developer to the owners, by devious means. These days, that little rort is so commonplace, that they’re just accepted as standard practice. I have to say, strata managers just go along with this stuff and they have a code of conduct in New South Wales, that says they’re never going to give owners advice that is detrimental to their financial well being. Well, putting that in an agenda, promoting it as something they want to do and that we should be doing, is breaching their own code of conduct, as far as I’m concerned. Now, I’ve heard from very high-up people in Strata Community Australia, that they are not in favour of embedded networks. Well, do something about it then. Tell your members not to support it, tell your members to go to an AGM and say “we do not recommend that you support this.” But of course, they make more money out of setting up strata schemes, than they do out of managing strata schemes. Are they going to shoot themselves in the foot, with developers saying “well, if you’re going to say that at our meetings, we’re never going to hire you again.”
That’s right. It would be handy if contracts were quite standard, wouldn’t it? And then, you could have a section called ’embedded networks,’ and then they could list the embedded networks. Then there would be some degree of transparency and owners then could decide whether they were happy to go along with it.
Anyway, so we got to the meeting. I’d taken a beta blocker, so I was incredibly calm. It just amazed me, that people would get up, and we’d say “why have you got a 10% increase annually in the contract?” And they were saying “well, we won’t impose that; we won’t charge you that.”
In this case, it was the stormwater drain people. They were saying “it’s in the contract, but we wouldn’t impose it.’ Well, why is it in the contract, then? “Oh, don’t worry about it.” But I do worry about it. “Yeah, it’s fine.” No… If we approve this contract, the next guy to be standing in front of us… A 15-year contract.
I think he lost the room, this guy, when he said “hey, we could have got a 25-year contract if we wanted, just like we have in Queensland.” I could sense the people in the room going “what?!” We got everything through, or stopped everything going through that we wanted to get stopped.
But here’s the thing; it occurred to me…There must have been about 40 or 50 people. You’ve got 60 units in the complex; at the beginning of the meeting, they have to declare who can vote, and the developer had 23 votes. That was a combination of apartments that he retained for his own family and others that hadn’t been sold yet, or certainly, the sales hadn’t been completed. So he had 23 votes.
There were 25 people, individual lot owners there. A very tight margin. The strata manager who ran the meeting, said “this is an amazing turnout.” He said “I’ve rarely seen so many people at an initial AGM and it’s very gratifying to see that.” It made me think, what is it like at these other AGMs, where people turn up in half those numbers, and the developer just sits there and goes “well, I’ve got more votes than you.” People just don’t turn up. I mean, you’ve got 20 people who didn’t turn up or send proxies, to that initial AGM.
People think (and you hear this so often, and it goes back to when we first bought off-the-plan)…. People assume that if something is wrong, the government would not allow it to happen. They don’t realise the government just seems to not really care that much, or they are very slow to act. Airbnb was a classic example; that’s something where business and profit was moving very, very fast and governments were moving ponderously slowly. They were always behind the game, to the point now, where they are saying “oh, we need to do something about Airbnb,” and all these people who have got Airbnb as their source of income, are going “hang on, why didn’t you say this before? We’ve put money into this; we’ve invested a lot of time and money and you should have said something before.”
That’s how it works and this is how it works in strata; the government just moves too bloody slowly and they won’t try anything. As we were saying to John Minns last week, why don’t you just try something, rather than waiting until you’ve got the perfect solution? Try it and if it doesn’t work, stop trying it. But that’s how strata works.
So, to get back to initial AGMs; turn up or send a proxy… Do something, because this is the point where all these contracts (which might be good, or they might be dodgy), stop at the start of the initial AGM, and they have to be approved, or otherwise, during that initial AGM, and once you’ve got that contract in place, you’re stuck with it. And especially if somebody stuck a 15-year contract on the agenda; that is you and the person who buys from you and the person who buys from them; they all have to service that unfair contract,
And also, bylaws get rubber-stamped or changed in the meeting, as well. And, you know, we’ve been to meetings where the bylaws banned pets.
They tried to.
And lots of pet owners there hadn’t realised how important it was going to be. I quite agree; people need to go to those initial AGMs.
You need to read the agenda; you need to go along and see what is being decided. I mean, the pet thing is now history, of course. That was funnily enough, in our building. That was what brought together a desperate bunch of people, who might never have even said hello to each other. And the rest is history. Before we go…
Our regular segment, ‘lock up and leave,’ because one of the most wonderful things about apartments, is leaving them.
For a couple of weeks.
That’s right. You can go overseas; you can go on holiday anywhere in Australia and just not have to worry about it. So we have a website called Mild Rover. And what’s the pick of the website this week, Jimmy?
Well, I’m picking a trip that I was on was my friend Kieran Prendiville, who the older Brits who listen to us, will remember from shows like That’s Life or because he was the writer of Ballykissangel. So people will know Kieran, peripherally at least. Kieran and I, whenever we can (COVID-willing), go on a hike every year to a different place. This year, we went to Northern Province and hiked from one perched village to another.
Was it lovely?
It’s lovely when you’re going downhill, not so lovely at the end of the day, when you’re going back up the hill, because these perched villages are set up on rocks. They’re beautiful, they are gorgeous; they are insanely picturesque. And each of the places we went to had a really nice hotel, with a really nice restaurant, either in the hotel or nearby. It’s France; the food’s always going to be good, but this food was especially good.
And if you go on the the Mild Rover website, you will see the most fantastic cheese board ever. They trundle up and you think “why didn’t you tell us about this, before you fed us all that other food, because we could just chomp down on the cheese?” The holiday was organised by a company in Britain called On Foot Holidays. Now, I have to say that this one; Kieran and I are both in our 70s. Well, I’m nearly in my 70s, there’s a couple of weeks to go… It was quite challenging. It was pretty challenging.
It says on the advertisement, moderate-to-hard. It was more hard than moderate. But On Foot Holidays do a whole bunch of other hikes in Europe and elsewhere. And you’ve just got to choose your level and not be too ambitious. But that thing of getting up in the morning, you take your bag to the front desk and they transport it…
And then you just go out on a lovely walk.
You go and have a fabulous breakfast and then waddle out into the sunshine and go for a fabulous walk and work off all the calories you’re going to be consuming. So we ate like troopers for that week and Kieran managed to lose weight, so he says. It’s all there; it’s Kieran’s story, not mine, and our encounter with Rango the dog, which is quite a nice little story. Alright Sue, that’s it.
Fantastic. Thanks Jimmy and thank you all for listening.
Thanks for listening to the Flat Chat Wrap podcast. You’ll find links to the stories and other references on our website flatchat.com.au and if you haven’t already done so, you can subscribe to this podcast completely free on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcatcher. Just search for Flat Chat Wrap with a ‘w,’ clink on subscribe and you’ll get this podcast every week, without even trying. Thanks again. We will talk to you again next week.