E-bikes have become a widely used means of transportation in the United States, especially in metropolitan areas. There are a number of advantages to e-bikes, including their ease of use, affordability, and the reduced amount of carbon emissions as an alternative to gas-powered vehicles. E-bikes can make large portions of a metropolitan area accessible in ways that non-electrified bicycles or even passenger vehicles simply cannot.
While electric passenger vehicles such as those manufactured by Tesla or General Motors receive more advertising and press, the sale of e-bikes and e-bike growth appears to be increasing faster and faster, likely because of their availability and cost. In the United States 608,000 electric vehicles were sold in 2021, but over 880,000 e-bikes were sold the same year– nearly double the 450,000 e-bikes that had been sold in 2020. In dollar terms, the sale of e-bikes in the United States has increased from $240.1 million in 2019 to $885.5 million in 2022. E-bike usage is anticipated to become even more common, with a 9.6% annual growth rate expected between 2021 and 2030. The increase in e-bike usage is not limited to larger cities. For example, Mackinac Island prohibits automotive transportation but permits bicycles, including e-bikes.
Fire Risks Associated with E-Bike Battery Charging
The use of e-bikes in Michigan is regulated by Section 662a of the Michigan Vehicle Code which separates e-bikes into three (3) class: (1) Class 1 e-bikes which provide assistance only when pedaling and only up to 20 miles per hour; (2) Class 2 e-bikes which provide assistance regardless of whether the rider is pedaling and only up to 20 miles per hour; and (3) Class 3 e-bikes which provide assistance only when pedaling and only up to 28 miles per hour. In general, Section 662a imposes certain requirements on the use of an e-bike, such as imposing age and helmet limitations for use depending on the e-bike’s classification and designating those roads and trails on which an e-bike can be operated.
One significant area, though, that is not currently regulated by Michigan law relates to the conditions under which an e-bike can be stored or the requirements for charging an e-bike’s lithium-ion battery. This issue is impacting more and more communities as the increase in e-bike usage is also dramatically increasing the number of fires related to e-bike storage and e-bike battery charging. In New York City, for example, e-bike batteries catch fire approximately four (4) times per week. In 2022 at least 6 people died in e-bike related fires in New York and the New York Fire Department investigated 174 battery fires. In November 2022, the battery of an e-bike in a Manhattan building caught fire and injured nearly 40 people. Otto, Laura, E-bike Concerns Rise in HOA and Condo Communities. In December 2021 a New York man was killed when a fire started in connection with an e-bike charging business that he had been running out of his home. These events are not limited to New York. In Summer 2022 an e-bike battery exploded in a home on Mackinac Island in Michigan leaving both the homeowner and the responding firefighters with smoke inhalation injuries.
In many cases these fires are caused by damaged or defective lithium-ion batteries, improper charging of the batteries, or overloaded electrical circuits. Fires caused by lithium-ion batteries burn extremely hot and are often difficult for firefighters to extinguish.
How to Address E-Bike Fire Risk
In light of the increase in e-bike usage and the risks presented by lithium-ion batteries, many community associations, especially those in an attached-unit setting, are considering amending their governing documents to regulate the storage of lithium-ion battery powered devices, including e-bikes, or adopting rules and regulations regarding their safe storage and safe charging. There are a number of measures that a community can take to try to minimize the risk of a lithium-ion e-bike fire.
First, an association should assess the electrical capacity of its electrical infrastructure. One potential way to minimize fire risk is to ensure that the charging of lithium-ion batteries does not overload the existing electrical system. An overloaded system presents a greater risk of fire.
Second, an association could adopt rules and regulations regarding the safe charging of lithium-ion devices, including e-bikes, consistent with the recommendations of the National Fire Protection Agency. These rules should include the following parameters:
- Requiring that devices, batteries, and charging equipment have been listed by a nationally recognized testing lab.
- Requiring that owners follow manufacturer safety instructions
- Requiring that batteries and chargers only be used for the devices for which they were designed
- Requiring that owners not overcharge their devices
- Requiring that e-bikes and their batteries be stored away from exit doors and items that are capable of catching fire
- Requiring that repairs to lithium-ion batteries be made only by qualified professionals
Third, an association can pursue a document amendment project that clarifies the responsibilities for e-bikes and their associated issues, potentially including one or more of the following provisions:
- Requiring that the owner of an e-bike be responsible for the e-bike and any damage caused by the e-bike
- Requiring that the e-bike owner indemnify the association for any damages caused by the bike
- Requiring proof that an e-bike is covered by an owner’s insurance
- Clarifying that the association is not responsible for the theft of an e-bike
- Requiring storage of e-bikes in a specified location or manner to minimize the risk of damage to the common elements
In addition to the foregoing, an association should consult with their insurance agent to determine the scope of protections under the association’s insurance in case of an e-bike fire, whether stored within a unit or on the common elements.
The use of e-bikes is expected to become more and more common, and most, if not all, communities will soon be faced with a responsibility to investigate the above issues. Community associations that encounter potential issues in this area should contact legal counsel to assist in formulating a sensible approach to the increased use of e-bikes in their communities.
Matthew W. Heron is a Member at Hirzel Law, PLC where he concentrates his practice in real estate, community association law, condominium law, real estate litigation, and zoning and land use. Mr. Heron also has extensive experience in a variety of litigation matters, including insurance coverage, non-compete agreements, automotive supplier disputes, and breach of contract. He routinely appears in both federal and state courts throughout Michigan and has argued before the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
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