This post is designed to help people navigate the world of cheap Chinese ebike products without ending up getting ripped off and saving the most money they possibly can.
Where to buy from
The three big options for chinese goods are Ebay, Alibaba\Aliexpress and direct from a Chinese vendor’s website. Each of these options have benefits and drawbacks that are not immediately obvious. Ebay is US business that has been hosting more and more chinese vendors in recent years. By contrast Alibaba & Aliexpress are Chinese businesses that cater to western customers. Alibaba is more of a ‘factory storefront’ where items are sold in higher volume mostly to businesses. Product costs are shown in a ‘range’ and your actual cost will depend on Qty and whether you want FOB (you pay) or CIF (they pay) freight. Aliexpress is a website that caters to consumers and more oriented to serving people who only want one or two of any particular item.
Shipping sticker shock
One of the biggest problems with buying stuff from China, especially Lithium batteries is shipping. It is not uncommon at all for me to buy a $200 battery and spend $150 to ship it to my door. That is the reality of shipping Lithium batteries, so get used to it. There are a few people who simply throw batteries in boxes and ship them without notifying the shipper that they are Lithium batteries. Although you are not really at risk as the recipient, it is a pretty serious slight against the shipping companies and if they find out you are shipping batteries as normal freight I’m sure your package will get confiscated. I have had several Chinese vendors ship me batteries without filling out the proper paperwork or going through the right channels. If the shipping is included and the price is way too low, expect this to be the case. You might want to make sure at least your package is insured.
Don’t Leave Feedback
One thing that Alibaba, Aliexpress and ebay all have in common is that once you leave feedback you pretty much lose a lot of your negotiating power. For items that are less than $20 I leave feedback right away, for stuff over $400 I usually never leave feedback. That way if the product fails or is defective after I buy it I can contact the seller and if they don’t take action I can have the option to leave negative feedback. I should also note that I have only left negative feedback once (item broke on first use due to rubber dryrot, seller gave me the runaround) although I have bought hundreds of items on ebay in the last 20 years, but why give up all your power if you don’t have to?
Ridiculous overstatements of specs to the point of absurdity
I’m not sure why Chinese ebike vendors do this but it is not uncommon to see things like 3000 cycles listed for an Lifepo4 ebike battery. Use some common sense, do you really think you’re going to get 3000 cycles out of that battery? Maybe at 1 Amp discharge and charge rate in a temperature controlled lab at only 80% charge. Battery manufacturers tend to overstate the charge cycles as well as the continuous amp ratings of their BMS. It is not uncommon for the battery weights to be off by several pounds as well (like this battery from BMS battery that is actually 3.38 lbs heavier than what is listed on the website). The only vendor who seems to be honest about his batteries and motors is Paul at em3ev, everyone else is guilty until proven innocent. If you need a battery that puts out 25 Amps, buy one rated at 30 Amps continuous instead. If you need a 20Ah battery for your commute consider getting a 22Ah or 24Ah battery instead. That way you won’t get stranded as your battery ages and holds less charge.
Adjust your expectations
Chinese vendors are usually working with razor-thin margins. It is not uncommon at all for them to make most of their money off padding the shipping costs. I spent a month in China (crazy travel blog here) and while I was there I found almost no one that spoke English. It’s just not something they really teach in the schools there unless you work for the government in a position where you need to learn English. Most Chinese vendors are using Google translate to read your messages and to compose messages back to you. When you email them be clear about the problem and your expectations. Do not use big words or complex meanings. Realize that they aren’t really making that much money off your sale and be reasonable with your expectations. It costs them a lot of money to ship stuff back and forth so while your BBS02 might have a warranty with it, if you bought it from the cheapest vendor on Aliexpress don’t expect that they are going to ship you a new one when yours burns out.
Paul from em3ev is a solid vendor who stands behind his products, he is also about 10-20% more expensive than most other cheapo Chinese vendors. That is because it massively eats into his profits to deal with all the people who buy stuff from him then do stuff like reprogram the controllers and burn them out and then expect free replacements shipped from China. I’ve had vendors that wouldn’t lift a finger to help me or support their products and I’ve had vendors like imotorbattery from ebay who shipped me a brand new battery when my 7 month old 20Ah battery wouldn’t give me more than 11Ah of power. I didn’t threaten to leave bad feedback, I was working back and forth with him for weeks and even offered to replace the bad cell myself, but he just shipped me a whole new 22Ah battery for $80. This is not a common occurrence and I would not have expected anything that generous.
Chinese made stuff generally is crap, it’s not part of the culture for people who sell things to actually support them when they fail. When I was in China many people I met lamented at this fact and they all wished they had more access to higher quality consumer products which tend to be only end up getting exported over to Western countries.
Don’t get hit with foreign transaction fees
Don’t ever buy stuff from China with a credit card. The credit card companies love to hit you with as much as 3% for stuff you buy in China. Don’t do it, have the money in your checking account and when you paypal for your purchases have it come out of your bank account not your credit card. In order to do this you will have to confirm your bank account with Paypal ahead of time which usually takes 2-3 days.
Check over the invoice you get
Paul uses a spreadsheet for his orders so check each line item and make sure it is correct. If you are emailing back and forth with him and changing your order it might get screwed up, you should make sure it is right before you pay him. It has happened to me, it could happen to you too.
More is less when it comes to shipping batteries
Check out the Battery-Fed section of this post on em3ev. To paraphrase, if you want to buy a battery it will probably be cheaper shipping-wise if you buy and ebike motor at the same time or more batteries. If you can get your shipment over 20kg (44lbs) then the shipping price drops off dramatically. If you need to they can add ballast to make your shipment heavier. Sounds insane, but it works. I’d advise getting your friends all hooked on ebikes and then going in together to put in orders thus getting bigger discounts and cheaper shipping for everyone involved.
All Chinese vendors are not created equal
If you have questions about buying from a Chinese vendor it makes sense to do a quick search for that vendor’s business name over on endless-sphere. Some people there love vendors like BMS battery and some people really hate them. I have had problems with BMS battery and several other vendors. Often it was because my expectations of the products I would be getting and the cost it would take to ship them to me were completely unrealistic. It is entirely normal to order something from a Chinese vendor and to:
- Not have them have what you ordered even though it said it was in stock
- Have the weight of the product when it arrives be entirely different than what is listed on their website
- Have it take well over a month (or two) for their product to get to you
- The tracking number they send you doesn’t work, anywhere, on any site
- Have them say it is shipping by one company but they ship it with someone else
- Have them come back and tell you the shipping is several hundred more dollars than what they quoted you and want you to send them more money
- Have them send you stuff that you totally didn’t order and you have to eat the shipping costs for it
Sound insane? It is. Welcome to the world of buying cheap ebike stuff from China.
For the price no one else I’ve used comes close when it comes to getting stuff from China. Insanely fast. Insanely cheap. China post is the only one that is cheaper but they suck.
If it looks cheap and smells cheap then it probably is cheap
That $17 ebike controller you plan on putting on that fatbike that is going to plow through 6 inches of wet snow, it’s probably going to burn out on its first time out. That $79 Ebike motor is going to melt when you dump 1000 watts through it. Cheap ebike stuff is not design to be abused. If you want stuff that is going to last get a 750W BBS02 and put a 32T chainring on it or buy a FatMac hub from em3ev with a decent controller and put it on a smaller sized wheel. If you want to run a lot of power through your motor (I know you want to) then you need to have an ebike motor with upgraded phase wires. If you want to go 40mph on an ebike you will need a controller that costs over $100. It’s just the way these things go.
Build a relationship with one or two vendors
The more you buy from a single vendor, the more likely you are to get decent support when stuff fails. Building a relationship doesn’t mean wasting their time with stupid questions and long emails, it means being a courteous consumer who is reasonable with their expectations and generous with their capital. When things go wrong instead of being pissed, just tell the vendor what went wrong, what the circumstances were and don’t lie. Let the vendor decide what course of action to take to remedy the situation (if any). If you don’t like what happens with a particular vendor then write a short post about your experience on endless-sphere to warn future buyers and then move on. After all, it’s only money, right?
With a few simple steps, some foresight and adjusted expectations you can become a happy Chinese ebike component consumer. Expect for lots of things to break and fail, expect to waste hundreds or even thousands of dollars on shipping charges that you later regret. It’s all part of the fun!