An electric bike offers an eco-friendly, economical, and efficient way to travel. If you’ve never heard of it before, we’ve got you covered. Today, we’ll share everything you need to know about an electric bike.
An electric bike, also called an e-bike, is just like your regular bike, except it has a controller, motor, and rechargeable battery. Since 2017, the sales of e-bikes have been increasing—and we expect those numbers to keep increasing because of the global pandemic.
So, what is an electric bike? What are its pros and cons? What do you need to watch out for when buying one? Read on to find out the answers.
Table of Contents
- 1 A Brief History of the Electric Bike
- 2 How Does an Electric Bike Work?
- 3 The Pros and Cons of Electric Bikes
- 3.1 The Pros of an Electric Bike
- 3.2 The Cons of an Electric Bike
- 4 Electric Bike Buying Guide
A Brief History of the Electric Bike
An electric bike is not a recent invention. Its history goes way back to the 1890s.
In 1895, Ogden Bolton Jr. got a patent (U.S. Patent 552,271) for the first electric-powered bike. The bike didn’t have gears, but it has a direct current (DC) hub motor that draws power (100 amperes maximum) from a 10-volt battery.
After two years, Hosea W. Libbey came up with his own version of the electric bike (US Patent 547,441, 1895). His electric bike had two batteries, motors, and wheels.
Then, in 1898, Mathew J. Steffens invented the first rear-wheeled electric bike. He fitted it with a belt along the outside edge of the wheel to produce power. Unfortunately, this was also the time of the first motor car production, which stole the spotlight from Steffens’ invention.
Jesse D. Tucker developed his electric bike fifty years after John Schnepf released his roller-wheel-style electric bike. Tucker’s version has internal gearing systems and a motor that gives you the option to pedal along with the electric motor or not.
It was only in the ‘90s that power controllers and torque motors came into the picture. Vector Services Limited sold the only commercial e-bike, the Zike, in 1992. Yamaha was the first to manufacture a cadence pedal-assist system (PAS) in 1993.
Today, people have hundreds, or even thousands, of choices for electric bikes. Each model offers different features and performance levels to fit your unique requirements.
How Does an Electric Bike Work?
Electric bikes handle and pedal just like normal push bikes. The only difference is it depends on electric components: battery, controller, motor, and sensors. All of these electric components work together to help you travel farther and climb steep roads.
They don’t completely replace human power. You still need to pedal an electric bike in order for the motor (usually a brushless DC motor) to help you. The harder you pedal, the more pedal assistance you’ll get and the faster you’ll ride—up to a certain extent only.
Sensors on your electric bike will detect and calculate your ability to turn the rear wheel (torque), pedaling rate (cadence), and speed. This in turn releases power from the battery to engage the electromagnets, which make the motor move.
But before that power reaches your electric bike’s motor, it has to go through the controller first. The controller is responsible for adjusting the voltage going to the motor and regulating the level of assistance you’ll get.
Let’s say you want to get a good workout, so you don’t need the motor to help you. If that’s the case, you can set your electric bike to “pedal only” mode. But what if you’re already feeling tired? Now, you can use your electric bike in “pedal assist” mode, where the motor kicks in as you’re pedaling to experience a more effortless ride.
There are different ways to change and transfer power from the drive unit into your pedals. Hub motor and crank drive motor are two of the most common types of motors in electric bikes.
You’ll find the hub motor on the hub of the wheel (front or back). Probably one of the biggest benefits of this type of motor is it requires minimal maintenance because of its enclosed system.
A crank drive motor offers a more authentic cycling experience because it works together with your legs. You’ll usually find this between pedals. Due to its high efficiency, it can work well with low power levels, even if you need to climb hills.
Note: Electric bikes aren’t faster than motorcycles. Most models of electric bikes are limited to 15.5 mph (legal limit) or 28 mph. One of the fastest electric bikes has a top speed of 50 mph.
The Pros and Cons of Electric Bikes
Electric bikes are great, but they’re not perfect. Similar to other modes of transportation, they have their impressive and not-so-impressive features. So, it’s really important to discuss some of their important pros and cons to help you make a wise buying decision.
The Pros of an Electric Bike
If you want to live more sustainably, consider buying an electric bike. There are plenty of reasons why it’s good for the environment.
- Zero emissions
Passenger vehicles are one of the major causes of air pollution. But vehicles that run on clean energy can help.Unlike vehicles that run on diesel and gas, an electric bike doesn’t emit toxic fumes that could harm the environment and your health. If you want to take things to the next level, you can charge an electric bike with solar power.
- Long-lasting and recyclable batteries
We’re not saying electric bikes don’t contribute waste to landfills. They do produce little waste. Like electric and non-electric cars, electric bikes have parts and a battery that you need to eventually replace.
What happens to dead electric bike batteries?
Some companies, like Bosch, ask consumers to return electric bike batteries that drain fast or are no longer functioning to dealers, so they can forward them to recycling centers. GRS, a Germany-based service company, estimates that they’re able to recycle around 50 to 70% of the contents of electric bike batteries.
Cheaper and Easier to Maintain
Don’t skip routine maintenance. It can greatly help prevent potential problems from happening and keeps your electric bike running smoothly.
Compared to cars, an electric bike is definitely cheaper and easier to maintain because it has fewer moving parts. Depending on the frequency of use and distance traveled, an electric bike will most likely require servicing once or twice a year.
The expected cost of maintaining an electric bike will depend on many factors. For instance, are you going to maintain it yourself or let an experienced mechanic (recommended) do it for you? How often and far do you ride your electric bike?
Here are a few estimates for the costs of maintenance:
- Servicing: $75 to $150+
- Battery replacement (probably every 2 or 4 years): $500 to $800
- Brake adjustment: $15 to $35
- Flat tire repair: $6 to $20
- New tires: $30 to $100
- New tire tubes: $8 to $25
- Adjusting or replacing the drivetrain: $25 or more
Cycle with Less Effort
Tired of those long (sweaty) commutes? Then, you’d appreciate the different levels of assistance an electric bike can offer you.
There are three general categories of electric bikes:
- Category 1: You only get help from the motor when you pedal. It stops providing assistance at 20 mph.
- Category 2: Electric bikes in this category also come with a pedal-only mode (for up to 20 mph). To give you that motorcycle or scooter experience, they have a purely throttle-only mode.
- Category 3: These electric bikes are similar to the first category of electric bikes. The only difference is you’ll continue to get pedal assistance until you reach the speed of 28 mph.
You might be asking yourself, “What pedal assistance level or electric bike category should I use?” Well, it really depends on you. There’s no right or wrong answer. Just remember that the more assistance you use, the faster you’ll drain the battery.
Tailors Your Workout to Your Needs
Some people feel that an electric bike doesn’t offer an actual workout. By now, we all know that’s not true. An electric bike motor might have assistance levels ranging from 50% to 250%, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be burning calories. Remember, you still need to pedal it like a regular bike.
Actually, study shows that people who use electric bikes get more exercise than those who use regular bikes. The study was published in the journal Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives.
In the study, the researchers surveyed 10,000 adults from seven European countries. They wanted to know the amount of time the participants spend on exercise and the total distance they travel every week using different forms of transportation, such as:
- A pedal bike
- An electric bike
The result of the study was quite interesting. The researchers found out that those who use electric bikes were slightly getting more workout every week than regular bike riders. They identified two reasons for this:
- The electric bike riders were able to travel longer distances.
- They spend more time on their bikes than cyclists.
Perfect for Older Adults
Electric bikes are a great way to encourage people in their senior years to live an active lifestyle, which helps support good health. In fact, they might be as beneficial as—or probably even better than—riding a regular road bike or mountain bike.
One study published in the PLOS One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, suggests that riding an electric bike at least thrice per week for half an hour could help improve brain function in older adults (50 to 83 years old). Not only that, the adults in the “electric bike-only” group experienced better sense of well-being and performed slightly better in processing speed.
Can Improve Health
Cycling in general is excellent for your health. It can help improve blood flow, promote lung and heart health, and strengthen and tone muscles.
According to researchers of the University of Bristol Nutrition Biomedical Research Centre, “e-cycling” has the potential to provide moderate intensity workout. It’s not as intense as conventional cycling, but it’s definitely more intense than walking.
The slight advantage of electric bikes over regular bikes is they can help you ride longer and farther. The more time you spend on cycling, the more calories you burn.
Versatility is one of the strongest suits of motor-assisted bikes. And with the ever growing range of models, finding the right one for your budget and unique preferences isn’t going to be a major issue.
There are different classifications of electric bikes, each fully equipped with useful features. There’s the hybrid electric bikes, also known as trekking electric bikes, which are suitable options for people who usually go light off-road riding. For your daily commutes, there are electric bikes that come with pannier racks, built-in lights, long-lasting batteries, and hydraulic brakes.
Convert to Save Money
For some people, the upfront cost stops them from trying an electric bike. Luckily, though, there’s a way for you to transform your pedal bike into a power-assisted one. You just need to buy a conversion kit, which costs a fraction of a new electric bike—probably anywhere between $300 and $900.
The conversion process is generally easy since you’re not really going to use power tools to make physical changes to your bike. When it comes to installing the conversion kit, anyone who has tried taking their bike apart for maintenance or repair can easily do it.
Fun to Ride
What else is there to say? It’s simply fun to ride an electric bike. Everyone can experience the joy and excitement of riding one, especially older folks and people with mobility and health issues.
The Cons of an Electric Bike
Higher Upfront Cost
Electric bikes can be expensive when bought brand new. On average, the retail price of electric bikes would range anywhere between $600 and $8,000, with mainstream models costing $1,500 to $4,000. It’s hard to find high-quality models that cost less than $1,000.
The good news is you can recover the money you spent, depending on your intended use for an electric bike. If you drive daily to work or school, it’s possible to save money if you use it instead. Replacing your car with an electric bike would probably save you thousands of dollars every year.
Heavier than Regular Bikes
With all the extra components (e.g. battery and motor) and weight of the actual bike, it’s not surprising that electric bikes are heavy. If that’s not enough, some manufacturers would usually use heavier components and make the frame stronger to support the weight of the motor.
The typical weight of a standard electric bike would be around 45 to 50 pounds, or even up to 70 pounds. Regular mountain bikes would weigh 21 to 29 pounds, while regular road bikes could weigh around 17 to 17.5 pounds.
Long and Regular Charging
If the battery (lithium ion) is fully drained, it’ll take 3.5 to 6 hours to recharge. It’s important not to overcharge or fully discharge your electric bike’s battery to extend its lifespan.
It’s easy to know if the battery is fully charged because it’s going to indicate it in some way, like a color change in the LED lights. Some modern electric bike batteries have a smart charging system to avoid overcharging.
Note: To make sure there’s no sudden voltage dip (a 10% reduction of voltage), take your electric bike for a test drive first.
Parts Replacement Costs
Depending on how well you maintained it, an electric bike could last for 3 to 5 years. After or within that time frame, you might need to fix or replace some parts.
Estimated lifespan of some electric bike parts:
- The most critical and expensive part of any electric bike is the battery. A well-maintained battery may start to become less efficient after 2 to 5 years. Or, to put it in a different perspective, the battery would need replacement after 10,000 to 30,000 miles—if you’re religious in combining electric power and pedal power.
- The motor would typically last for a minimum of 10,000 miles.
- Between a brushed motor controller and brushless motor controller, the former tends to be less dependable. Therefore, you might need to frequently buy a new one. Another advantage of a brushless motor controller is you can replace it with a generic unit that’s intended for other vehicles, like scooters.
- Then, there’s the drivetrain. In general, the chain needs replacement after every 2,000 miles.
- If the rim brakes are of good quality, you only need to change them after every 3,000 miles. Disc brakes would still work well up to 6,000 miles.
Prohibited on Planes
You can’t take an electric bike with you on a plane because of its battery. Airports and airlines have numerous regulations on the capacity and size of batteries. They only allow rechargeable lithium batteries that don’t have more than 100 Watt-hour (Wh) capacity.
So, here’s the problem: Manufacturers often power their electric bikes with batteries in the range of 300Wh to 600Wh, or possibly higher. A battery capacity of more than 160Wh will require the approval of the air carrier.
Potentially Confusing Regulation Laws
Most countries and states have no problems with people operating an electric bike without a license. The important thing is they meet their specific requirements, which would typically include the following:
- A motor that produces not more than 200 watts of power
- The electric bike doesn’t exceed the 25 km/h speed limit
In the United States, the laws about the use of electric bikes are a bit confusing. Part of the problem is you need to determine if they’re considered a motorized vehicle, which the federal and state governments define differently.
Some U.S. states may also have their own rules about the use of electric bikes—some might consider them as motor vehicles, while others consider them as human-powered bikes. For instance, under the California Vehicle Code, they’re not considered as motor vehicles.
Reminder: Before paying for any electric bike, check your state laws regarding this type of vehicle. Make sure it doesn’t violate your state’s standards for power output and speed.
Electric Bike Buying Guide
Considering the expensive price tag, it’s only right that you take your time to check what you’re going to buy. It can be a daunting task, so we’ve compiled a few tips for choosing the right electric bike based on your needs.
Know Your What, Where, and How
Ask yourself these questions:
- How often are you going to use the electric bike?
- Where are you supposed to ride it often?
- What are you going to use it for?
The total distance an electric bike can operate on a single charge highly depends on several factors, including assistance level, battery capacity, road conditions, weight (yours and the bike’s), sensors, speed, your pedal capability, and weather conditions.
Let’s say you’re just going to do less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) of commuting each day. An electric bike with a 48V/13Ah battery usually offers enough range.
Suggestion: It’s still a good idea to get an electric bike with a range that’s higher than you normally need because the battery capacity will dip as time goes by.
There are several types of electric bikes in terms of your intended purpose. If you want something that’s easy to carry or store for your commutes or weekend trips, get a folding electric bike. If you want an electric bike that does well on varying terrains, a fat tire electric bike would be perfect for you.
Look for a Trusted Brand
Some of the popular brands for electric bike components are Bosch, Shimano, 8Fun, and Yamaha. For mountain electric bikes, look for the SWAGTRON, ANCHEER, and Priority brands.
In the United States, one of the go-to brands for affordable electric bikes is X-Treme. The price range for their electric bikes range from $500 to $1,500. The only downside is they’re hard to come by because they’re often sold out.
Other popular electric bike manufacturers in the United States:
- Rad Power
- Specialized (offers high-end electric bikes)
Be careful with unknown or newer companies. Some, if not most, of these companies could be gone after a few years, which could lead to issues with the warranty claiming process.
Check the Warranty
We’re pretty sure you’re already well aware of the importance of a warranty. It gives you an assurance that you’ll get a replacement or refund if the electric bike you bought turns out to be defective.
Nowadays, most manufacturers provide a warranty of one or two years. The warranty typically covers the high-value components of an electric bike, including the battery, frame, and motor.
The warranty period of some popular companies:
- Pedego: 5 years
- Evelo: 4 years
- Yamaha: 3 years
- Trek: 2 years
- Rad Power Bikes: 1 year
If you’re planning to buy a secondhand model, make sure you read the owner’s manual to know if it’s possible for second owners to claim the warranty. There are plenty of dealers out there that don’t allow it. Although there are some that may only need a proof of purchase (a receipt) from the second owner.
Bike and Rider Weight
The typical maximum weight capacity of electric bike models range from 220 to 300 pounds. The amount of weight an electric bike can support will have an impact on its lifespan. If the weight limit of your electric bike doesn’t support your weight, it’s going to repeatedly break down on you within a few months and put you at risk for injury.
In regular bikes, less weight is good. When it comes to electric bikes, it means less range on a single charge. The additional weight on electric-assisted bikes makes it easier for you to pedal and maintain a fast speed as the motor provides a small boost in power.
Here’s a list of different types of electric bikes and their estimated weights:
- Commuting or hybrid: 50 to 70 pounds
- Cruiser: 70 pounds
- Fat tire: 50 to 70 pounds
- Folding: 30 to 50 pounds
- Mountain: 40 to 70 pounds
- Racing: 40 pounds
Test It Several Times
This is the fun part of shopping for an electric bike. So, if possible, shop from your local dealer. It allows you to closely inspect several models and take them for a test drive to see if they live up to your expectations—whatever they are. It’s also a good opportunity for you to ask important questions before parting with your hard-earned money.
Let’s be honest. Electric bikes won’t completely replace traditional cars, at least not in the near future. However, they’re great options for people—perhaps like you—who want to have fun, reduce their carbon footprint, and save money on car fuel and maintenance at the same time. And while the initial cost is high, electric bikes can pay themselves off in the long run.
That being said, don’t hesitate to demand for the best electric bike. Shop around to see what your options are depending on your budget and the features that are most important to you. We hope this article, especially our informative buying guide, will help you make an educated buying decision.