Could lithium-ion battery hazards threaten electric mobility adoption in Vail and Eagle County?
Vail fire Marshall shares safety considerations, mitigation efforts for lithium-ion batteries with more EVs hitting the road
As the adoption of electric mobility devices increases, so does the threat of lithium-ion battery fires.
“It’s a fast change and fast innovation,” said Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid. “It’s not like when we switched from horse and buggy to the Model A, I’m sure they had their concerns at that point too, but this scale and pace is really fast.”
Vail Fire Marshal Ryan Ocepek presented to the Vail Town Council at its Tuesday meeting on the concerns and hazards of these batteries as well as on potential mitigation opportunities and precautions within the town of Vail.
“Mitigating lithium ion battery hazards will be important as the town of Vail operationalizes its electric vehicle readiness plan and builds housing for a future in which the majority of vehicles will be EVs and the majority of occupants will use LIB mobility devices on a regular basis,” read Ocepek’s memo to council. “Incorporating best practices and life safety code provisions in our design will ensure a future in which lithium ion battery-powered devices can be safely used throughout our community.”
While statistics and data on electric mobility device fires are in their infancy, Ocepek presented data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
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The report found that between January 2012 and November 2022, 39 states reported 208 mobility fires or overheating incidents. This includes 19 fatalities — between incidents with e-scooters, hoverboards and e-bikes — as well as 22 injuries. In New York, which was not included in that count, there were 354 mobility fires or overheating incidents reported in 2022 resulting in 266 injuries and 10 deaths.
This data and reporting are expected to grow, Ocepek said.
“The fire service right now that we’re reporting to, they’re currently rewriting the program nationally so we can start to report some of these because there’s no really good data on this,” he said.
In Eagle County, Ocepek reported that there have been seven known lithium-ion fires in the past two years, two of which were micro-mobility devices (including a hoverboard fire in Gypsum and an e-bike electrical charging device fire in East Vail) and five of which were other devices (including a vacuum). There have been no electric vehicle fires or fatalities with these lithium-ion fires.
“It’s slowly happening (in Eagle County), but it’s here,” Ocepek said of the local threat.
What causes the fire?
With lithium-ion batteries, these fires are caused by “thermal runaway,” which occurs when a battery cell shortcircuits and heats up uncontrollably. The battery packs for electric mobility devices contain models that can contain hundreds of batteries, so if there’s an issue with one battery cell, it can quickly spread to the other cells in the pack.
According to Ocepek, there are five main causes of battery abuse that can lead to this thermal runaway. This includes:
- Environmental factors, such as excessive heat or charging in cold environments
- Mechanical issues caused by damage and abuse of a battery
- Electrical overcharge occurs when something is plugged in too long and overheats
- Short-circuiting occurs when too much power is being pulled from an outlet
- Design and manufacturing issues including flaws deflects and errors from assembly
- Aging of the battery
In running through common causes of these fires on Tuesday, Ocepek listed “charging outside parameters or overcharging” as “overloading of electrical circuits” and using the wrong charger for the wrong device.
Ocepek said that when he first began researching these fires, he talked to local vendors and found one challenge is the purchase of after-market batteries.
“If you buy their original battery with the bike, it’s $1,200. But, typically what are people going to do? They’re going to go right to Amazon and say, ‘I don’t want to spend $1,200 just on a battery for my bike, I want to find a cheaper way to do this.’ So they go on Amazon and find something for $200,” he said. “Well, the problem is that battery has not been tested to that actual piece of equipment, so therefore, it’s not compatible.”
These fires are concerning for multiple reasons. Once a lithium-ion battery fire ignites, it happens rapidly, often causing explosions with high energy content and releasing “very toxic gasses and smoke,” Ocepek said.
This rapid ignition and acceleration of the fire also mean that “the sprinklers inside may not have a chance to work accurately and get the large amounts of water that are needed on them,” Ocepek added.
Plus, when the fire starts, it can often throw pieces of battery “all over the place,” he said.
“Here in Vail, what I get concerned about, and even the fire chief, is not only inside these buildings, but if the bike is up on Vail Pass during the day and there’s a problem with it or a vehicle has an accident and it throws batteries out, and it’s a red flag day, all the sudden these batteries pop out and now we have a forest fire on our hands as well,” he added.
As the data around these fires continues to evolve, so do the best practices for fighting these fires.
“We don’t put out lithium-ion battery fires, we manage them,” Ocepek said.
Currently, there are no approved extinguishing agents for lithium-ion battery fires — all that’s known is that it takes copious amounts of water.
“Right now on Vail Pass, for years, when a car catches fire, we can drive up there with an engine. We have 500 gallons of water on the engine, 500 gallons puts out a combustible engine. EV fires can take anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 gallons of water to put out over time,” Ocepek said.
Taking proactive measures
For Ocepek and Vail, he said the town has been doing its best to be proactive about the risks associated with electric mobility devices. This has included outreach to residents and local businesses around best practices for charging these devices.
These safety tips include always monitoring charging batteries (and not leaving them charging overnight), not charging damaged or malfunctioning devices, charging only with batteries and chargers provided by the manufacturer, not storing or charging these devices in emergency egress paths or exit doorways, not using extension cords, splitters or power strips for these devices and more.
However, looking ahead, Ocepek said the town will need to carefully consider future building codes as well as identify and follow best practices for where chargers are built and how they’re constructed. These considerations will have to be made not only for the construction of new developments but also for the town’s existing infrastructure.
“We had a town of Vail electric bus back in October, we had a bus fire on one of our brand new buses. It wasn’t caused by one of the batteries, what it was caused by was the brake system, however, the brakes, where they were located was between the brakes, just slightly above it,” Ocepek said.
“It became a concern of mine, because we have potentially 30 new buses, each a million dollars or more inside of our bus barn right now, the sprinkler system was designed whenever that building was built, back in the ’80s. And it was never designed with electric buses. Right now, we’re working on a strategy this year to evaluate the building and figure out what is the best sprinkler system to put in this building.”
With electric mobility adoption on the rise — and as the town prepares to adopt its own electric vehicle readiness plan — “the future is EV,” Ocepek said.
“I’m very supportive of the work they are all doing (with the readiness plan), and what we are moving forward with this year, but being the leaders that we want to be in the town of Vail, I want to do the right things and I’m really trying to make sure I understand and study this,” he added.