Alarm raised over battery fires


First published in the LookUpStrata Queensland Strata Magazine, February 2024


The fireworks had barely faded after the New Year’s celebrations before a new type of pyrotechnic exploded onto the scene for those living and investing in strata.

We predicted at the end of 2023 that the charging of lithium-ion batteries for devices such as e-bikes and e-scooters would be a major challenge for bodies corporate in 2024.

Just days after we made that bold prediction four renters were forced to flee through a window as their apartment went up in flames when a recharging e-bike battery overheated and exploded in Bondi.

When lithium-ion batteries go up, they go up fast and they go up strong, with a plume of noxious fumes at their core. They’re difficult to extinguish with water or a fire extinguisher and can reignite easily.

Luckily no one was seriously hurt in the Bondi incident and the damage was contained to the one apartment – though it was destroyed. 

The fire raises the question about how a body corporate should deal with the sudden boom in the popularity of e-bikes and e-scooters and the consequent potential impact a battery fire may have on common property and insurance premiums.

Insurers are already adjusting their strata policies in response to major weather events. It is only a matter of time before they start doing the same to account for the potential risk posed by lithium-ion batteries.

Add into the mix the issue of combustible cladding on highrise buildings and you have a situation bound to attract the careful scrutiny of the actuary’s eye.

So, when every e-bike battery is a potential firebomb just waiting to go off, what is a body corporate to do to prevent a possibly tragic event?

The Queensland Fire and Emergency Service (QFES) recommends charging e-bikes and e-scooters in well-ventilated areas, such as a garage or carport, and never in living areas or anywhere that may be exposed to direct sunlight or other sources of heat.

One option would be to provide a safe place for devices to be charged outside of individual lots. But that would pose its own challenges where basements might not have sprinklers installed, and water might not be the solution to putting these types of fires out in any case. It would also question the wisdom of having multiple devices being charged in close proximity.

There is also the ever-present risk of moral panic and people over-reacting. It’s doubtful that a body corporate could pass a valid by-law that would ban the devices from a scheme altogether – and even more doubtful that such a by-law could be enforced. 

As with many issues in community living, the solution may come down to calm discussion and education of lot owners and residents about the potential dangers posed by charging e-bikes and e-scooters overnight inside individual lots. 

The QFES recommends checking that chargers carry the necessary Regulatory Compliance Mark to show they meet Australian Standards and to only use chargers recommended by the device manufacturer with the correct voltage and current for the device.

Spreading the word at the committee level and among owners and residents is a sensible first step before a more concrete solution can be found.