Electric Bike Buyers Guide
So you want to buy an e-Bike. That’s great news! There are enormous benefits to owning an e-Bike in terms of health, commuting and of course, being environmentally friendly. But in today’s market, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with all the information out there. It can be difficult to separate legitimate information from click bait sites that waste your time. We put together this buyer’s guide to help you determine your needs and make an informed purchase.
E-bikes are growing rapidly in popularity all around the world. In 2017 over 34 million e-Bikes were sold worldwide, growing the total number to over 200 million. The U.S. is a relatively new market for the e-bike industry and as such, has seen an explosion in growth in both types of e-bikes and the number of companies to choose from. Narrowing down these choices to find the right e-bike will involve answering a few questions about yourself and what you want out of your new e-bike. Before we answer those questions, let’s quickly go over what an electric bike is and what an electric bike is not.
What Is An E-Bike?
In essence, an electric bike is simply a conventional bicycle with a motor and battery integrated into the drive system. Some e-bikes are designed from the beginning as electric bikes with the electrical components, motor and battery built-in. Others are conventional bicycles retrofitted to be an e-bike. In either case, e-bikes share many—if not all—of the same standard parts that conventional bicycles use, making repair and replacement an easy and affordable experience.
It’s important to note that an e-bike is not the same as an electric scooter. While both have battery-powered electric motors, e-bikes still retain the pedals of a conventional bike making them a hybrid between a motorized, and human-powered vehicle. This distinction is important when considering where each is allowed to be ridden and what is required to ride each. Scooters are considered a motorized vehicle and as such are subject to the same laws as motorcycles. This means a license is required to operate an electric scooter and scooters must be ridden in regular traffic lanes. E-bikes are generally subject to the same regulations and laws as conventional bicycles, meaning they can ride in bike lanes and bike paths and do not require a license. That being said, it’s always a good idea to check your local city and state laws regarding electric bike use.
Now that we have a good understanding of what an e-bike is, it’s time to do a self-assessment. What do you want or need from an e-bike? What will you use it for? We can break this down easily by looking at the following:
Health & Fitness Level
When looking at your personal health and fitness levels, keep in mind your age, body weight and any health conditions you may have. The accessibility and ease of use of e-bikes allows older cyclists who might be suffering from decreased stamina, to continue cycling and people with larger bodies to enjoy riding as well. Your level of fitness, body type and weight will help you determine what size motor you will need.
This comes down to one thing: hills. Will you encounter them often and how steep will they be? If you’re going to be commuting or leisurely riding around a relatively flat area, power won’t be as necessary. But even low grade hills, especially longer ones, can tire you out quickly depending on your current fitness. Even the most fit person will sweat after toiling away on a continued incline of even a modest grade. So look at the local terrain of where you’ll be riding and think about how much you want to sweat. And remember, more power equals less sweat.
Just as the terrain is important when considering power, distance is equally important when considering your battery. Your e-bike’s battery and the amount of human-powered energy you want to use will greatly determine your range. Longer rides, of varying terrain, with less pedaling will require the greatest amount of range.
The two most common reasons to purchase an e-bike are for commuting and recreational cycling. Using an e-bike to commute to and from work carries plenty of benefits. Depending on how far away from work you live, using an e-bike can often shorten commute times by bypassing traffic and make for a much more relaxed and enjoyable commute to work. This is what truly separates an e-bike from a traditional cycle as well; riding to work on a conventional road bike will make you sweat. You won’t need a shower after riding your e-bike to work.
Recreational use of an e-bike is a great way to explore further, stay longer and get as little or as much exercise as you like. Our increasingly urban world has tons of bike routes to take you from one end of the city to another at a leisurely pace with an e-bike. If you plan on using your e-bike intermittently, with longer periods between use, the quality of the battery should be a major consideration. Batteries that are idle for long periods will ultimately have shorter lifespans. Choosing higher quality batteries will usually result in a longer life span, resulting in a lower cost over the long term than cheap batteries. And better batteries handle multiple recharges better should you find yourself enjoying your e-bike daily and need to charge often.
Putting It All Together
Knowing your health and fitness level, body weight, intended use, the terrain and desired range will help you in deciding what to look for in your e-bike. Let’s look at the important elements of the e-bike that your assessment will need to take into consideration:
Your pocketbook is always going to be a big determining factor in your purchasing decisions. The old adage, “You get what you pay for” has always been true and stills reigns supreme in determining the quality of your purchase. Unfortunately, quality e-bikes have traditionally been attainable only for the few with the resources to afford them. But retailers have seen the demand for e-bikes and have tried to meet this demand for affordable e-bikes by choosing manufacturers that produce cheap e-bikes. Unfortunately, like most cheaply made products, these lower-priced e-bikes suffer from short lifespans and need repair or replacement far too often.
Tower uses our direct-to-consumer model to manufacture quality e-bikes with the ability to offer them at affordable prices by eliminating the middleman. By choosing Tower, you don’t pay the marked-up prices from retailers and distributors, and instead purchase high quality materials at incredibly low prices.
You can still opt for cheaper e-bikes, but just keep that old adage in mind when things start to go wrong and you’re pulling your wallet out for replacement parts or even a new e-bike.
The battery is one of the most important factors to consider when purchasing a new e-bike. It also will easily distinguish the quality of the e-bike. Typically, a good lithium battery should provide a range between 20 and 60 miles per single charge. This of course will heavily depend on how much motor assistance is used. One method to determine range is to calculate the watt-hours of the battery. This can be done by multiplying the battery voltage by the amp hours. For example, Tower electric bikes have a 48V battery with 14 amp hours which calculates to 672Wh. To get a better idea, let’s look at typical usage for different size batteries:
- 250-500Wh: You can expect up to about 25 miles from a battery in the top portion of this range.
- 500-800Wh: You can expect exceed 30 miles from a battery in the middle portion of this range.
- 800+Wh: You can expect exceed 40 miles from a battery in the top portion of this range. Batteries with this range are very large in size and can be cumbersome.
The distance you get out of your battery is hugely dependent on your riding style. Riders who rely heavily on the throttle can expect a much smaller range. In order to get the most range from your battery we suggest riding with a low level of pedal assist. Consider your typical route, its distance and gradient so you can get a battery that will go the distances you need.
Let’s face it, it’s almost always better to have more power. More power means more speed, something we love, but not our main point. The main reason to get a more powerful motor is for longevity. More powerful motors don’t have to work as hard as smaller motors and will last much longer for it. Motors in the 500W-750W are ideal for e-bikes. They have more than enough power to assist for long periods and can be relied on to push you up those big hills. The Newton Meter is a great number to look at to determine how much torque your motor will produce. The more torque your motor produces, the better it’ll climb.
There are two types of drive systems used for e-bikes: Pedal Assist System (PAS) or Throttle. E-bikes using a PAS will typically engage the motor anytime the pedals are being used. Once engaged, the rider will be able to determine the amount of power being produced by the motor. This is a great option for those that know they will rely heavily on the motor.
Less common, are e-bikes that have only a throttle to control the motor. This type of e-bike functions in a binary mode of pedal-only or throttle-only. This means the only way to activate the motor is through the throttle. The throttle is often similar to those found on motorcycles.
What we recommend is an e-bike that has both. This gives you the ability to customize your riding experience completely. PAS is great for getting the most out of your battery while still making for an easy ride. Having the throttle alongside the PAS is great for those moments when you need a burst of speed to avoid an accident, move with traffic or mash up a steep hill. Most e-bikes offer around 5 level of pedal-assist and either a twist throttle or a thumb throttle. Learn more about the different eBike types.
There are three places the motor can be mounted on an e-bike: the front hub, the rear hub or the middle of the frame. Here’s some of the pros and cons of each:
- Front Hub: Motors on the front hub are the easiest to put on and take off. They provide power to the front wheel, creating a pulling sensation when in use. Front hub mounted motors don’t interfere with very many parts, making them easy to replace and repair. Front hub mounted motors have the hardest time with hills and can slip or spin out. With the weight being behind the motor, going up hill places the wheel above the center of gravity for the rider and will struggle to pull the rider up the hill.
- Rear Hub: Motors mounted on the rear hub feel more like a traditional bicycle as both derive power from the back tire. The weight of the rider will also be above the rear hub mounted motor, allowing for the torque provided by the motor to more easily push the e-bike and rider up hills. Rear hub mounted motors do have to work around derailleurs, chains and cassettes, making installation more difficult.
- Mid Drive: The least common and most expensive is the motor mounted to the middle of the frame. These motors drive the pedal crank directly, making them extremely effective for hills.
Read more on motor placement in our electric bike motors pros and cons article.
The weight of an e-bike can vary greatly depending on the quality and durability of the components, but you can typically get one around 50+ pounds. This becomes a more relevant factor in your decision making process depending on your individual circumstances. Consider how much you will need to lift your e-bike in day-to-day use. Will you need to take it up and down stairs? If you find that you will have to do this, definitely consider an e-bike with a removable battery as the battery is often one of the heaviest components of an e-bike. Being able to remove the battery and carry it separately can help significantly.
E-bikes are generally available with wheels in the 20 to 26 inch range. Smaller wheels help reduce the overall size and weight of an e-bike but sacrifice range and speed. With larger wheels around 26 inches, e-bikes will maintain speed in the flats and require less power to do so, thus increasing range and providing longer battery life. Smaller wheels do accelerate faster, but the difference isn’t as great as the distance you lose with smaller wheels.
Additionally, there is a trend for e-bikes to have fat tires, giving them a motorcycle look. While providing additional traction, fatter tires also reduce range and deplete battery quicker. Tire in the 2 to 3.5 inch range offer plenty of grip while maintaining excellent range and battery life.
Electric mountain bikes (e-MTBs) are the only type of e-bike that really need suspension. These are built to withstand sudden impacts and uneven terrain which you rarely encounter in urban areas. A way to increase your comfort level on your e-bike and to dampen any impacts or vibrations from the motor is to add suspension to the saddle down pipe. Having suspension that is too soft can be risky especially if you run out of battery during your ride, suspension reduces your pedal efficiency and on an e-bike that is heavier than a traditional bike, that’s something you don’t want.
Purchasing an e-bike is a great way to stay healthy and enjoy an eco-friendly ride for both fun and commuting. We’ve outlined the most important things to consider when making your purchasing decision. Know your personal needs, wants and abilities. Weigh that against where you’ll ride, how far and how long. Eliminate cheap alternatives that’ll cost more in the long run, choose the elements that’ll fit your assessment best and then go give it try. There’s no substitute for physically testing an e-bike to see if you really like it. By riding before you buy, you get the best idea for how it feels, how it handles and how comfortable you are riding it.