E-Bikes and E-Scooters:  How to Handle Their Fire Risk in Condominium Associations

E-Bikes and E-Scooters: How to Handle Their Fire Risk in Condominium Associations

Walk through any local Massachusetts town or city and you will quickly notice an electric bicycle (“e-bike”) or electric scooter (“e-scooter”) (which would also include electric hoverboards) whizzing past. Condominium associations are no different - visit the bike parking area of any association, and you will see them lined up waiting for their next ride. E-bikes and e-scooters have risen greatly in popularity in the last several years, with news reports noting sales nearly doubling in the United States during that time period. This popularity is no surprise, given that these battery-assisted bikes and scooters allow for more efficient mobility than traditional bikes and scooters, with their ability to provide battery-powered relief from pedaling or propelling. However, these e-bikes and e-scooters represent a fire risk. Therefore, it is important for condominium boards and property managers to be aware of the risks they present to a condominium community in order to make their own determination as to the appropriate approach to these risks, including balancing the desire of condominium residents to own and use these latest forms of transportation.

While e-bikes and e-scooters are the latest tech in mobility, they represent a fire risk for multifamily communities such as condominiums.

With the increased popularity of e-bikes and e-scooters, there has been an increase in fires related to those e-bikes and e-scooters and their batteries in the United States, particularly in cities where they are especially popular, such as San Franciso and New York City. In New York City, fires resulting from e-bikes and e-scooters increased more than six hundred (600%) percent from 2019 to 2022, resulting in a more than one thousand (1,000%) percent increase in injuries from those fires. Many of these e-bike and e-scooter fires also lead to structural damage to buildings and property damage. The fire risk is caused primarily by the batteries that power the e-bikes and e-scooters and the improper care, use, and charging of those batteries.

E-bikes and e-scooters are typically powered by lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are efficient and powerful, but they unfortunately represent a fire risk, especially when used improperly. Lithium-ion batteries are present in many household electronic devices, such as mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and even your electric toothbrush. However, those in e-bikes and e-scooters tend to be larger than those in household devices, and subject to greater wear and tear due to their use for transportation, especially for a frequently used e-bike or e-scooter. Recharging of an e-bike or e-scooter is often the source of a fire, and overcharging, the use of aftermarket charging cables, or the use and charging of damaged, aftermarket or refurbished battery packs on an e-scooter or e-bike can lead to fires. Also at fault, especially in cities like New York, are so-called “charging farms” where many e-bikes and e-scooters are charged at one time. A lithium-ion battery fire can be quick to ignite and hard to extinguish, and thus devastating to a condominium community.

Given the fire risks of e-bikes and e-scooters, condominium board members and property managers should consider whether to regulate the keeping, use and charging of e-bikes and e-scooters in their community. Managing this fire risk should be approached – as with any other possible regulation in a condominium community – in a reasonable fashion given the makeup of an association and in accordance with the condominium’s governing documents, and in collaboration with the Board’s property manager and attorneys. Boards will likely find that unit owners have strong feelings about their ability to keep, use, and charge e-bikes and e-scooters, so those feelings should be considered as well.

The good news is that Massachusetts condominium associations may look to national and existing state and local regulations to determine what regulations may be reasonable to help manage these fire risks without having to impose an outright ban on e-bikes and e-scooters. Nationally, the United States Consumer Products Safety Commission has made several reasonable recommendations in an effort to help prevent fires related to e-bikes and e-scooters: (1) always be present when charging devices using lithium-ion batteries and never charge them while sleeping; (2) only use the charger that came with the device; (3) only use an approved replacement battery pack; (4) follow the manufacturer’s instructions for proper charging and unplug the device when done; (5) never use an e-bike or e-scooter device with a battery pack that has been modified/reworked by unqualified personnel or with re-purposed or used cells; and (6) never throw lithium-ion batteries into the trash or general recycling. There has also been proposed national legislation to regulate lithium-ion batteries, which may provide further instruction in the future.

On a local level, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has not passed regulations or guidelines related to e-bikes and e-scooters to date, though this is an issue to watch in the Commonwealth and one which will almost certainly see future legislation passed related thereto. At this time, New York City provides the easiest local example to review and follow given the fires they have faced. In light of those problems, the New York City Council passed bills that, among other requirements: (1) required the New York City Fire Department to develop an informational campaign educating the public on the fire risks of lithium-ion batteries; (2) prohibited the sale of e-bikes and e-scooters that fail to meet Underwriter’s Laboratory safety standards; and (3) banned the reuse of used lithium-ion batteries. Together with the Consumer Product Safety Commission standards, association boards may find certain of these restrictions to be appropriately suited to use in modeling regulations for their own communities.

Other practical regulations may be reasonable as well given the physical constitution of a particular condominium community and the attitude of unit owners towards e-bikes and e-scooters therein. A condominium board may determine that there should be a reasonable limit on the number of e-scooters and e-bikes that may be kept and charged, or that a specific community space for communal charging located safely away from flammable sources is a good approach. Some associations may view these e-bikes and e-scooters as so great of a fire risk that a complete ban is reasonable for their condominium. Still others may not consider these e-bikes and e-scooters to be a threat to their communities at all. Any approach requires careful review of all risks and consequences of regulation.

As another step toward reasonable regulations, a board may consider consultation with its insurance agent and casualty insurance company. These insurance experts may be able to provide recommendations for e-bikes and e-scooters, including proposed insurance-minded regulations and requirements. In addition, boards should confirm whether any special insurance coverage is needed if the board is aware of e-bikes and e-scooters being kept within their condominium.

If a board desires to regulate the use of e-bikes and e-scooters, they must keep in mind the limitations in their governing documents and Chapter 183A, the Massachusetts Condominium Act, as to the regulation of the use of condominium units and condominium common areas. To start, a board should discuss any concerns it has as to e-bikes and e-scooters in its community and determine what regulations are best to address those concerns. Boards are generally empowered to pass rules and regulations as to the use of common areas of their condominium without unit owner approval, but it may make sense to discuss proposed regulations with unit owners, especially if a board intends to propose amendments to a condominium’s governing documents to regulate use of e-bikes and e-scooters in units.

For the regulation of the use of e-bikes and e-scooters in units, such as the restriction on the number of e-bikes or e-scooters that may be kept or charged therein, boards will likely need to look to amend their condominium master deed. The master deed of a condominium generally contains restrictions on the use of units and restrictions on the keeping and charging of an e-bike or e-scooter in a unit would likely need to be added to those restrictions. An amendment to the master deed will require the approval of the required number or beneficial interest of unit owners.

Upon determining the regulations that will work for its community to help address these fire risks, a board should consult with its attorney to assist in drafting the appropriate instrument. The instrument will take the form of either rules and regulations for common area restrictions, or an amendment to the master deed for restrictions on the use of units. Upon preparation, the instrument will require the signature of the required parties, and then should be recorded at the local registry of deeds.

While e-bikes and e-scooters are the latest tech in mobility, they represent a fire risk for multifamily communities such as condominiums. Boards should, at minimum, understand and evaluate these fire risks and determine whether they must act or let it roll.

Ryan R. Severance Condo Law Blog

If you have any need for legal services related to this article, or any similar matter, you can email Ryan at rseverance@mbmllc.com or any of our other attorneys at Moriarty Bielan and Malloy LLC at 781-817-4900 or info@mbmllc.com.

Ryan R. Severance