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How to Prevent Lithium Battery Fires and Keep Batteries Safer

Lithium batteries are here to stay. They power cellphones, e-bikes, and energy storage system (ESS) units. But as multiple fires in the last few years in New York City alone have shown, lithium cells can also be dangerous. How can a city like New York shift away safely from fossil fuels to clean energy and transportation? With two solutions: swappable batteries and a battery management system like Zitara Live.

Quick Takeaways

  • E-bikes, scooters, and other battery-operated devices aren’t dangerous, but their lithium batteries can be.
  • Cheaply manufactured and poorly tested and maintained lithium batteries, especially those under temperature and environmental stress, pose the most significant fire danger.
  • Cities like New York need green transportation options to meet climate-change goals and battery-based energy storage systems to support aging electric grids.
  • Swappable batteries make it easy for fleets and individual e-bike owners to safely maintain lithium batteries.
  • An embedded + cloud battery management system like Zitara Live is designed to track battery performance and health around the clock and detect anomalies weeks and months before safety issues appear.

The tragic e-bike store fire in NYC is a reminder to everyone of the dangers posed by lithium batteries. In recent years, dozens of lithium battery fires have occurred in New York City. Homeowners' associations are looking for legal ways to ban e-bikes from parking areas. People even rail against large energy storage installations on residential streets and condominium rooftops.

Cheap, untested batteries are dangerous

One of the problems with lithium batteries is the influx of cheap, low-quality imported units that have not been tested properly to withstand years of thermal cycling, rain, and shocks and vibration from daily use. Fires occur with unreliable batteries, usually while charging. Lithium battery fires can spread quickly across the whole pack, and trapped gasses can result in explosions on top of fires that are hard to put out and can quickly reignite. Quality-tested and certified batteries maintained in good working order are much safer. Thus, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and the city of New York have stopped short of banning e-bikes and scooters from residential buildings.

Tested, well-maintained batteries are safer

For energy storage installations, the FDNY and city insist on stringent component testing and UL (formerly Underwriters Laboratories) certification. State laws also prescribe the precise conditions required to maintain the installations. These include battery containment, fire suppression devices, exhaust systems, and 24/7 monitoring.

But ensuring individuals and private companies charge and maintain devices in optimal conditions is challenging. During the pandemic, many of the 65,000 delivery drivers switched to e-bikes. Often, they chose the cheapest available model. The city needs an easily-implemented, cost-effective approach to support battery health and safety.

Two ways to prevent battery fires

There are two solutions to preventing battery fires: swappable batteries and a battery management system like Zitara Live. Let's dive into both options.

1. Leveraging swappable batteries with battery vending machines

One option is the Gogoro model. This Taiwanese manufacturer of scooters and e-bikes offers Swap and Go exchangeable battery packs for its vehicles. Drivers pop out a battery, place it in a battery vending machine, and choose a fully-charged cell. The potentially dangerous charging process moves out of the garage—or living room—and into operator-controlled conditions. Moreover, swapping reduces the hours to charge to a few minutes to change a battery. According to one electric vehicle manufacturer, the cost could be less than a tank of gas.

2. Using a battery management system

Ultimately, the core problem for both fleet operators and independent battery makers is related to the software onboard batteries and the observability they provide into the expected electrical and thermal performance of batteries today. As we've shared in previous articles, BMS hardware offerings today are not guaranteed even to provide accurate State-of-Charge (SoC) readings, let alone precisely track battery State-of-Health (SoH) parameters like capacity, internal resistance, and leakage current.

Zitara Live is an embedded + cloud software platform that uses existing sensors to track and optimize the performance of all makes of lithium batteries around the clock. Zitara's tool predicts battery energy and heat generation precisely and can use this monitoring to flag rapid changes to SoH parameters weeks or months before safety incidents occur. Zitara Live runs directly onboard batteries, and fleet managers can configure safety shutdown thresholds to prevent equipment damage, reduce fire risks, and protect lives.

Energy can be cleanand safe

Fossil fuel alternatives are critical as New York moves toward its zero-emissions goals. It is estimated that e-bikes reduce carbon output by 750 kilograms per year for each e-bike user. The city also needs energy storage systems to guarantee electrical service for the city's aging grid. These fires should prod the green energy and electric vehicle industries to make lithium battery use much safer. The options are out there. 

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Cell balance

Cell balance refers to the differences in state of charge of the series cells in a battery pack. The amount of imbalance is the highest cell’s state of charge (SoC) minus the lowest cell’s

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