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Fireman at garage fire
Garage fires every year take their toll on life and property, but rarely are they caused by electric vehicles being recharged. Most are attributed to gasoline-powered vehicles or faulty electrical appliances and wiring.

Behind the Smoke - Part 4

Conclusion on series of fire risks of low-speed EVs.

By Josh Landess

In my efforts to understand the fire risks associated with low-speed electric vehicles like the GEM and other NEVs, I talked to Bob Simpson who has owned several GEMs over the years. Bob sells classic car replicas at http://www.bobsclassics.com/ in Largo, Florida.

BS: I just sold my 2001 last week, and I just ordered a 2002. I had a 1999 before that and another 1999 two-seater. I can't see what the heck could possibly go wrong. There's not much in those things, they're so well made. I've had all kinds, I've had the E-Z-Go's, the Club Car, everything you could imagine I've had, but they weren't even one quarter of the car of these things.

It's my own personal car and I keep it at the house all the time. We have a 3 quarter million dollar house on the golf course, and you know if there was any kind of even slight chance of it causing a fire, I would definitely not have one, no.

I just can't see it, but you know, I'm not an expert. I just own them and drive them, you know? I have put over 1000 miles on them. I mean I take it out every weekend. I take four people out and we cruise everywhere with the thing.

EVW: Do you use it as a golf cart?
BS: No I use it as personal transportation. Even though I live between the 15th and 16th fairway on a very luxurious golf course, I don't play golf at all.

Everyone I've sold [previous ones] to so far was using it really not for golf, they were using it for personal transportation just to run around. We meet all kind of folks that you wouldn't meet in a car cruising around, you know? It stands out, it's as tall as a mini van and everybody flags you down and the kids think it's something from Star Wars. And it's just a blast to drive. They're peppy, they take you from 0 to 25 in no time flat. And with the seat belts and all that I think they're really just as safe as a car, and they're just a lot more fun to drive. They got four wheel brakes, and really bright lights at night. And I've driven them at night and it hasn't pulled the battery down by even one percentage point. I don't know how they do that.

EVW: Do you have safety considerations about trying to avoid taking it out on the road with faster moving vehicles, like there are certain roads you don't go on?
BS: You're not allowed to take it on those kind of roads. You're not allowed to go on like close to us is a road where it's 45 miles an hour. The minimum speed is 35 miles and hour. Well you're gonna get ticketed, because you have to go 35. And at 35 miles an hour, this car is not [built to do that] because [at] 35 miles per hour you have to have crash proof bumpers and doors and it's a whole different ball of wax.

EVW: How much do you concern yourself with making sure that you do proper maintenance on the vehicle? Do you follow a monthly procedure, that sort of thing?
BS: About every couple of months I check the level on the battery and I know, everybody's probably a little bit lax on the maintenance part of it, I guess I'm lazy so I just have to check the batteries to make sure you've got the level of water high enough. That can't hurt anything except it can kill the battery, and the battery won't hold a charge very well so that means you won't go so far on a full charge.

Now my cars as soon as they were full it shut off. In fact the 2001 that I just sold, it has a green light on the dash, as soon as you plug it in, and the green light starts to flash, and it goes on and off. And as soon as it turns a solid green it's fully charged and you can hear the fan stop. And it's fully charged and it won't charge anymore until, unless you pulled the plug out and plugged it back in. Then it would start charging again. It's good safety system to cut it off so it won't overcharge.

EVW: I wonder if that safety system could be faked out if the electrolyte levels were too low.
BS: I think all that could do is kill your battery. It's like in a car, I'm in the car business and I've killed so many batteries in our showroom by charging it up without having any water in the battery. It was just about dead. And we charged it up and it cooks the batteries.

My first 1999, I really neglected that one. I had it for a full year and I never checked the battery acid or the water level even one time, which is total suicide. That's stupid on my part. Because I mean it tells you everywhere in the manual things to check, and that's one of the things it tells you and I never did it, just too lazy.

All of a sudden I got stranded somewhere, I took off and it looked like it was 100% full, it showed 100% because I had it plugged in. And I started to take off and I thought I was seeing things because all of a sudden it just jumped down to 70%, and that usually takes it about an hour of driving before it would do that. And I got stranded. It just kept going slower and slower and slower. And it conked out on me.

So then when I had the GEM car guy come over and check it he said, "Your batteries, they're all fried. You cooked them all. You've been charging this thing up 8 hours and 10 hours a night on an empty battery. You just cooked all the cells inside. They're just totally fried." I said, "Oops." And you're talking $80 bucks a battery, and I cooked all six of them. It cost me something like $400 and something bucks in batteries. And I was so upset after I did that that I finally pushed on it on my website and bought a brand new 2001.

But I had that plugged in about 3 times a week for 8 hours with no fluid in there - not just low, but no fluid. I mean Interstate Battery took the battery and showed it to my mechanic after I told him to come and get all the batteries. He took it, he held them upside down and nothing came out. they said and you're lucky you even went a mile on those batteries.

EVW: So after that you were a lot better about doing battery maintenance I imagine?
BS: Yes. I don't even check it myself, I have a helper that comes here on Saturdays and works around my house and I get him about every two months to pop the front on it and just, there's two batteries up front and four under the rear seat. He just lifts off the rear seat and takes a screwdriver and pops off the cap and checks them out. And so far we haven't had to add any. But apparently it's better if you use distilled water.

EVW: What do you do about proper ventilation when you're charging? There's a note in the manual about proper ventilation.
BS: That I've never done.

EVW: Do you keep the garage door open?
BS: No, not at all. Because I do it overnight. I'm not gonna leave my garage door open during the night. I don't keep my garage door open even a bit, because I don't want things stolen.

EVW: I guess I would say that you might want to check the manual out on that point. Maybe a fan would be good. I'm doing an article about safety, so I have to pass that on.
BS: Right, sure. We have a three car garage with a ten foot ceiling, it's pretty good sized, not like it's a little single car garage or anything like that.

If it's supposed to be ventilated I can always crack a window open, during the day I couldn't do it because then my alarm [wouldn't work]. That's a problem your alarm system doesn't work when you crack windows open.

[According to Dave Goldstein recharging an NEV in such a large garage will probably safely dissipate any hydrogen gas that is produced by the batteries, but that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to install a smoke detector in the garage.]

EVW: The thing that happened in this case was that it was said that these fires are happening all over the place.
BS: You mean with golf carts?

EVW: With these neighborhood electric vehicles.
BS: A golf cart would be exactly the same. ... They only have three batteries but it doesn't make any difference three or six.

EVW: Well I personally don't know how often golf carts catch fire. The firefighter that I talked to had ever seen an electric car fire.
BS: No I've never heard of one in my life. I've never once heard of that even at all the golf courses I go to and all these carts that they charge, they charge sometimes 50 golf carts up at the same time. and when they've got tournaments and things. That's one hell of a lot of hydrogen. And 90% of those are indoors. That's where all the plugs and everything are.

EVW: Have you ever owned an electric car aside from a GEM?
BS: Oh yeah I've had about 20 different ones. They were mostly all E-Z-Go golf carts that were converted into exotic cars.

EVW: I see.
BS: Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, 57 Chevy, 40's styles and 50's styles. I've had all kinds of those, they were never peppy enough.

EVW: They were all based on an E-Z-Go golf cart.
BS: Yeah and they'd do 12 to 15 miles an hour so they just had no [pep] at all. You know you couldn't drive it really anywhere. It was made for a golf course period. You couldn't even take it in a little development like we're in safely, because you'd have to pull over every time a car pulls up to you, you know? Where this thing, [it's] doing 25 miles an hour, most of the speed limits around in here are not much more than that. So you're not holding up traffic or anything. And they go over speed bumps real nice. They've got all the creature comforts, they're really a fun car to drive. I mean there's a lot of different cars available now. There's one by Ford too, they just made their own.

EVW: Yeah it's a Ford.
BS: They tried to copy the Chrysler but …

The GEMs are fantastic little cars and I don't think any of the ones that have been copied, even the Lee Iacocca one that looks more like a little Woody car, I don't think that was even close to it. I think this one is by far the best one and they've been around longer than all the others. I know another guy in Sun City Centre, a golfing community. He has an older GEM, he's had it forever.

Another Perspective
Next I talked with Eric Miller, a member of the Electric Vehicle Association of Washington, DC and a , golf cart salesman. I asked him what he knew about golf car fires.

EM: It hasn't happened too much recently, but it used to be a problem with the E-Z-Go Golf Carts, in the late 80's and early 90's. The plug between the charger and the golf cart, they were using too small of a connector, and a lot of times it would overheat, melt and there have been occasions when a golf cart facility, a "barn" (where they're stored and recharged overnight), would burn down.

EVW: This hasn't happened that much recently?
EM: No, because they changed that setup altogether.

EVW: Any other golf carts at all? Is there anything you could do to a golf cart to get it to start on fire by mistreating it when you're charging it.
EM: No, not really, because everyone's got a decent safe plugin for their charger, to make sure that something like that doesn't happen again. But E-Z-Go used that charging plug for quite a few years and finally did update it in the 90's.

EVW: When somebody says in the press, that these fires are happening "all the time", what's your personal thought, since you're in the business?
EM: The only fires I personally have seen, in my five years of experience with golf carts, have been gasoline, due to poor maintenance of a gasoline golf cart. I've never seen an electric catch fire myself.

EVW: Heard about it?
EM: The only thing I've heard was the E-Z-Go problem. But it's been at least ten years since they've changed that charging plug. So I would say that in the last ten years it's been pretty much everyone's golf cart out there on the market has been very safe...

EVW: Do you have any general numbers on how many golf carts are out there?
EM: I'd say [at least a million] new golf carts are sold per year, and nowadays pretty much 75%-80% of golf carts sold are electric. That's counting all your major manufacturers, there are quite a few, E-Z-Go, Yamaha, Club Car, Columbia,..

[In gasoline cart fires] what I've seen is when people's clothing or something falls down behind the seat, or falls down on top of the hot engine and then it catches fire. Actually it will smolder for awhile, you see smoke but you think, oh it's just burning oil or something, most people don't realize it's actually clothing or something underneath the seat has caught fire, and by the time you realize it's on fire, then it's actually too late, because then it's engulfing that seat which is just foam and highly flammable material, wood and stuff that's made in the seat, then the car just catches fire and it's over and done, there's no stopping it.

The [EV golf cart fire problem was] corrected, like I said, probably about 10 years ago. Really it was just one manufacturer that had a problem, and that was E-Z-Go, the other golf cart companies had better charging systems, a better plug that you plug into the car. It actually made better contact.

EVW: When you sell somebody an electric golf cart, what type of safety precautions to guard against fire do you do with them?
EM: I just make sure they do have a fire extinguisher in the facility. I make sure they have a 20 amp circuit breaker per charger. Really it's not much of a problem nowadays for electric golf carts to be catching on fire. It's probably for gasoline ones, I take more time to explain the dangers of gasoline and gasoline fumes, that you have to be careful around. Especially kids smoking nowadays, most of your cart attendants are just high school kids. They always like to sneak in there when no one's looking, to have a cigarette or something, and you really have to caution them about that.

But as far as the electric, my lectures are never about catching fire. Mine are usually just about proper battery maintenance so you get your lifespan out of the batteries, without murdering the batteries without adding water.

EVW: Do you recommend to your people that they use GFI?
EM: I never recommend it, as long as they have at least 20 amp breakers, per circuit, per golf cart basically, you never really have much trouble. The only time you have trouble is when someone has an old barn when the system is wired up on like a 15 amp breaker, and they're trying to run two chargers off of that circuit of 15 amps.

The one cart barn that I remember that actually burnt down, it's actually a local place, that was probably the early 80's or late 70's, and since then I don't know of any place that's had a malfunction due to charging or electric golf carts that caught fire and destroyed the vehicles.

The thing is, that car should have been charged up within six to eight hours. It shouldn't have been still running. Pretty much everything nowadays has automatic shutoff. Even if it would have malfunctioned, the batteries are pretty much fully charged, the charger's not going to be putting out very much anyway because the batteries are fully charged, actually it would just cook the batteries dry, heat it up, and the water would be converted into hydrogen and oxygen, and the batteries would go dry. It's not drawing very much current, because the battery is fully charged.

If it's a flooded battery, those batteries can take a lot of abuse, you can actually run them for a few days on charge, and they're not going to catch fire or anything like that....It doesn't sound like it would be a hydrogen gas problem. Especially being outside, to have a hydrogen gas catch fire, you have to be in a tight sealed room for it to build up, because Hydrogen gas will float to the ceiling and dissipate very quickly, so you almost need something to hold it down under the car and then you need some kind of ignition of a spark to set it off.

In the old days the gasoline car was considered dangerous when it first came on the scene. And so you kept it in a shed away from your house, so in case it catches fire, you don't burn your home down. But it wasn't until World War II that things became safer, through the war, where we progressed and invented a lot of things and brought automotive things more into the mainstream, and then we started attaching our car garage to the house. Which kind of gives you the excuse of why they call a driveway a "driveway" when you actually park in it. When in the old days, the driveway actually went past the house, and you drive back to your garage. That's where you get that "drive way" term.

Research Conclusions I went into this research of a mind to believe that there might be some reason for skepticism as to EV-charging safety. I would certainly not act to install an EV-charging routine in a home garage without thinking through the safety of the EV, the charger, the home wiring and the process, or at least without trusting a major manufacturer to be mindful of my safety if they sold me the product. I'm still somewhat skeptical, but I've as yet found no evidence of the specific claim that EV fires are presently happening "all the time".

I don't always trust the Auto companies to be right on top of safety concerns, and I definitely do not trust them at all to be responsive to or honest about all consumer-related concerns (they have not, after all, been responsive to moderate consumer demand for highway capable electric vehicles and grid-chargeable hybrids, and have often claimed that such demand does not exist).

I wanted to know for myself if a lot of EV fires are happening and if this means the technology should be questioned or modified or perhaps if its introduction amidst a larger segment of our society had resulted, given human behavior, in a different frequency of incidents.

The answers I found for the moment are:

-- No, they're not happening all over the place at this time. A brief look at the matter is, in my view, not sufficient to be certain of the matter, but I simply could not find evidence of this.

-- Yes, we ought to give more attention to safety if we want this technology to succeed and be a part of our lives. Given the growing number of households with EV's, it is increasingly important that we give this attention.

If fires are happening "all the time" then I'd like to know about it, so we can report it on evworld.com. I invite any EV or NEV owner of any sort who has suffered a vehicle fire to post their story in the discussion area of evworld.com.

NEV'S do seem to have become numerous in our society. The Auto Giants, who are in some cases openly hostile to the building of highway capable grid-chargeable vehicles, do seem to have recently been enthusiastically making and selling the slower NEV'S. The many new NEV owners may not at all be aware that their use of them is not entirely safe or is even blatantly unsafe. I spoke to one GEM owner who was on his fourth vehicle and couldn't have been more effusive in his enthusiasm for the vehicle, and yet he regularly violated one or two basic prescribed measures for care of the vehicle and was not aware of this.

If we are to propose a regular transference of that much energy, in our garages, on a daily basis, then I think we ought to consider that most homeowners are not electronics experts and are not likely to become that. We can have expectations of owners of any item; those expectations need to be realistic and account for "whatever can go wrong will go wrong".

I am thinking in part of the early days of the introduction of personal computers, and of the obnoxious elitist attitude that experts sometimes leveled at buyers and users who somehow found their computers not working properly. An owner of technology may bear an inherent responsibility for its prescribed use, but that does not mean we have to "shoot the messenger" when they seem (at first look) not to have lived up to that responsibility. When a technology becomes available to a dramatically wider body of people, isn't it logical that many of those people may never possess the knowledge that was characteristic of the early pioneers? Even if the new users seem to raise new questions about the use of the technology, are they not paying the salaries of all the new producers?

Electric Vehicles offer so many enormous advantages over conventional vehicles (EV's use fuel made entirely in the USA, recycle the energy of motion, improve municipal air quality and may reduce the total costs of vehicle ownership) and are even of such potential strategic importance to the nation as a whole, that it would be wrong to allow a dismissal-out-of-hand of the technology due to a hard-to-confirm claim that there's a generalized safety problem. It would be better, I think, to investigate the safety concern thoroughly and get an accurate gauge of where it might have merit and where it might not.

Addendum: Added Safety Note: After this article was written a message board participant pointed out that some batteries, such as those on the RAV4 and EV1, are sealed and may have somewhat different issues with respect to ventilation and safety, but that proper ventilation during charging is probably still of importance. I did not yet have time to further research this.

Times Article Viewed: 6768
Published: 24-Aug-2002

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