Electric bikes are the undoubtedly the future of cycling as more and more people realise the benefits that an electric bike can bring to them. In Holland – the cycling capital of the world, the value of electric bike sales now exceeds that of standard pedal cycles. This is clearly a huge endorsement as to how popular electric bikes are becoming.
There will always be a few die hards who feel that an electric bike is cheating, however, the reality is totally the opposite. Electric bikes really open up the world of cycling to a far greater range of cyclists and potential cyclists and can really help change the way that we use our bikes for the likes of commuting, exercise, business or just purely pleasure.
Electric bikes also emit no combustion byproducts and are classified as zero emission vehicles which is great for the environment.
In this guide we will go through the terminology used when discussing electric bikes as well as looking at the legality of them and what to look for when deciding which type to purchase.
Electric bikes are referred to using several names – electric bikes, e-bikes, ebikes, pedelecs, power bikes, assisted bicycles and power-assisted bicycles. All of these refer to the same thing – a bicycle that supplements pedal power by using a small motor to assist the rider – this is called pedal assistance.
In most cases the degree of pedal assistance can be varied to suit the requirements of the rider. For example, in hilly areas a higher degree of pedal assistance may be desired whereas on flat terrain very limited (if any) pedal assistance may be the preference. Most good electric bikes should offer five or six different levels of pedal assistance so that you can tailor your requirements more precisely.
In the UK some electric bikes also have a throttle that can be used to power the bike along without the need to pedal. This can be very useful when the rider doesn’t want to pedal at all and just wants to cruise along.
Choosing the most suitable electric bike for yourself is similar in many ways to deciding what style of conventional pedal cycle would best suit your requirements. There are many different styles of electric bike available ranging from fold-ups right through to retro styles and hybrids. Once you’ve decided on the style that you would like then you can start looking at what is available as an electric bike in that style.
You’ve decided on the style of electric bike that you want now comes the tough bit – making sure that the bike is specified to your requirements.
Choosing the correct sort of battery is vital if you really want to get the most out of your electric bike.
In simple terms the bigger the battery capacity the further you’ll be able to travel on your electric bike. The capacity of the battery is it’s ability to store energy which can then be used to power the bike motor.
You can calculate the battery capacity by multiplying the Voltage and Amperage of the battery.
For example, a 36V 10Ah battery has a capacity of 360Wh.
Battery Physical Size
The bigger the physical size of the battery the heavier it will be which in turn will contribute to making the bike heavier and less efficient. It’s, therefore, a bit of a balancing act between getting a battery that is powerful enough for your requirements but doesn’t either look bad on the bike or is too heavy.
Where the battery is positioned on the bike is an important consideration. There are two areas where batteries are normally positioned on electric bikes.
Many manufacturers use the rear pannier to position the battery either lying it horizontally on top of the rear pannier or alternatively hanging it vertically down the side of the pannier. Although using the rear pannier in this way may seem a sensible use of space on the bike there are a few things to consider.
The weight of the battery may cause the bike to handle badly as you are essentially carrying something on the rear pannier. Also if the battery lies flat on the pannier you may find that it can sometimes work its way loose from its electrical connections as well as rattling a bit.
Attaching the battery to either the front or the rear of the seat tube (the bit of the frame that the seat sits on top of) is the preferred position for many manufacturers. As the battery is positioned vertically it means that the battery always sits firm in its connections. Also the weight of the battery is positioned on the bike where it’s impact is minimal – directly under the rider. This position may also look better as the bike tends to look more like a conventional push bike and not so obviously an electric bike.
As is the case with normal batteries you use around the house all batteries are not the same. Although they may state the same battery capacities they will not all be the same quality. Just think about how different a Duracell battery can be when compared to a supermarket own brand – electric bike batteries are no different!
Make sure that you are getting a battery that comes from a good quality battery manufacturer such as AE or Panasonic.
Battery replacement cost
Your electric bike battery is one of the most expensive components of your electric bike. As time goes by and the quality of your battery degrades you will probably want to buy a new one. Also some people may want a spare battery as a back up.
Ask your bike supplier how much they sell replacement batteries for as this cost should definitely be taken into account when you are doing your sums. Some manufacturers will offer spare or replacement batteries at considerable discounts which can clearly be a huge benefit.
There are several different types of battery used on electric bikes and it’s important that you choose the most suitable for your requirements. Primarily these consist of either nickel or lithium based batteries, however, you may come across Lead Acid batteries occasionally.
Lead Acid (SLA):
Lead Acid batteries are very similar to the batteries that you’ll find in a car. They are very cheap, however, they are very large and heavy and only last for around 200 charge/discharge cycles. Due to their size, weight and limited life expectancy they are seldom found on electric bikes sold in the UK.
Nickel (Ni-Cad and NiMh):
Occasionally you will come across electric bikes in the UK that use Nickel based batteries. These batteries are more expensive than Lead Acid batteries, however, they are lighter and will last for up to 400 charge/discharge cycles. An acknowledged problem of nickel based batteries is that they can suffer from
memory effect. This means that the battery fails to deliver its original full capacity as it ‘remembers’ previous part charge levels. Although this problem can be solved it can be a tricky process.
Lithium (Li-ion and Li-Po):
Lithium batteries are seen as the latest and best batteries for electric bikes and where most development money is being invested. There are two main types of lithium battery currently used – Lithium Ion and Lithium Polymer.
Lithium Polymer (Li-Po):
These are the latest lithium battery technology. They offer a number of large number of advantages over Li-ion and the nickel based batteries. The key advantage of Li-Po batteries is that they will last for around 1,000 full
charge/discharge cycles. Also their overall environmental impact is lower than the other types of battery and weight wise they are very light.
Lithium Ion (Li-ion):
These use slightly older Lithium technology than Li-Po, however, have significant benefits over both Lead Acid and Nickel based batteries. They are light and don’t suffer from memory effect. They will also last for about 500 full charge/discharge cycles.
It’s the motor that provides the powered assistance to an electric bike. Over time the motors used on electric bikes have improved significantly with regards to size, weight, noise, reliability and performance. As with batteries it’s important to ensure that you are purchasing an electric bike with a good quality motor as this is an integral component of your electric bike.
What size of motor
The legal maximum in the UK for an electric bike motor that is going to be used on the public highway is 250W. If an electric bike is going to be used solely off road on private property you can of course fit a larger motor but this must not be used on the public highway.
Most electric bikes are fitted with 250W motors. This size of motor is very well suited to electric bikes as it is strong enough to provide a good level of assistance in pretty much all conditions. Smaller 200W motors may be fitted to some electric bikes but clearly this size of motor will compromise the bikes performance with regards to power on hills, if cycling into the wind, etc.
Types of motor
There are two types of motor available on electric bikes – hub or crank motors. As you’d expect there are many different makes of motor available, however, as with batteries its important to ensure that your electric bike motor is from a good manufacturer such as Panasonic or Bafang.
The motors themselves are either brushless or brushed. Brushless motors are by far the most commonly used nowadays as they require less maintenance and are also smaller, quieter and lighter. Some manufacturers sell their brushless motors as being maintenance free.
Hub motors are the most commonly used type of motor on electric bikes. The hub motor is fitted in the centre point of one of the wheels which looks both aesthetically good as it’s in a space that is not normally used on the bike and also means that any maintenance can easily be done as in order to get to the motor or to replace it all you have to do is remove the bike wheel.
Hub motors are most often positioned in the rear wheel. In the main manufacturers feel that using this position gives the bike better handling as the weight distribution is superior. Hub motors in the front wheel can cause poorer handling as there is not much weight pushing down on the front wheel and so there can be a tendency for the front wheel to feel unresponsive and to slip a bit.
Some manufacturers use crank motors. These are positioned in a purpose built assembly around the pedal area of the bike. From a performance point of view there is very little to differentiate them from a good rear hub motor as they are very well positioned on the bike with regards to weight distribution. A downside of crank motors is that if something goes wrong with them they can be expensive to repair or replace as the crank motor unit usually also includes the controller unit and torque sensor all of which would then have to be replaced. Also crank motors can mean that increased maintenance is required to the drive chain, sprockets and cogs as the power is provided directly through these components as opposed to a hub motor which provides power directly to the wheel itself.
Electric bikes are essentially standard pedal cycles with the additional benefit of having electrical power. It’s essential that when you are deciding which electric bike to buy you don’t just look at the motor and the battery but also at the components that make up the rest of the bike to ensure that’s its built using good components. Look for branded components as this makes servicing, replacement and upgrading easier. The quality of these components will also have a big impact on the overall weight of the bike which is another important consideration.
The bike frame is a core component of any bike. Carbon is the ultimate lightweight material for frames, however, the downside is that it is very expensive. Aluminium frames are becoming increasingly popular as they are both lightweight and also more reasonably priced than carbon frames. The best aluminium frames will be marked as Alloy 6061. Steel frames are used by some manufacturers, however, these tend to be on lower specification bikes as steel is cheaper and heavier than aluminium or carbon although it is very strong.
Shimano and SRAM make excellent gears, however, they have a large model range so make sure that you are getting gears that match the overall specification of the bike. For example, a high specification bike with Shimano gears should have high specification Shimano gears.
Some electric bikes will have suspension built into the front forks. This can be great if you are cycling over rough terrain, however, if you are generally cycling on roads it’s probably something you can do without as they add extra weight to the bike. Good brands, however, are RockShox, RST and Fox.
Wheels and tyres are also important components. Reinforced aluminium wheels are both lightweight and strong. Puncture proof tyres are also a useful addition. Good tyre brands are Kenda, Continental and Mavic.
Integrated lights are included on some electric bikes. These can be very useful as they are powered directly from the bike’s battery thus requiring no batteries and can be switched on and off from a switch mounted on the handlebars making them very easy to use.
Many electric bike manufacturers also supply their bikes with digital controllers which are basically small computers. These can be used to record your mileage and speed as well as controlling the amount of pedal assistance that you desire. The more variation in pedal assistance that your controller offers you the better as it allows you to set the bike to exactly your requirements. Controllers that offer five or six different levels of pedal assistance are recommended.
As with many things nowadays, most electric bikes are manufactured in China. China is undoubtedly the world capital for electric bikes with over 120 million on the road so they most definitely know what they are doing. The Chinese knowledge about electronics is perfect for manufacturing electric bikes and their expertise in high quality production is why major businesses such as Apple manufacture there.
Electric bike manufacturing also takes place in other parts of the world with several manufacturers building bikes in Europe.
There is occasionally some confusion about where electric bikes are made. Some companies will claim that their bikes are ‘Made in Europe’ or in a specific European country with the implication that they must be better quality than those made outside of Europe. Of course this is not necessarily the case. There are good European manufacturers as there are good Chinese manufacturers. Likewise there are poor manufacturers from both places.
Also some manufacturers may state that their bike is ‘Made in Europe’ but when things are looked at closely it transpires that the bike has just been ‘Assembled in Europe’ as the components have actually been manufactured in China.
The law is very simple with respect to electric bikes and treats them in exactly the same way as conventional push bikes so long as the following are adhered to:
– The electric bike cannot exceed 15.5mph in power assisted mode.
– The motor must be a maximum size of 250 Watts.
– Power is immediately cut when the brakes are applied.
– The minimum age for riding an electric bike is 14 years of age.
– An electric bike must weigh a maximum of 40kgs.
As with standard push bikes there is no requirement to wear a crash helmet nor is there any requirement to take out insurance. Electric bikes are also not subject to the congestion charge if you are cycling in Central London.
Buying an electric bike needn’t be a complex process although it’s important to ensure that you are getting the electric bike that is right for you. Look closely at the specification of the bike that you are considering to make sure it matches your requirements. Ask the bike shop any questions that you may have. If possible take to the bike for a test ride – this will give you a good idea as to how the bike rides and whether or not it feels right for you. Also check on the warranty that the manufacturer offers. Higher specification electric bikes should really come with a 2 year parts warranty.
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Electric bikes are the future and as soon as you’ve ridden one you’ll understand why. The first time you ride one you’ll end up with a big smile on your face as they’re so much fun and you’ll be wondering why you never tried one before! Arrange a free electric bike test ride now.