ZEG's electric bike recall--because of unsuitable connectors--will not be alone. True: IEC plugs (AC power plugs) are common for e-bikes in China, but illegal in Europe. Why? And what will ExtraEnergy do about estimated 100,000 electric bikes in Europe using unsuitable plugs?
With an IEC plug nothing can go wrong. Oh yes it can! That is, with electric bicycles. At least if a "normal" power cord, as we know if from computers and other household appliances, can accidentally be switched with the battery charging cable. Why? Because of identical plugs. IEC [International Electrotechnical Commission] connectors are also known as "kettle lead", or "IBM plug" (hereafter they will be referred to as the IEC plugs.) Commercial household cables are designed for much higher voltages than charging cables for electric bikes. Therefore, confusing the cables can cause danger and damage on electric bikes.
This is a hot topic with many manufacturers and importers getting cold feet now. IEC plugs are very common for e-bikes in China. This, however, does not mean that they are legal in Europe. Nevertheless, there are estimated 80-100 pedelec and e-bike models sold in Europe, which use such power plugs. And although ZEG recently recalled 4 Pegasus models to change the plugs, Carrefour, in France, is bringing just this kind of product on the market. ExtraEnergy wants to protect consumers and will take further action. In Europe it is expected that around 100,000 electric bikes will need to be recalled.
Where is the problem?
We know about IEC plugs from the household: from kettles, computers, toasters and many other devices in daily life. These operate on between 110-240 volts. Most electric bikes on the other hand, have a voltage of 24 or 36 volts. If the commercial electrical cable fits on an electric bike as well, it can easily be confused with the supplied charger cable. In case the components are used according to instructions and with the supplied cable, an IEC plug is not dangerous on an electric bike, nothing happens. When cables, which are designed for different voltages, are confused with one another, however, a defect can be expected. At best, the backup will be triggered. But it can also lead to fire, smoke or an explosion. Also the whole bike can suddenly be electrically charged.
Because of possible confusion, the IEC plug may cause danger for the consumer of an electric bike. For this reason, legislature does not allow IEC plugs to be used as they are being used with electric bikes. With the CE mark, which is mandatory for products sold in the EU, the manufacturer commits to uphold all applicable laws.
Unfortunately, with many products imported mainly from China, this is not the case. In China the IEC plug is very common, almost a standard for e-bikes. And it is cheaply produced. More and more products are simply imported without European laws and basic safety measures being upheld.
Confusion is not only possible with the IEC plug, but also with XLR connectors. XLR connectors are used primarily with three prong couplers for professional recording studios, with sound field microphones and speaker cables, but also for electric bikes. This plug was most likely the cause of a house fire from an e-bike customer in Switzerland; it is reported that he accidentally switched an XLR connector to charge batteries.
The documentation by Hannes Neupert (PDF download, 884KB) illustrates the plug problem in pictures (and German comments).
ZEG recalls Pegasus models
In November 2008, ZEG recalled 4 models of their own electric bicycle brand Pegasus. The reason: The affected models - Electra 1, Electra 2, E-Bike 1 and E-Bike 2 - are or were equipped with IEC plugs. The press release of November 14, 2008, states that it could cause a "not undangerous malfunction" if a commercially available electric cable was used in place of the supplied charger cable. "Still nothing has happened", the the ZEG board has reported. It was a "purely precautionary measure". Buyers of the bikes were asked to bring their bikes to a local ZEG dealer, where the problem could be fixed with a small modification.
Press Release: ZEG Recall (PDF download, 60KB, German)
Products must meet safety standards
The Department for technical work safety and product safety of the regional government of Cologne pointed out that pedelecs must meet regulations for the road and also the requirements of the Equipment and Product Safety Act. The relevant national regulations and European directives are also to be observed.
"The use of IEC plugs with direct current voltage is not a good solution", says Mr. Fischer from the mentioned department, "because in this case the rechargeable battery could be connected with one of the typical commercial lines in Europe and in Germany at 230 volts; a malfunction or misuse is foreseeable. Depending on the equipment and design of the battery, electronics and the motor, there could be hazards to consumers, such as a electric shock from a charged bicycle frame."
IF a pedelecs is equipped with a rechargeable battery, which has a coupler for an IEC plug, so the individual case has to be investigated, says Mr. Fischer. That is, the particular danger with the particular technical set-up has to be tested, it must be determined which risks may be present for the user. Then the appropriate measures to protect the consumer can be taken, for example, a technical upgrade of the connector plug.
Mr. Fischer recommends involving a testing center hazard identification and risk assessment and for the development of solutions. In the case of the Pegasus E-bike 2 of ZEG, tests are underway for the implementation of the measures required by the district government of Cologne, Department 55 for product safety.
Website of the regional government of Cologne
First and foremost, there are two provisions against the use of IEC plugs with electric bikes:
1) DIN EN 60335-1 / VDE 0700-1 standard "safety of electrical appliances for household and similar purposes"
Part 1 (General requirements) Part 24.4
Plugs and sockets for circuits with low voltage* (...) must not be constructed in such a way as to be confused with IEC 60083 and IEC 60906-1 (household plug) itemized plugs and sockets or plugs and connector devices according to the standard specification sheets of IEC 60320 (IEC plugs).
*(A low voltage for AC is designated up to 50 volts RMS and DC voltage to 120 volts . It is a part of the low voltage.)
In plain language this means that power plugs and IEC plugs may not be used under 50 volts, and also that these plugs may not be optically identical with other household plugs.
VDE 0700-1 Regulations for download
More about VDE (Association for Electrical Technology, Electronics and Information Technology, Incorporated)
2) Equipment and Product Safety Act (GPSG)
Under Section 4 of the Equipment and Product Safety Act, a product can only be marketed if it is made in such a way that in normal use, or foreseeable misuse, the safety and health of users or third parties are not endangered.
If there are no product-specific regulations provided, a risk analysis must be carried out.
The Equipment and Product Safety Act (GPSG) has applied in Germany since May 1st. It removes the Product Safety Act (ProdSG) and the Device Safety Act (GSG), and sets the European directive on general products into national law. The GPSG indicates fines and punishment for non-compliance with the above instructions: fines (Section 19) for lower violation up to €3,000, and for serious ones up to €30,000; repeated violations and willful or negligent injury to the consumer through a neglect of duties can result in up to one year imprisonment (Section 20, GPSG).
What does this mean? The safety rules that apply for plug connections should be taken seriously by manufacturers, and in particular, dealers and importers of low cost electric bikes from Asia.
An English PDF file of the GPSG is available for download
Other recalls expected
While in Germany, at least since the recall of the ZEG, plug safety has become an issue, in other places the risk has still not been fully acknowledged. For example, Carrefour, in France, has recently offered a pedelec with a 36-volt lithium batteries for €582. An RCA audio plug provides the connection to the charger, and an IEC plug connects the battery with the electronics. "Here another house will soon go up in flames", comments one expert observer.
These bikes are not the only illegal products on the European market. ExtraEnergy presumes that around 80-100 electric bike models do not meet the requirements. These e-bikes are mainly in use in France, Italy, England and Spain. It is estimated that over 100,000 pedelecs and e-bikes will need to be recalled for consumer protection in Europe. Other recalls may not be so easy to deal with as the ZEG's recall. For many products, larger modifications will be necessary.
ExtraEnergy acts to protect consumers
ExtraEnergy sees itself as a consumer protection organization and therefore wishes to discourage the sale of electric bikes with dangerous plug systems that put the customer in harms way. As Hannes Neupert, chairman of ExtraEnergy, recently announced, the ZEG's recall is cause for taking various actions against the spread of potentially hazardous products. "First, awareness of this problem has to be raised in professional journals and magazines", says Mr. Neupert. "The next step is to request manufacturers and importers of vehicles--which do not meet safety regulations--to voluntarily recall them from the market." Furthermore, ExtraEnergy wants to pull already sold products with dangerous connectors out of circulation with the help of market surveillance ICSMS European Market Surveillance System, Mr. Neupert explained further. "It would be more pleasant and advisable, however, if manufacturers and importers would give more attention to details, such as plugs," he added with emphasis.
More about ICSMS
EnergyBus as long-term solution
The long-term solution to the problem is very likely the introduction of the EnergyBus, a standardized plug set specifically designed for electric vehicles and only compatible with their specific electrical components. The standardization of communication protocol, by which the individual components "talk" to one another, can provide many more advantages and features than a "normal" connector.
More about EnergyBus.org.
By Susanne Bruesch and Melanie Wiederkehr
January 21, 2009