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S.F. Supervisor Floats New Rules After Scooter Explosions

After dozens of fires caused by combusting batteries used in electric scooters and bikes in recent years, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is set to consider imposing new restrictions on the rechargeable devices.

A man rides and electric scooter on a busy San Francisco street.
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(TNS) — After dozens of fires caused by combusting batteries used in electric scooters and bikes in recent years, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is set to consider imposing new restrictions on the rechargeable devices on Tuesday.

The lithium-ion batteries used in electric bikes, scooters, skateboards and hoverboards would be subject to stricter rules while charging or not in use under an ordinance proposed by San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

The ordinance would set new standards for how San Francisco residents — and companies like Lyft and Lime — charge their devices. The ordinance would also prohibit use of damaged or refurbished lithium-ion batteries and would require the Fire Department to conduct an educational campaign about the dangers posed by improper charging and storage.

Under the proposed changes, residential homes would be limited to charging three e-devices at a time. Charging the devices with extension cords and power strips would be banned. Businesses charging more than three e-scooters or e-bikes would be required to have proper ventilation and fire protection systems, including alarms, sprinklers and extinguishers.

The proposal comes three years after an exploding battery started a fire in the 460-unit Gateway apartment complex in the Financial District, displacing 15 people and sending three to the hospital.

Combusting batteries have caused at least 215 fires in San Francisco since 2017, when e-scooters and e-bikes became widespread, according to Fire Department tallies. Eight people have suffered injuries caused by the explosions, and one person died in 2022.

E-scooters and e-bikes are small enough that they can easily be charged in a garage or bedroom. In many cases, experts say, that's where the danger lies. The devices' battery packs can short circuit or overcharge without warning.

Once that happens, the battery pack can shoot flames in all directions, quickly causing the room to catch fire. Making matters worse, the batteries produce immense amounts of energy and can reach surface temperatures above 1,000 degrees once they catch fire.

In New York, battery fires have become so common, and deadly, that the city created guidelines to prevent the disasters. Last year, nearly 40 people were injured in a Manhattan high-rise fire after a lithium-ion battery in an e-bike exploded in the building.

Peskin said his proposed rules mirror those implemented by lawmakers in New York City.

"People should realize these things are potentially very, very dangerous and need to be stored and charged properly," Peskin said Monday in an interview.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency permits around 1,750 rental e-bikes to operate in the city on an average day. As of March, Lime, owned by Uber, and Spin, owned by Ford, each have 2,000 e-scooters available for rent on city streets on a given day. Those numbers don't include privately owned bikes and scooters.

Peskin said his office had consulted the companies to reach "mutually acceptable" rules.

"This is an emerging field of law as this new technology is burning more and more buildings, and causing more and more fires in San Francisco," he said.

©2023 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.