Of the 6 e-bike batteries I’ve bought online, I believe that only 2 of them have actually been shipped quasi-legally. This article is about how your vendor is supposed to ship you batteries and why the often don’t. Eventually, this skirting of the law is going to get the e-bike business into big trouble, but up till now it’s been mostly under the radar. When it comes to the ebike business, Haz Mat shipping is the elephant in the room that no one really wants to talk about, or think about, or deal with on any real level.
Like most things that the transportation industry doesn’t understand they tend to err on the side of caution. Since Lithium batteries can explode if they are handled too roughly or are punctured there has been an insane amount of regulation for these batteries in the last several years that has only gotten worse. Shipping a large Lithium battery within the US legally can easily run over $60 and shipping one into the US from China can easily be double or triple that. It’s no wonder than many unreputable Chinese companies and many US companies have chosen to not follow the letter of the law when it comes to transporting these batteries. As a consumer, how can you know if you are going to get the battery you purchased that is going to ship to you without hassle, delay or confiscation?
Why don’t people ship e-bike batteries ‘by the book‘? Three main reasons:
- It’s a pain in the ass for them
- It’s really expensive, often 2-3 times more than shipping them without the proper paperwork and it takes a lot of time
- They actually don’t know how to do it properly and are too lazy to figure it out
I spent several hours researching the correct way to ship batteries and it is incredibly complicated. There are different restrictions for what you need to do based on the size & power of your battery as shown below.
So what do you do if you have damaged or leaking Lithium cells? Ironically there is no way to legally ship these that I can find. There is also no proper way to recycle damaged batteries. When I did my Bosch training we were told to bury them in sand in a large metal coffee can and leave it outside for a month till it was done reacting then throw the WHOLE PACK away. That’s right, throw that $1000 battery pack in the garbage can. Lithium cells do not have rare materials in them and if they are damaged you have no other real option.
Does this make any sense at all? From this article here I found the following statistic:
From March 1991 to August 2010, batteries and battery-powered devices caused 113 recorded incidents with smoke, fire, extreme heat or explosion on passenger and cargo planes … The estimated failure rate of Li-ion is one per 10 million. Examining the 113 recorded incidents of transporting batteries by air in 19 years reveals that most failures occurred due to inappropriate packaging or handling, causing damage or electrical short.
This was the primary reason that Lithium Batteries started to be restricted on Passenger flights in the US.
How big does a battery generally have to be before serious regulations go into effect?
Most 300Ah batteries or bigger fall under special shipping restrictions, although the regulations change from one carrier to another. Every ebike battery I own is over 300Wh with my smallest being a 36v 10ah battery (36×10=360aH).
How do I know if my vendor will ship me batteries legally?
There is only one way to find out, ask them before you order the battery. If you don’t then your battery could be delayed in shipping for hazmat inspection or seized (this really does happen). Almost every non-reputable Chinese battery reseller has found some way to skirt the laws when it comes to shipping batteries, but it’s just not going to last. Already the customs & freight inspectors have wised up to people who just slap 300Wh stickers on ebike batteries that are clearly over 300Wh. The problem will only get worse as more lithium batteries cause more problems for shippers. If you want to watch a video that will make your blood run cold click here and think about what’s going to happen when an accident like this is caused by a lithium battery not labeled and packaged properly.
What do I do if I have a puffy, damaged or leaking battery?
This is something everyone will have to deal with personally at some point or other. Hobby King has a pretty strict no-refund policy on their Lipo batteries unless they arrive DOA from the factory. That has led many people to video record the opening and testing of the batteries when they get them from the shipper. If they have a problem they send the video to HK and then get fresh batteries shipped directly to them. The bad batteries just get thrown away. If I was asked to ship a damaged, swollen or leaking battery back to my vendor, I’d probably just refuse. Frankly it’s just not worth risking serious fines just so they can get their non-working battery back. If the battery was dead or had a dead cell or a bad BMS then I would probably just comply and send it back as that actually is legal.
This puts e-bike battery sellers in an impossible position. Now you begin to see why Hobby King has a no-refund policy on their batteries. The problem gets even worse when if the batteries are charged at too high of an amperage rate or are physically abused and then stop working and the customer demands a refund or a replacement battery. You can see that selling e-bike batteries is a business that really no one in their right mind would want to be in.
The newer Chinese cases allow batteries to be put in without being spot welded and then the case is just screwed together. Could this be the answer we seek?
What is the solution to this stupid problem?
I have spent a lot of time thinking about this while sitting on the squatty potty and I have come up with an ingenious solution that absolutely no one is doing yet (that I know of). Sell the ebike batteries in kits and ship the batteries in separate shipments of 300Wh or less without Haz Mat declarations. The buyer gets their battery kit in several different shipments, one with the case and 300Wh of batteries and a couple other shipments of loose 18650 cells of 300Wh or less. They unscrew the case which has contacts for the batteries instead of spot welding (see image) and just put the cells in with the proper orientation and screw it back together. If one of the batteries gets put in backwards then it will blow up in their face but if the kit buyer is not a complete idiot then it should work. Of course, if you make the kit idiot-proof, then someone will probably just make a better idiot.
In addition, if a cell goes bad then the users can take apart their own packs and test the individual cells with a multimeter or individual battery tester like this one from Lunacycle.com . They can then just order replacement 18650 cells from a reputable vendor and pop a new cell in and screw the pack back together. This could make existing e-bike packs last a lot longer if just one cell in the pack goes bad.
I do think that the shipping restrictions for Lithium batteries border on insane in the US. It’s the one big thing that is holding the industry back in a big way. Just because laws are stupid does not mean that it’s OK to break them whenever we want, so from that point of view it makes sense to follow them the best we can when we can. If you are an e-bike battery vendor it might also make a lot of sense for you to have a large umbrella insurance policy.
This is life and sh!t happens.