Only a few years ago, there really weren’t that many options for folks thinking about making their daily commutes a little more comfortable with an electric bike. Sure there were all sorts of enthusiasts doing made-at-home options. However, when it came to mass-market e-bikes, the offerings were a little spotty, and it was hard to know where to begin.
Fast forward some years, and today there are thousands of options to choose from. The problem now tends to be sorting through the multitude of bikes available to find just the right one. The good news, though, is that as more quality manufacturers come into the market, consumers can expect better quality products and better overall pricing.
Of course, more e-bike makers mean you have a lot of products to wade through when deciding on the right one. With that in mind, here are the ten things you need to know when buying an electric bike.
Why are you buying an electric bike in the first place?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to dissuade you, e-bikes have so many brilliant applications. The essential thing to know, though, is what you are hoping to do with your e-bike. Are you thinking this will be a commuter bike to take you to and from the office? A weekend adventure bike for outings with the family? A general-purpose runabout for picking up groceries and supplies? It’s ok if you plan to do all of those things, but you should know which one is your priority.
We’ll get deeper into the different classes of e-bikes a little further down, but to get you started in your thinking, ask yourself what made you want an e-bike? For people looking to commute to the office every day, an e-bike that does all the work is probably a good idea. You want something that can easily maneuver through the morning traffic and doesn’t cause you to break a sweat. If you regularly show up in need of a second shower, you can bet your electric bike commutes will be short-lived. If you’re more looking for a bit of fun on the weekends, conquering trails, and zipping about town, this will probably be a different bike altogether. Usually, people with this sort of agenda opt for a hybrid option. This allows them to do some pedalling while still providing additional support in the hills or any place where the going gets tough. And then the errand bike is probably another option altogether. You can find great frontloading cargo e-bikes that allow you to bring home a week’s worth of food in one go without hanging a dozen bags off each handlebar.
Of course, some options give crossover abilities to do a little bit each. However, it’s still good to know what your number one priority is before you start looking.
Understand the motor variations.
When it comes to most e-bikes, we are generally talking about two different motor variations: Mid-Drive Motors and Hub-Drive Motors.
So what’s the difference?
Hub-drive motors are, unsurprisingly, stuck right in the center (or hub) of one of the wheels. Most often, the rear wheel, so the power is pushing you forward. These motors have been powering e-bikes from the very beginning, and as such, they have become pretty reliable and affordable. However, hub-drives tend to do their best work over long, flat commutes. So, if you have a lot of ups and downs in mind, this may not be your best choice. The other downside to hub-drive motors is that they can be a pain when it comes to swapping out a flat tire. However, hopefully, you manage to avoid having too many of those.
With a Mid-drive motor, as the name implies, they are usually positioned in the center of the bike, often placed between the pedals. They tend to be smaller, lighter, and capable of laying out considerably more torque without exhausting extensive battery reserves. Also, having the motor at the mid-point of the bike provides a better overall balance. All of which makes the mid-drive style a much better option for any sort of hills. Of course, it’s also going to push the price of your e-bike into the higher range.
You will want to understand classification differences while you’re considering what e-bike to buy.
In the United States, a high number of States place electric bikes into one of three categories. The first, or Class One, is a basic pedal-assist without a throttle and a max speed of 20 miles per hour. Class Two is throttle-assisted and also can not exceed the 20 mph maximum. The third, Class Three designation, is for pedal-assisted e-bikes without a throttle and a top assisted speed of 28 mph. Beyond that, e-bikes start to be designated as motor vehicles and need to conform to a different set of rules altogether. All classes limit the motor’s power to 1 horsepower or 750-Watts. And, there is a requirement for e-bikes to display a highly visible sticker on the frame to indicate its Class designation.
Of course, even though many states have adopted the three-class system for e-bikes, that doesn’t mean that they grant the same privileges. Some States allow Class One and Two to be treated as bicycles, meaning they are permitted on trials, and anywhere bikes are allowed. Although this isn’t always the case. In New York, for example, Class One e-bikes are treated as traditional bicycles, while Class Two has certain trail restrictions given the effects the throttle can have on trail wear over time. The critical thing to understand before you purchase any e-bike is how your local government regulates where you can ride it and which class of bike allows you to get what you want out of your electric bike.
If you plan to make your e-bike a big part of your everyday life, make sure to do your research and spend a bit of money on a quality ride.
Just like most everything else in life, you get what you pay for. And, when it comes to e-bikes, it’s almost too easy to take shortcuts. There is any number of independent builders who are assembling e-bikes with parts from all over the web. Some of them do a great job with quality pieces, while others are simply buying the cheapest components they can find, screwing them together, and slapping a fancy name on it to seem high-end. If you’re technically minded and know what parts you’re looking for, sorting through these “makers” could be a good option. However, if you’re looking for a reliable product, and don’t want to spend a lot of time learning specs, buy your e-bike from a reputable dealer.
Of course, with the nature of international trade today, you can absolutely buy a quality product off the internet. However, if you’re shopping on Amazon, get to know the manufacturers first and read product reviews before purchasing. While a cheap bike may seem like a great option when you’re getting started, you’ll learn relatively quickly that it’s always worth spending a little more if it means a more reliable ride.
Whether you are buying your first E-bike or your fifteenth, buy the warranty.
Once you decide on an electric bike, make sure you protect yourself. A good e-bike can range anywhere from $1,500 to $10,000, and you want to make sure that your investment is covered. While many high-end manufactures will provide two-year limited protection, some components can fall outside of that primary coverage. And, depending on how vigorously you’re using your e-bike, you may find yourself with an unexpected repair bill before too long.
So, to protect your investment and keep you out there riding, you need to know what’s covered, what’s not, and what can be. You want to understand what sort of future costs you are taking on and how much of that can be mitigated upfront for a better price. It’s also a good idea to read customer feedback on company warrantees. If they are challenging to deal with, you can bet previous buyers will want to let you know about it.
Get a grip on how much power your e-bike will have.
Understanding listed power ratings can be challenging, and even more so when you attempt to compare them between e-bikes. Manufacturers have a tendency to rate them in all sorts of curious ways. However, there is a simple trick to better comprehend how much sustained-power you can expect.
First, see if the manufacturer lists the battery voltage and the continuous amperage (this will be measured as amp-hours) from the motor. Next, multiply these two numbers together to get the watt-hours. This is quite literally the number of watts that can be produced in an hour, which will give you a pretty good approximation of what sort of range the e-bake has.
For example, there is a power rating of 750-watts, that’s not a lot to go on. However, if you know that it has a 48-volt battery pack and is rated at 14 amp-hours: 48 x 14 = 672 watt-hours. So, if you’re using your energy conservatively, you should run about 20 watt-hours per mile. This means that your 672-watt-hours on board will get you an approximate range of about 34 miles. And that’s a number you can work with.
Understand a little bit about battery technology before you buy your first e-bike.
Most electric bikes today are equipped with Lithium-ion power cells. However, it’s necessary to note that there can be a drastic range in the batteries’ quality included with any given e-bike. When you purchase a higher-priced model, a good portion of that cost is often accounted for higher-tech power-packs. The high-end variety usually means that they are lighter, faster charging, and longer-lasting. This becomes even more important over the life of your e-bike, as the battery begins to degrade and won’t hold as much charge as it once did. A simple shortcut for checking on the battery is making sure the manufacturer uses a brand name supplier. Panasonic, Sony, and Samsung all make high-end batteries for e-bikes and are a quick indication that you likely won’t have to be concerned about it.
For most lithium-ion batteries used on e-bikes today, you can conservatively expect to get 800 plus full-charge cycles. Which translates into approximately three years of Monday to Friday trips to the office. And maybe a bit of fun on the weekends.
When it comes to charging your battery, you can usually expect a full charge to take between two and a half hours to six hours, depending on the quality. However, some ultra-high-end batteries are now being produced that can be ready to go in as little as an hour. Of course, you pay a bit more for those.
As a final thought on batteries, it’s worth mentioning that you should carefully read the warranty details to ensure the battery is covered for at least two years. Some manufactures will “conveniently” leave the battery uncovered to save themselves some serious dollars if it malfunctions.
Investing in safety from the beginning is an important factor when buying your first e-bike. You’re not quite a bicycle, and you’re not quite a motor vehicle, so understand what that means.
Before you purchase your first e-bike, you need to give some thought to protecting yourself while ridding. While most of the base requirements are in line with what you would need for a traditional bicycle, you may want to consider going a bit higher-level.
When it comes to helmets, go for the highest quality you can afford. One area you don’t want to skimp on is the gear protecting your head from an impact. Especially if you are using your e-bike as a daily commuter vehicle and are finding yourself sharing the road with large numbers of tired early morning drivers.
You will also want to look at getting a riding jacket. Ideally, this will be reflective and bright enough that drivers see you very clearly. For extra security, consider getting a protective coat that includes reinforced elbows and back support to protect you in the event of a fall.
Lights and Sounds
Like a traditional bicycle, many local governments mandate the use of bike lights and bells on e-bikes. Be sure you understand what is required by law, but don’t be afraid to go above and beyond the regulations to make yourself seen and heard on your e-bike.
When buying an e-bike, you want to know the difference between rotation sensors and torque sensors.
While both will do an adequate job of engaging the electric motor, there is a difference, that will be quite noticeable when you’re out on the road. In the case of a rotation sensor, these devices tend to be very simple. They use a series of magnets that rotate with the crankshaft, which allows the e-bike to know that the rider is pedalling and that it’s time to engage the motor. A torque sensor, on the other hand, is found in more high-end electric bikes. It works by determining how much pressure the rider is pushing into the pedals and assisting in a proportional amount. With a torque sensor, the rider feels the ride gets easier in direct proportion to how hard they are working. It’s sometimes referred to as the Superman effect because the rider feels the pedalling getting more manageable as they push harder.
Before you buy any e-bike, discover how much manufacturer support you can expect and how hard it will be to find aftermarket parts.
Not all manufacturers are created equal. Even some that produce quality e-bikes have been known to provide terrible after-sales support to their clientele. In some instances, we’ve heard of suppliers directing buyers to their Facebook page instead of providing support. By getting owners to help each other with issues, they seem to think it alleviates their obligation. However, checking out social media pages is a great way to get feedback from other owners about how supportive the company is after purchase. It never seems like a big deal until something goes wrong and you can’t get the help you need.
Similarly, it’s a good idea to find out how easy it is to get aftermarket parts for your electric bike. In some cases, manufacturers maintain a closed ecosystem. Meaning it’s hard to do any upgrades, repairs, or modifications yourself. For many riders, this is just fine, but it will often result in more costly repairs in the long-run, as you have to go back to the manufacturer. This is another area where tapping into the company’s social media following can help quite a bit. Owners are usually too happy to let you know where they’ve had issues and where the service has gone above and beyond.