We’ve all seen the news reports. When compared to the number of ebikes out in the world, battery fires are extremely (EXTREMELY) rare. But when they do occur they can be catastrophic to life and property.
As a daily commuter who also uses an ebike for an auto replacement, I have been charging daily for years. In fact, since I charge at home and at work, I am generally charging twice daily. So I do a lot of charging, which increases the possibility of a failure, even if it is a small one.
Lets skip to the good part first:
Here is the light-duty timer I use. It costs a whole US$9.99 on Amazon. I have several scattered around at my home, my office and in a couple of garages.
With that out of the way, I’ll spend the rest of my time telling you how to go about using it.
What Kind Of Failure?
I have had chargers fail to stop at the target voltage on three separate occasions: They kept on charging. In one case I was using a premium charger with an 80%-charge setting, that was supposed to stop at 55.4v on my 14S/52v pack. A 52v pack is really fully charged at 58.8v. I walked into my garage and saw the charger with its fan merrily humming along; its little red light telling me it was feeding current into my battery… and it was now at 59.5v. Luckily for me it wasn’t enough to cause the battery to combust, which it could have if I hadn’t walked in and reacted appropriately
The second time it happened was almost exactly the same story. Diagnosis worked through with the charger manufacturer determined an internal component failure. They were prompt with warranty replacements, but who is going to warranty my garage?
What About The BMS?
All drama aside, the BMS likely stopped the battery from accepting the current from the charger at 59.5v. This second layer of safety prevented disaster.
Whats a BMS? There is a layer of protection inside the battery. Ebike batteries typically have a Battery Management System inside that is supposed to stop accepting current if an overcharge is in progress. But if you read the headlines, you already know those can fail too.
As part of my solution to this problem, I started using chargers made for outdoor commercial and municipal use. These units have Mean Time Between Failure ratings in the hundreds of thousands of hours. They are built to work trouble-free for decades.
That is a whole different story explored here: An Ultra-Reliable Ebike Battery Charger.
Add Another Layer To The Onion
We’re going to address the failure-to-stop risk specifically: Plug a countdown timer into the wall, plug the battery charger into it, and set the timer to physically cut the AC power clean off before the battery even has the chance to reach a 100% state of charge, let alone an overcharge. If everything works correctly, this adds significant safety to routine charging.
Whats a Countdown Timer?
Think of a kitchen timer. You want something to cook for 10 minutes, so you set your timer to ’10’ and when 10 minutes expires, you hear the timer going off with a bell. If you have an oven with a cooking timer, it will also shut the oven off.
Thats what we’ve got here: An oven timer that plugs into the wall, and instead of going ‘Ding’, cuts the power from the wall socket to the charger when time runs out.
What that will do is stop a charger from even enjoying the possibility of failing and overcharging your battery. So we will be gaining two things: First, we’ll be making it more difficult for the charge process to induce a battery to combust. Second, we will be creating a way to charge the battery to a less-than-100% level, which will lengthen its lifespan.
Extending Battery Life
This second benefit is optional, but makes sense to take advantage of if you can. If this is a new topic for you, here is a good explanation of the plusses and minuses of the practice. I have cue’d it up a couple minutes in to skip the technical portion of the explanation.
How Do We Set The Timer?
You may have to go on a short fact-finding mission. You need to know how much voltage your charger puts into your battery in a given time period. You need to either have a charger that displays the current voltage level, or an ebike display on your handlebars that shows current battery voltage (i.e. the display shows something like “46.2” volts instead of showing five bars in a pictograph, which is functionally almost useless, but not uncommon). If you don’t have a voltage display, you will want to fudge one.
Two DIY ways to do this
- Use a Multimeter/Voltmeter and take a reading off of your battery leads
- Use A Watt/Voltage Meter and plug it inline to your charge plug or cord
I describe the Watt/Voltage Meter in a fair bit of detail in the ultra-reliable ebike battery charger article, so I will, for now, just link you to it and let you take it from there. You can use that information, along with the separate instructions on how to make dependable crimp connections, to put together an inline meter fairly simply. Additionally, you may be able to come across a meter that just plugs straight into your battery.
When we get into the description of doing a robust DIY timer, one of the optional ways to do it will let you directly attach an inline meter.
We’ll discuss an inline meter as seen above, when we describe a custom timer build in a separate article.
You could also use a multimeter, or voltmeter. Those are pretty simple devices you can get for cheap online, or in your local hardware store. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get one much more accurate than the typically marginal accuracy of ebike displays and watt meters.
Here is a cheap multimeter (US$9.99 at time of publication) that will do the job. I am linking it here chiefly because it has an instruction manual written in understandable English.
For about US$35, you can get hold of a much higher quality product. This unit has a neat feature where the leads you need to plug into for a given job are lit up with little LED guide lights so you can’t screw that part up.
Since I do a fair bit of hobby work around electrical things, I use this slightly fancier model, that runs about US$60. Its a little more accurate, and has a couple of added bells and whistles. Using it I found my voltage display on my Bullitt hill climber was consistently 0.5v lower than the actual battery voltage.
Now that we have a method of determining battery voltage, lets figure out how much our charger adds in an hour.
I plugged my multimeter’s leads into my battery charge plug. I get a reading of 55.8v. Thats my starting point. I plug in the charger and set an alarm to come back in one hour. My alarm goes off and I hustle back to the bike to take another voltage reading.
57.2-55.8 = 1.4. My charger puts in an additional 1.4 volts into the battery per hour. It is not such a bad idea to run the battery back down and test it again. Go for a third time on general principles. See if you come up with the same number or maybe you want to average three slightly different numbers.
A Worthwhile Detail To Note:
Ebike battery chargers use a method commonly referred to as “smart charging”. Technically speaking, this is what is known as “CC+CV Modes”, where the Constant Current mode pumps power into the battery at the charger’s full current level (usually something like 2 amps). But when the charge starts approaching the voltage limit the charger is set to reach, it switches to Constant Voltage, which slowly ramps down the current being fed into a battery until it gently stops at the final target voltage.
So, bearing in mind the above, we don’t want to be measuring the rate of volts-added-per-hour when we are up near the top of the battery’s capacity, because we will be measuring when the charger is in a ‘slowing-down’ mode.
Well, in the above example, if my battery is at 55.8v, and I want to charge it to 100%, I now have an idea how long it should take to fill it up. My 52v battery is fully charged at 58.8v. So 58.8-55.8 = 3. I need three volts. My charger charges at 1.4v per hour … and I know CV mode will slow the charge rate down near the top.
I could be conservative and just set it for two hours, knowing 2.8v is close enough to 3v, and its safer to come up to a bit less than 100%. Or if I need that 100%, I can set it to 3 hours. That is too much time, but not by much thanks to the CV mode slowdown at the end.
In practice, this is a lot more thought than you will need to put into the process on a routine basis. What you’ll be doing is ballparking what you set the timer to, and even if you go over or under by a bit, if you do your part on the math it will not be enough variance to matter if Something Bad happens.
And if you use the timing method to cut power off at a lesser charge state of, say, 80%… you can routinely be off a bit and instead of risking a problem, you’ll end up with maybe an 83% charge. Or 78%. Not enough to matter on most rides.
Myself personally this is exactly how I ballpark my charges with my timer: I don’t worry about getting anything exact and I shoot for 80%-ish.
We Are Ready To Use A Timer
So we’ve done all of our homework. Its time to plug in a timer. What timer should we use? I personally prefer mechanical timers. The old-school spring-wound kind that are immune to weirdness like power interruptions. The kind that are not programmable and are thus not subject to programming mistakes. The kind that need a positive action to set, and are not so susceptible to a little oops like pushing the 4 hour button instead of the 2-hour button. Also a mechanical timer is more granular in how you set it. If you want an extra 10 minutes on today’s charge you just turn the dial another click or two.
Here’s the timer I have been using. Amazon tells me I have bought five of them over several years.
Picture taken at my professional photo studio (i.e. on my garage floor)
Its a whopping US$9.99 at the time I am writing this. I have been using them for years and they work easily and effectively. Is this a robust solution? No it isn’t. Its just a super cheap little timer. Folks on the internet have taken theirs apart and reported the mechanism inside is not very sturdy. In recent weeks I have found my main one at my home is feeling a little worn out when I turn the dial.
BUT its one hell of a lot better than nothing. And if its this or nothing, spend the ten bucks, get this and hopefully you will be a little safer for having it.
If instead you want to try and do this job with something a little better made, then read Part 2 (coming later in September 2023), where I
Build a Heavy Duty Countdown Timer