As e-bikes and e-scooters have proliferated, so have fires and explosions stemming from malfunctions in their lithium-ion batteries.
Thirteen people have died in e-bike and e-scooter battery fires this year in New York City alone, including four Chinatown residents killed when a fire in an e-bike shop spread to the apartments above. Over 500 fires related to micromobility devices have been reported in New York City since 2020, prompting stricter safety measures on e-bikes and scooters for sale, lease or rental within city limits.
“There's a huge variation in the quality and safety provisions in battery-powered transportation devices,” Dan Colombini, principal and director of fire protection at New York City-based consulting engineering firm Goldman Copeland, told Multifamily Dive. “Battery defects or issues with chargers can cause what we call thermal runaway in the battery system — a cascading failure of the battery, which generates a tremendous amount of heat over a long period of time. This can create a very dangerous situation in, say, an apartment.”
Given both the rapid adoption of e-bikes and e-scooters and the risks inherent in their power sources, it falls to apartment owners and managers to ensure the safe storage of these items on their properties. Here, Colombini talks with Multifamily Dive about the best places to store battery-powered transportation devices, the charging and life safety needs in storage spaces and the possibilities of an electrified future.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
MULTIFAMILY DIVE: What are your recommendations for e-bike storage?
DAN COLOMBINI: One of the problems that we've seen in terms of fire protection and fire safety is that these devices are often stored within someone's apartment in multifamily buildings.
We are not used to storing this much energy in an apartment. If you were to store a propane tank in your apartment, you might think twice about it, right? But people might be a little more comfortable parking a few scooters with batteries attached to them in their apartment. They don't see it in the same light.
We hope that as we try to electrify more and more and reduce our carbon emissions, we're learning that we need to make provisions for where these batteries are stored and where these batteries are charged. We’re electrifying really fast, and as we try to apply that technology to more and more things, we just need to be cognizant about how it affects the way we use it.
How should these storage spaces be outfitted?
Bike storage rooms are provided in many places. The difference with the e-bikes and e-scooters is, it’s also something that needs to be charged. And the way multifamily is set up, every unit is electrically metered separately. So that solution needs to be worked out in terms of how the charging would be done.
I think having a separate storage room similar to a bike storage room could be a convenience for tenants, as well as an improvement in fire safety. But the issue with where to charge this thing does need to be resolved. Maybe access to the storage room includes the ability to plug your bike in and leave it there overnight.
What are some safety issues or risk factors managers should be on the lookout for in a storage area?
Typically, when you're constructing any storage room, it should have some sort of fire rating in accordance with local building codes. A parallel to this would be energy storage systems in a garage next to a residential home — local jurisdictions often require a fire separation between the garage and the habitable living space.
So it’s the same concept here. We're looking for fire-rated construction and maybe a fire detection system or smoke detection system as another measure of safety.
What improvements are manufacturers making to solve these life and safety issues?
On the higher end, for the batteries that are manufactured for electric vehicles, we do see fewer defects than we used to. Manufacturing processes and testing and inspection have improved.
When we talk about risk from battery fires — they're exceedingly rare occurrences. But they can be catastrophic. Think about how rapidly we're electrifying now, and using batteries for more and more stuff. It’s moving faster than we're able to necessarily adapt to.
Our changes to building codes operate on the scale of decades. And we're proliferating the use of batteries within months to new technology. It’s a good thing for people to be aware of, think about and talk about. It’s a societal level adjustment that we're all making.