What Are Electric Bikes?

Electric bicycles are bikes equipped with electric motors. These motors assist the rider in propelling the bicycle forward. Unlike motorcycles or motor scooters, however, riders can switch off the electric motor and pedal as if they were on a normal bicycle. The motors on electric bikes are regulated by Federal law to produce no more than 750 watts of power and go no faster than 20 miles an hour.

Who Can Operate an Electric Bike?

Electric bicycles are mostly governed by the same regulations as ordinary bicycles. They can be operated on bike lanes, trails, roads and sidewalks wherever a bicycle can be ridden. Some states have additional age restrictions for electric bicycles.

Where Can I Get an Electric Bike?

Electric bicycles are readily available pre-built from specialty stores and internet retailers. These models range in price from about $400 to $3,500. Many riders choose to purchase conversion kits instead, ranging from $500 to $800 on average. With a conversion kit, an ordinary bicycle is mounted with a battery, motor and control mechanism, allowing your favorite bike to pedal itself uphill. Pre-built electric bikes tend to be heavy and expensive, while building an electric bike from a kit allows for full control over weight, cost and other factors.

How do Electric Bikes Work?

Most electric bicycles are powered by hub motors. These motors sit inside the hub of the front or rear wheel and use electromagnetic force to spin the wheel without gears, chains or belts. Hub motors are completely silent and almost never require maintenance. Motors are rated by wattage, with higher watt motors offering more power — but be careful, as some manufacturers measure wattage differently. A motor with 1000 watts of peak output may perform worse than one offering 600 watts of standard operating output.

What Kind of Batteries do Electric Bikes Use?

Three types of batteries are commonly found in electric bicycles. Sealed lead acid batteries are the most common. These provide the most amp hours at the cost of weighing more than the other two kinds and lasting only a fraction as long. Lithium batteries are the most expensive but they weigh the least and last the longest. Nickel cadmium batteries fall somewhere in between.

Many rechargeable lithium or nickel cadmium batteries are removable for easy recharging between rides.

What Should I Look For in a Conversion Kit?

A basic conversion kit should come with a wheel with a built in motor. Additionally, you’ll want to look for dual brake motor cutoffs, a throttle control, a wiring harness, a motor controller, and a battery mount. You’ll need all of these devices to operate your electric bicycle safely. You might also want to find wiring diagrams, mounting tools and wire tires to go along with your kit. 

While it can be tempting to just order everything on the internet, make sure you visit your local electric bicycle supplier too. If you have any questions or need help with your conversion the folks at your local store can be a valuable resource. They’ll be happy to recommend any products you might have missed for your conversion and help make sure your build turns out for the best.

If you plan on building a bicycle with a motor larger than 500 watts, make sure you have a strong enough fork. Aluminum front forks and suspension forks can’t always stand up to the strain of a powerful electric motor. Otherwise, the bicycle that you convert doesn’t matter too much. Light bikes, heavy bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, fixies and bikes with lots of gears all make excellent electric bicycles. Be sure to choose whichever one you enjoy riding the most.

Electric Bicycles and the Environment

Electric bicycles produce no emissions or waste. They do not contribute to air pollution, nor are they dependant on oil. The only environmental concerns stem from battery disposal. Lithium batteries are the most environmentally friendly choice available to electric bicycle riders.