Electrical safety – the perils of batteries
Landlord Focus magazine article by Stewart MacRobert, Connect Communications.
Lithium-ion batteries are bringing new freedom to users of e-bikes and e-scooters, but they’re also delivering increased fire risk to homes and properties across the UK.
Until now, landlords may have been unaware of this growing threat. However, the dangers, and potential ways of responding to them, are spelled out in a report (Battery Breakdown: Why are e-scooter and e-bike batteries exploding in people’s homes and what can be done about it) recently issued by Electrical Safety First (ESF), a campaigning charity. Wayne Mackay of the organisation explained: “The situation came on our radar through our work with the London Fire Brigade. Because the gig economy is so prevalent in the city they have seen an increase in the use of e-bikes. People who work as drivers delivering take-away meals and parcels often use these devices for their jobs.
“As a result, the Brigade has seen a huge spike in fires caused by e-bikes and e-scooters and the lithium-ion batteries that power them. There’s a range of issues that can cause these to catch fire. For example, they can be substandard if purchased from unregulated online marketplaces, damaged easily due to an exposed position on the device or they can be charged incorrectly. All these issues can cause battery cells to overheat and create a ‘thermal runaway’, leading to a fierce, explosive fire that is very hard to tackle.
“According to fire data, incidents of e-bike and e-scooter fires in Scotland have increased fivefold since 2019, with projections suggesting that the forthcoming year could exceed the previous year’s incidents within just five months. This represents a significant national concern.”
These risks are increasing against a backdrop of people charging the devices in high density housing. Given the ferocity of the fires and the likely abundance of combustible material, blazes can spread quickly. As the example on these pages shows, it’s not just batteries used in e-bikes and e-scooters that can cause problems – those in cordless vacuum cleaners and other devices can be equally dangerous.
“The situation in London prompted us to publish our report,” said Wayne. “It explores the issues not just from a fire safety perspective, but also in relation to device design and consumer behaviour. Our report offers recommendations for the safe use of lithium batteries and explains why we need legislation and changes to battery standards. Until now, no one has produced recommendations that would help the government tackle the problem.”
Electrical Safety First used the situation in New York as a guide for its work. It is estimated the city is around six to eight months ahead of London as far as this topic is concerned. New York has already experienced a huge increase in the number of fires caused by e-bikes and e-scooters. In response it has introduced emergency legislation to regulate the use and standards of devices and batteries.
“We believe the situation in London will slowly but surely spread to other urban areas in the UK,” said Wayne. “As well as producing the report, we’re looking for ways to raise awareness among consumers while we push for changes to legislation to reduce the risks around substandard and inadequate devices. Among other aspects, we’re concerned about some purchases made on online marketplaces. It’s very easy for third parties to sell online, with little or no oversight, and online marketplaces don’t offer the same consumer protection as traditional high-street retailers.”
When it comes to the impact on landlords, ESF estimates that between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of delivery drivers who use these devices live in the rented sector. In addition, many tenants will have other items, such as cordless vacuum cleaners and tools, that also use lithium-ion batteries.
Wayne believes education is needed to make sure landlords’ and tenants’ investments are protected. Caroline Elgar, policy manager at SAL agrees. She said: “In the first instance we’d advise landlords to have good buildings insurance for any property they own and contents insurance for their possessions. The tenant is responsible for insuring any items they bring with them. However, if an e-bike or e-scooter caused a fire in the property, the landlord’s buildings insurance would cover repair costs to the building and their contents insurance would help replace any of their items lost. Ideally, it’s best to have a policy that also covers alternative accommodation costs should the tenant need to stay elsewhere while repair work is carried out.”
Caroline also believes strongly in education. She added: “Landlords can reduce the risk of a fire by educating tenants about battery safety, the dangers of certain appliances and the risks involved in using the wrong chargers. ESF has a guidance document on safer use of e-bike/e-scooters which landlords can share with their tenants. This can be found at www.electricalsafetyfirst.org.uk/battery-breakdown/safer-use
“There is the option of putting a clause in the tenancy agreement saying tenants must not charge e-bikes in the property, should not leave them unattended while they’re charging and must not charge them overnight. However, while this type of clause may focus the tenant’s attention, it’s often impossible to enforce.”
The ESF report recommends setting a product standard for fire-retardant enclosures for lithium-ion batteries. Wayne explained: “If a specific standard is established it would provide the opportunity for key stakeholders to recommend that detachable batteries are stored and charged in a fire-retardant bag. At the moment, there’s no specified standard, which means those on the market vary widely in quality and cost, and the most effective enclosures are expensive.
“A government-endorsed standard would help stabilise prices. When we get to that point landlords could consider making these fire enclosures a stipulation of the lease.”
ESF is also concerned that the current situation means electrical products in the UK can be self certified by the manufacturer. “We’re proposing that e-bikes and e-scooters, and the lithium-ion batteries that power them, should be subject to mandatory third-party assessment,” said Wayne. “A manufacturer would need to recruit an independent body to assess a product before it’s placed on the market. That’s what’s currently in place for high risk products such as fireworks.”
However, he insisted that there is no silver bullet that will solve this issue on its own. Among the changes that need to take place, are regulation of online marketplaces where people sell inferior products, and an education programme that helps people reduce the risks they face.
“Sadly, I think this is an issue that is going to get worse before it gets better, particularly in urban areas where these devices are going to be pushed as a sustainable form of transport and e-scooters may become a legal form of transport that can be used on the roads. The resulting increase in demand would lead to more players in the market and, if there’s no regulation in place, more substandard products becoming available. That’s a situation we should do everything to avoid.”
Vacuum battery causes toxic chaos
It’s not just the batteries in e-bikes and e-scooters that can present serious fire risks. As one central-Scotland landlord has found, those in cordless vacuum cleaners can be equally dangerous.
He explained: “Our tenant had a fully charged battery sitting on a shelf in a cupboard when it self ignited without warning.
“We discovered that the intense burning of lithium-ion batteries can’t be extinguished – you simply have to leave it to burn itself out. Luckily, nothing went on fire but the property was uninhabitable because of the toxic smoke and deposits that were generated.”
The cupboard also contained a water tank and there were two residual-current device (RCD) electrical boxes directly above the shelf where the spare, previously charged battery for the cleaner, was sitting. It was not on charge or connected to a socket or the cleaner. Notably, the two-inch thick insulation on the tank was badly charred in the incident, while one of the two RCD boxes was completely destroyed. The landlord added: “All that was left of the battery pack was a few charred cells. Fumes and smoke had covered every surface in the property even though doors were closed.
“Afterwards, all the wires had to be checked and every surface cleaned. Carpets and curtains had to be binned, and we had to bring in a specialist team to clean up.
“One of the firefighters told me that these types of electric battery fires happen more than you’d expect.”
“Fortunately, at least for us, the insurance company was on the ball and responded quickly. The cleaning crew, electricians, and restoration crews were understanding and offered advice for this type of incident. In the end it was five or six weeks before the tenants could go back in,” said the landlord. “Sadly, the couple involved, who’d only recently acquired the cleaner, didn’t have their own personal insurance so they lost a lot. Their clothes, soft furnishings and bedding were ruined. They’d only gone out for an hour but came back to a flat full of thick black smoke. The mess was unbelievable.”
As a result of this experience, and existing doubts about these power sources, he’s made a clear decision: “I won’t rent out a property with any large battery operated devices, and I’d never use cheap non-OEM (original equipment manufacturer) replacement batteries in phones, power tools or other equipment.”
Rapid fire increase
Although there is limited data relating to the number of fires in the UK, the London Fire Brigade (LFB) reported attending 87 e-bike and 29 e-scooter fires across Greater London in 2022. In the first half of 2023, on average, the LFB was called to an e-bike or e-scooter fire once every two days – a 60 per cent increase in the number of these fires compared to the same period last year.
The ESF Battery Breakdown report makes a series of recommendations to tackle the issue of fire risk associated with e-bikes and e-scooters powered by lithium-ion batteries. They include:
In consumer education; government, fire and rescue services and consumer protection organisations should run consumer awareness campaigns about the risks associated with e-bikes and e-scooters being stored or charged in certain residential locations, such as emergency fire-exit routes.
In policy; The Office for Product Safety and Standards should consider whether e-micromobility and lithium-ion batteries that power them should be subject to mandatory third-party certification and approval processes to reach the UK market.
The UK Government should mandate the development of a consumer product standard, specific to fire-resistant charging containers for e-micromobility batteries.
Delivery service businesses should take responsibility and liability for the safety of their riders who use e-micromobility vehicles. They should also consider providing e-bikes or running an incentive scheme to encourage their riders to use company approved e-micromobility vehicles.
In data collection; The Home Office should expand the current Incident Recording System to become a robust, up-to-date national fire data collection system that enables fires to be specifically attributed to e-micromobility batteries.
In standards and regulations; the UK Government should mandate the development of a product standard, specific to conversion kits and associated components.
UK standardisation bodies must establish consistent charging protocols for e-micromobility products to be adopted by industry.
In online marketplaces; the UK Government should introduce legislation to make online marketplaces take reasonable steps to prevent or delist unbranded and potentially non-compliant conversion kits.