Last Updated on May 17, 2023 by Matt
Probably the first question that comes to mind to beginners (and possibly advanced users) is how do electric bikes work?
E-bikes run on electric power from a battery, with a motor to help you pedal. You can control how much assistance you get with a small display. When you pedal or push the throttle, a signal is sent to the battery. The battery then feeds power to the motor. You can recharge the battery from a standard outlet when it runs low.
Understanding how e-bikes work will help you to better maintain yours if you have one or plan to get one. Let’s get into it.
What is an electric bike?
Before we explain how electric bikes work, let’s first briefly define what they are.
Electric bikes are just like standard bikes, except they have an electric motor. These motors are often attached to the wheel of the bike and are designed to propel the bike forward without you having to pedal. In most cases, people use them to assist in pedaling.
There are different types of electric bikes, but the most common is a road bike which people in urban areas typically use. Electric mountain bikes are becoming more popular, as they can make riding on trails much easier and more accessible.
Some electric bikes have a throttle. That means you can control the amount of electric power you are getting without even pedaling.
On most e-bikes, you can decide how much help you want, depending on how much effort you want to put in based on the terrain.
How does an electric bike work?
E-bikes are powered by a battery. When you start pedaling, a sensor sends a message to the battery and the motor, signaling the battery to deliver power to the motor. The motor can give you a little boost or a significant one, depending on your configuration and desire.
On most electric bikes, there is a small display on the handlebars. You can set your power output there, as well as check the vitals of your battery and motor.
All of the other components work as they do on other bikes. There are still brakes, wheels, frame, etc.
How do electric bike components work?
Almost every electric bike has the following components:
- pedal assist sensor
- tires and wheels
- suspension (optional)
Let’s quickly explain what each of them does.
The electric motor is one of the main components that separates an electric bike from a regular one.
It is usually mounted near the pedals or in the rear wheel hub and assists the rider while pedaling.
The motors are designed to work in sync with the rider’s pedaling, which means you can both use motor power and pedaling power to move forward, separately or at the same time.
The battery is another critical component of an electric bike that you won’t find in a regular bike.
It stores the energy that powers the electric motor, and it’s usually mounted on the frame or the rear rack.
This is probably the most important part of any electric bike, together with the motor.
The controller is a small device that regulates the power from the battery to the motor. It can be adjusted to control the level of assistance provided to the rider.
Pedal assist sensor
The pedal assist sensor detects the rider’s pedaling motion and sends a signal to the controller to activate the motor.
Some e-bikes come with a throttle, a small hand-operated lever that allows the rider to control the level of assistance the motor provides without pedaling.
Electric bikes may have gears like a traditional bike, which allow the rider to adjust their pedaling effort depending on the terrain and level of assistance provided by the motor.
The two most common types of brakes used on an e-bike are mechanical disc brakes and hydraulic disc brakes.
Mechanical brakes are reliable and get the job done, but hydraulic brakes are almost always better, as they provide both more sensitivity and smoother braking.
Both use a cable system to interact with the disk caliper. Hydraulic brake cables are filled with fluid, while mechanical brake cables are not.
Hydraulic disc brakes are becoming more popular, but they are harder to maintain.
Electric bikes use the same type of brakes found on a standard bicycle. They do not influence the other vital components.
Tires and wheels
The tires and wheels on electric bikes are not much different from those on standard bikes. However, in some cases, e-bikes tend to use fatter wheels, as they are better designed to handle the power delivery from the motor to the hub and finally to the wheels.
It is also important to note that some e-bikes use different types of casing to protect the wheels, especially for bikes designed for off-road use.
The average tire size on electric bikes is between 20 and 26 inches. Again, it depends on what the bike is used for.
Probably the most notable difference between the wheels in a regular and an electric bike is that the wheels of an electric bike can host the hub motor within them.
There are several types of electric bike frames. The most common frames include:
- Diamond frame: This is the most traditional bike frame.
- Step-through frame: This is a low-slung frame with a sloping top tube which makes it easier to mount and dismount the bike.
- Cargo frame: This sturdy frame is designed to carry heavy loads.
- Fat tire frame: This frame is designed to accommodate wide, oversized tires.
The suspension systems used in e-bikes can vary significantly based on the intended use of the bike. For example, full-suspension e-bikes incorporate both front and rear shocks to counteract impact and provide a smoother ride.
On the other hand, hardtail e-bikes generally have only a front suspension fork to absorb shock and enhance grip on bumpy terrain.
The suspension system on an e-bike is typically the same as you would find on a standard bike.
Battery, Voltage, Capacity, Watt-hours, Amp-hours
Electric bikes mostly use lithium-ion batteries, also found in electric devices such as phones and even electric cars. This is a brief overview of what you need to know about e-bike batteries.
Capacity determines how much energy the battery can store and use. It is measured in Watt-hours, or Wh. The capacity can also determine how long the battery charge will last.
For example, if the bike has a 500 Wh battery and is used for 2 hours, at 250 Watts, it will use a total of 500 Wh of energy (250 watts x 2 hours = 500 watt-hours).
E-bike batteries have varying capacities. On the low end, 250 Watt-hours is the norm, while you can find bikes with 1000 Watt-hour batteries on the higher end.
Voltage signifies how much power can be sent to the motor at any given time. It is measured in Volts, denoted with V for shorthand.
Low-end bikes typically use 45 Volt batteries, while high-end bikes come with 52 Volt batteries, offering better power and efficiency.
Charge is a measurement of how much amperage can a battery provide over time. It is measured in Ampere-hours, or Ah.
The formula for charge is dividing the capacity by the voltage, so you can figure out the Ampere-hours of the battery by dividing the Watt-hours (Wh) by the volts (V). For example, 520 Wh / 52 V = 10 Ah.
Motor, Power, Wattage
A motor can output a certain amount of power. Power in gasoline-powered motors is typically measured in horsepower, but measuring the power of electric motors is done in Watts (W).
On most e-bikes, the motor will provide around 250 watts. This gives the engine more than enough power to do most tasks, such as speeding up the ride significantly or climbing up hills.
We can use formulas to determine how long a battery will last based on the battery’s capacity, and how much power the motor draws. For example, a 250 Watt motor combined with a 500 Watt-hour battery will last for two hours in perfect conditions (500 Wh / 250 W = 2 h).
How far will an electric bike go?
Electric bikes have a range of 50 mi / 80 km. You can expect between 20 mi / 32 km from the lower-end models, and 100 mi / 160 km from higher-end models.
How far can an electric bike go without pedaling?
In perfect conditions, the average e-bike can reach a range of 31 mi / 50 km without pedaling.
To answer this question precisely is a bit harder, as there are several additional factors we need to consider, such as weather, terrain, riding mode, riding style, etc.
For example, if you are going uphill a lot, the battery will work harder, as it will in bad weather, and this will decrease the range.
Do electric bikes charge when you pedal?
Finding an electric bike that charges when you pedal is very rare. The tech exists, but it is inefficient and can cause issues with power delivery. Think about it, if the bike is charging while delivering power, that power is significantly reduced.
A better solution, but one that is also hard to find, is a technology called KERS. This stands for “Kinetic Energy Recovery System”. Basically, the kinetic energy generated when braking is stored and sent to the battery.
Again, manufacturers run into a few issues when trying this, especially cost-related issues.
How to use an electric bike
Most people know how to ride a bike, but e-bikes are a bit different. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to use your electric bike:
- Turn on the electric bike
- Adjust the seat height: You can do this by loosening the clamp under the seat, moving it up or down, and then tightening the clamp again.
- Check the battery level: Look at the display screen on the handlebar to check the battery level.
- Select your assist level: Choose the level of assistance you want from the electric motor. You can do this by pressing the buttons on the display screen. The higher the assist level, the more help you’ll get from the motor.
- Pedal and start riding: Pedal the bike as you normally would, and the electric motor will kick in to boost you. Remember to start slowly and carefully, especially if you’re not used to the bike.
That’s pretty much it.
Do you still have to pedal an electric bike?
Whether you pedal or not, the pedals will rotate when the bike moves. It is just the way bicycles are made. That said, you don’t always have to exert energy onto the pedals to make them move.
However, if you do not have a throttle, it means that your bike is primarily powered by using the pedals, in which case, if you are not pedaling, the motor will not kick in.
That is why I always recommend getting an electric bike that has a throttle. It takes some time to get used to using both the throttle and pedal but in the long run, it does help you, especially when you need to take a break on longer commutes.
How do electric bikes get charged?
Charging an electric bike can be pretty straightforward; the problem is if you get it wrong one too many times, it can damage the bike, so here are a few safety tips before you get into charging a bike:
- Charge the bike indoors.
- Avoid moisture while charging the bike.
- I prefer to keep the bike upright while it charges.
Electric bikes have a typical wall plug with a proprietary connector on one side. The proprietary connector plugs into the bike charging port, which can usually be found near the hub. Most bikes use a flap cover to hide the charging port and protect it from dirt and moisture.
How to maintain an electric bike
The first thing that typically goes wrong with an e-bike is the battery. You will notice that as time goes on, the battery takes longer to charge and does not hold that charge as long as it should.
There is almost no way of getting around this. There are a few tips to maintain your electric bike to increase its lifespan:
- Inspect the bike: Inspection should be done at least once a week ideally. This includes going over everything, but you specifically want to look for issues with the battery, such as loose wires, bulges, burns, weird smells, etc. Also, inspect any cables that lead to the drivetrain or brakes.
- Keep it clean: I recommend wiping your bike down once a week. Do not soak or hose down the bike. All you need is soap and a soft cloth to wipe the bike. You should also use an old towel to dry the bike.
- Follow proper charging guidelines: Avoid moisture, charge the bike upright, and always charge the e-bike indoors.
- Lubricate the chain: It is advisable to lubricate your chain at least once every month. However, you should check the chain once a week, and if you feel that it needs to be lubricated, do it sooner rather than later.
- Maintain your brakes: Brakes start to have issues after extensive use. While your pads could last up to 900 mi 1500 km, I recommend checking them regularly.
- Storage: Electric bikes should always be stored indoors. Try and avoid hot and humid areas of the house.
And that is it. Unfortunately, every bike has a lifespan, but you can maximize yours by following those steps.
Electric bikes offer a wealth of features and benefits. They are great for urban commutes as well as getting around more open areas thanks to their versatility. Whether you are using an electric bike for getting around or for leisure, knowing how they work and how to maintain them is crucial to ensuring you have the best experience possible. You can refer to this guide at any time, as it will be kept updated frequently to reflect the latest developments in electric bike technology.