Australian consumer advocates have called for stronger safety regulations for lithium-ion batteries after a Sydney house fire was thought to be caused by an e-bike battery.
The risk of fires from faulty lithium-ion batteries is increasing because they are used in an increasing number of consumer electronics, from mobile phones and laptops to home battery systems and electric cars.
Battery faults are rare but the consequences can be severe, especially with bigger batteries.
A spokesperson for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said states and territories were mainly responsible for electrical safety but their regulatory frameworks needed improvement.
“The ACCC has recommended state and territory electrical safety regimes be updated to have more consistent and complete coverage of batteries and other extra-low voltage electrical products,” the spokesperson said.
Chris Barnes, the household product expert at Australian consumer association Choice, said the safety regulations for rechargeable batteries were a “bit of a mishmash” and mostly focused on the electrical safety of the charger.
“There is a gap in our safety regime,” Barnes said. “Lithium battery technologies do have this potential fire risk because of the nature of the battery chemistry. That particular aspect is not something that’s been well covered by battery regulations or standards.”
Barnes said Choice advocated for a “general safety provision” that put the onus back on manufacturers to ensure a product is safe, rather than trying to address problems with specific standards.
The Sun-Herald reported last week that NSW police had referred a house fire in Sydney’s inner west to the NSW Coroner to confirm the cause. The fire started where the owner of the house, Melanie Sandford, had been charging her eZee Sprint e-bike.
Australian importer Glow Worm Bicycles has initiated a product recall of the relevant batch of eZee batteries regardless of the outcome of the coronial investigation.
Sandford, 63, was told last week her insurance company NRMA had decided to pay her claim. However, she is underinsured for what is expected to be a demolition and rebuild.
The ACCC has recorded 56 voluntary recalls for hazards relating to rechargeable batteries since 2010, and took action on toy hoverboards in 2016.
There is work underway on a standard for home storage batteries for solar panels. The first draft in 2017 received thousands of responses in opposition, because the requirement to install the battery away from the house in a fireproof cabinet was considered impractical.
“The first draft was incredibly draconian … the fire risk was recognised but probably went a bit overboard,” Barnes said. “The [revised] standard will formally be introduced later this year.”
Glow Worm Bicycles co-owner Alison Cheong said she was worried about the possibility of a fire in an apartment building, especially since many couriers used e-bikes and lived in crowded conditions.
She said the problem was batteries rather than bikes and she wanted the government to take a more proactive role.
“Regulation is really important because there’s a few things that could happen if government were to collaborate with research and businesses,” Cheong said.
“That’s one to create a safer product, whether they want an end-of-life time frame, whether they want them designed to last longer so they’re not objects with built-in obsolescence, whether they want to redesign the chargers so they didn’t overcharge could get a safer product.”
Cheong said it was a problem that so many people had old products containing lithium-ion batteries or the older lithium-ion polymer (LiPo) batteries lying around at home.
Consumers should be encouraged to send the products off for recycling to reduce the fire risk at home or in landfill, and ensure the materials are reused.
Lithium-ion batteries can be recycled in Australia through Envirostream, with another company CMA Ecocycle hoping to open a facility later this year. Currently, only 5 per cent are recovered.
Researchers are also investigating other types of batteries, such as zinc bromine, that are not flammable.