QUESTION: Are ebike conversion kits worth it? It looks like I can save some money by converting the bike I have instead of buying a whole new ebike. —Hank J.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: They can be, especially if the bike you have on hand is an appropriate platform for a conversion. And if you are already comfortable working on your regular bike, then you can likely handle the conversion yourself, even if you have little or no experience with electronics. But an important question to consider ahead of buying a conversion kit is “Who will service the electric parts of the bike if they malfunction?”
Generally, the answer, at least right now, is “Probably not your local bike shop.”
To find out more about that, I spoke with Jeff Joy, owner of Jeff’s Bike Shop in Huntington, West Virginia. (Although I live in SE Ohio, Jeff’s is the closest bike shop to me and has become my LBS.)
I asked Jeff if he sells conversion kits. He does not. He is, however, a Specialized dealer, and he does sell ebikes made by Specialized. He even has staff who have received specific training on how to service the electronics on those bikes.
Jeff explained that that training does not necessarily transfer to the various electronics that come in conversion kits, which is in a “wild west” state right now without uniform standards.
“So if someone came into your store with a conversion kit they’d purchased on their own, would you install it for them?” I asked Jeff.
“I wouldn’t be eager to do it,” Jeff said. “Those are a pain in the butt. I’d probably charge them about $200 and wouldn’t be able to guarantee the quality of the equipment.”
“Do you think other bike shops feel about the same as you do?” I asked.
“Yes, I do,” Jeff said.
Jeff’s answer rang true with what an employee in a Florida bike shop told me last year: that the only ebikes they service are the ones they sell.
Most shops are also not eager to have batteries sitting around in their shops that may not meet safety standards and could be a fire hazard.
Here’s my own experience with a conversion: In 2021, I electrified my Trek 520 — a chromoly steel touring bike — using a kit from Bafang (sold in the U.S. by Ebike Essentials) that cost about $1,150. It took a little fiddling to get everything working as I wanted, but I was pretty happy with the result, and even wrote about it here in RoadBikeRider. My brother and a friend we ride with also did similar conversions, and two couples we know who ride tandem bikes also did conversions using the same kit. I mention these others because their experience with the conversions, at least so far, has been good, so they can be considered a control group of sorts against which to measure my experience, which was different.
After riding the converted bike for about eight months, my battery failed. I contacted the seller of the kit who pointed out that the battery was only warrantied for 90 days. An identical new one was about $650, but they offered a 10% discount since I had bought the first one from them. Unwilling to sink that much into another battery warrantied for only three months, I looked around on the web, and eventually purchased a similar battery from another seller for about $325, and that battery had a two-year warranty.
That new battery worked fine with the Bafang motor, and I was back in business.
A few months later, however, having ridden about 2650 miles since converting the bike, something went wrong, and the motor would not provide sufficient assistance to propel the bike. I’m able to fix most stuff on a regular bike myself, but when it comes to electronics, I’m out of my depth, so I contacted the seller again. They provide support, but they communicate only through email, so after several exchanges of email over a couple of weeks during which I ran certain tests they requested and sent them photos and videos of the results, they offered to fix the issue if I would send the motor and controls to them.
This, of course, required me to tear down the conversion (since my motor was a mid-drive type and not a hub drive), box everything and ship it from Ohio, where I live, to the West Coast where the seller is. They did not charge for the repair, but I had to pay for shipping both ways plus the cost of a couple of new parts — for a total of about $120.
My cash investment in the conversion was now $1,150 (kit) + $325 (replacement battery) + $120 (shipping & parts) = $1595. (Some new ebikes can be purchased for not more than that.)
While waiting for the conversion to be repaired, I bought a new road ebike from Jeff’s Bike Shop, but I intended to continue to use the 520 conversion as well.
When the repaired kit arrived a few weeks later, I reinstalled everything on the 520, but during my first attempt to ride, I got an “error code 30” message on the display, and nothing worked. I did some online research on that code, and fiddled with a few things that research suggested, but in the end to no avail. I contacted the Bafang seller again, who offered to fix that if I would ship the motor and parts back to them, again at my expense. At that point, I decided the conversion kit was no longer a bargain, and I did not pursue the repair any further. And by now, I was really enjoying the new ebike I’d purchased.
I’ve switched my Trek back to a regular bike and given the conversion parts to my brother for spares if his converted ebike develops problems.
So my answer at this point in time regarding conversion kits is that they can be worth it but you need to be aware of the potential repair hurdles. I don’t think that will always be the case, however, as some standards are developed and imposed on the ebike conversion industry. What’s more, just as many of us cyclists have learned to service our regular bikes, probably many of us will eventually learn to do the same with the electronic parts of our bikes as well.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.