UPDATED: Who Knew a Single Garage Fire Could Spark So Much Electric Car Bashing?

By · April 18, 2011

Chevy Volt garage fire Connecticut

A Chevy Volt and an all-electric converted Suzuki Samurai are the victims of a garage fire. Did they spark it? Does it even matter?

I've been saying for years now—quite literally, in fact—that once the crop of modern electric cars starts to hit the road in any kind of serious numbers (e.g. right now), the naysayers and anti-EV zealots will come out in droves looking for anything—and I do mean anything—to prove that EVs are a bad idea.

There are, of course, dozens of myths that are old stand-bys for that crowd. I particularly like reading the ones about how electric cars will leave you and your baby stranded for dead in the middle of the desert.

Now that gas prices are so high (again) and we've been through two wars (still fighting, technically) plus a new third "not-war" war, as well as living through the worst oil spill in the history of the world, those organizations and individuals—perhaps seeing their support crumbling for the last time—have begun to grasp at anything and everything they can in defense of their increasingly ridiculous-sounding arguments.

But a garage fire? Seriously?

In case you missed it, last week news broke that a Connecticut family's two electric cars—a Chevy Volt and converted Suzuki Samurai—were burned to the ground in a massive garage fire. While firefighters and investigators are still saying it's far too early to tell what caused the fire, headlines began cropping up along the lines of "Electric Cars Suspected in Garage Fire." The UK's Daily Mail even ran a story "So much for carbon footprint: Green driver's hybrid cars may have sparked garage fire."

Electric cars will burn you and your baby to a crisp in your sleep. Gotta add that one to my list of myths. As GM spokesperson, Rob Peterson, told GM-Volt.com, "You can already see some of the right wing pundits lining up, trying to take their jabs without even waiting to hear from the fire marshal."

Granted, there is the possibility that the charging cars did somehow contribute to the fire. We'll know for sure once the investigation's done. But that's not the point.

I can tell you right now that charging electric cars is no less safe than running a dryer in your garage. In other words, it's as safe as the electrician you use to install the equipment. It's as safe as the wiring in your house. It's as safe as all the rest of the electrical risks you take on a daily basis. It's as safe as that homegrown electric conversion you've got plugged into the wall next to your Chevy Volt. I'm not trying to assign blame to the conversion, I'm just saying it also poses a risk.

Certainly the electric cars could have contributed to the fire, but the point is that any kind of electrical device can contribute to a fire. It's the risk of electricity. It's a risk all of us take on a daily basis. But the risk of electrical fire from anything is very small—which is why most people spend most days of their lives not even thinking about these things.

Fifty years from now I'm sure I'll look back and still not understand why some people were so against electric cars to the point of hatred—in my mind it's just another choice for the consumer and what's so bad about that? But at least right now the arguments against them are becoming ever more hilarious to follow.

Too bad some people will take the instantaneous opinions for the truth and by the time the actual investigative results come out will have long forgotten to care about it.

UPDATE (4/19/2011): GM now says they have preliminary results from their investigation that indicate neither the battery of the Volt or the charging cordset of the Volt started the fire. It does appear that the battery, when damaged by the fire, combusted again five days after the damage. If this is accurate then it represents an unknown risk that battery car owners and emergency personnel should be aware of after a vehicle's batteries are damaged.

From GM's Volt blog:

"While the Volt's battery pack sustained damage, it was not extensive enough or of the type that would suggest that it caused the fire. In addition, there is clear evidence based on moderate damage to the cordset and charging system that neither component caused the fire."

"The vehicles had been left in the garage for investigators and insurers to review when a second incident occurred earlier today. Smoke was seen coming from the damaged Volt and the fire department responded quickly. We continue to support the department in its investigation, sending our experts back to Connecticut to continue working with fire marshals. "

Comments

· · 3 years ago

Well said Nick.

· Pawan (not verified) · 3 years ago

It is simple, they hate us. we are liberal and modern, we always think better of humanity. we think first of a just and fair society and they laugh at us, they call us crazy. they come down to our view at last but they come kicking and screaming. and then they pretend as if it was their plan all along.
that is the truth Nick. eventually they will all use electric cars and this stupid debate will be forgotten. we will move on to some other progressive topics and they will call us names for that.
may be that is the way of life.

· SteveEV (not verified) · 3 years ago

Does anyone think the fire would have been different, as in better, with gasoline powered vehicles? They may have had an additional 300 pounds of explosive and poisonous liquid fuel.

· · 3 years ago

Pawan, I like your perspective, but I just want to say that there are LOTS of conservatives who support EVs too. It's not just "liberals" or "progressives."

It has less to do with these labels, and more generally to do with having a good grasp of the big picture and a significant ability to separate reality from obfuscation and sensationalism.

It's certainly true that the right wing media are the ones who generally come up with anti-EV rhetoric—but I think that's just due to a perception that their consumer markets are mostly the ones who want to believe that EVs are a bad idea. Probably that's true.

But it's also true, in defense of my staunch conservative EV supporting friends, that there are lots of people who would be considered right wing who think that's a bunch of BS.

· · 3 years ago

@SteveEV,
Yes, maybe the house would have also burned down instead of just the garage?
The news clip said the house was still inhabitable!

· Anonymous (not verified) · 3 years ago

Not a worry, I was forced to put fire sprinklers everywhere while building...

· Tracy (not verified) · 3 years ago

So when will you be posting a retraction Nick?

http://www.courant.com/business/hc-hybrid-car-possible-fire-20110418,0,9...

The Volt caught fire again proving what any electrical engineer can tell you, that much energy in a battery is dangerous. Maybe you should consult with Neil Young and his experience with the Lincvolt. It destroyed $850K in memorabilia while it taught Neil a lesson.

· · 3 years ago

Tracy,

Thanks for the link. Everything in my post will still be accurate even if new material comes to light. From that article it's still unknown what caused the fire. If the batteries were damaged in the fire, they could have caught fire from the damage. It doesn't mean the batteries started the fire. It would seem the use of the word "rekindle" is premature. Certainly if it turns out that the batteries were the source of the fire, then GM will have some serious explaining to do.

Also Neil Young wrote this in his blog on the Lincvolt:

"However LincVolt suffered a disastrous accidental fire stemming from human error. The car was plugged in to charge and left unattended. The wall charging system was not completely tested and had never been left unattended. A mistake was made. It was not the fault of the car."

It had nothing to do with the battery in that case and it doesn't sound like he "learned the lesson" you want him to learn, considering the Lincvolt survived the fire and he's rebuilding it.

I'd love to hear more about why you hate electric cars so much (as the post at the end of the link for you name suggests).

· JJ - from Canada (not verified) · 3 years ago

If it was an ICE car, the whole place would have blown up.
I guess it would be worth it to have a fuse right there next to the charger in the garage just in case.

In the news we hear of clothes dryers and stoves that catch fire.
No one says to ban them.

Update us Nick, when you hear of the Fire Marshall's final conclusions.

· JJ - from Canada (not verified) · 3 years ago

How can the same car (Volt) catch fire twice?
Oppss... that's not good.

· · 3 years ago

JJ, see my comment in reply to Tracy. If the battery was damaged in the fire it could have been compromised and then caught fire from the damage. Nobody has yet concluded that the battery caught fire "again" or that it was the source of the original blaze. People are again jumping to conclusions. The whole point of the article to to get people to stop jumping to conclusions. Argh.

· · 3 years ago

I don't have a garage, and the AV/Nissan charging dock that I recently purchased secondhand is going to be installed in front of our house. So all of the wiring/conduit is outdoors. Hopefully I won't get blamed for the next forest fire in the mountains where we live. ;-)

People are "conservative" for different reasons. My conservatism stems from my Christian worldview and ideas as to what constitutes sound fiscal policy. Unfortunately, some are "conservative" simply because they fear change. People in that camp seem more likely to believe that we need only drill our way to energy independence, that anthropogenic global warming is a hoax, and that smog is not such a big deal. If all of that is true, so the thinking goes, then we don't need to be particularly concerned about energy efficiency and there is no need for electric vehicles. I think that some in the media are very good at playing on this sort of sentiment.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 3 years ago

@abasile
"Unfortunately, some are "conservative" simply because they fear change. People in that camp seem more likely to believe that we need only drill our way to energy independence, that anthropogenic global warming is a hoax, and that smog is not such a big deal."

Welcome to the middle my friend. Welcome to the middle.

· Brian (not verified) · 3 years ago

"Too bad some people will take the instantaneous opinions for the truth and by the time the actual investigative results come out will have long forgotten to care about it."

You really hit the nail on the head here (and not just when it comes to EVs)

· · 3 years ago

I think GM spokesperson, Rob Peterson, needs to get a new job.

What is the point of injecting political leanings into a garage fire? The first thing any decent business person learns is to stay away from politics and religion. All you do is alienate your customer base.

· JJ - from Canada (not verified) · 3 years ago

Sorry Nick, don't pull out your hair !
I was a bit confused by Tracy's article link that said the Volt caught fire at a garage 5 days before but I think they meant 5 days after.

Well this confirms Carsky's answer to my question about why use a Blink charger rather than just plugging in your EV into a 240 Volt outlet.

Also it wouldn't hurt to install a big fuse in the line to the charger on the garage wall and to double up some gypsum board on the garage wall, and have a fire extinguisher next to the garage door.
And anonymous talks about a sprinkler system.
That should cover it.

Let us know what happens Nick.

· · 3 years ago

There's anti-EV rhetoric -- and there's just plain false information. Check out this headline from Fox News Nation (which stole the story from the Daily Mail)-->

"Two Chevy Volts Catch Fire in One Week"

http://nation.foxnews.com/chevy-volt/2011/04/18/two-chevy-volts-catch-fi...

And not a single commentator in the comments stream below the story noted that it's the SAME Volt catching fire twice, NOT two separate Volts. Not that this lack of attention -- by Fox "journalists", or Fox readers -- is a big surprise. The Fox Nation crew is too focused on their anti-EV rhetoric to actually pay attention to little details such as the "facts."

· Michael Thwaite (not verified) · 3 years ago

I suspect that there were more gasoline car fires this last weekend than there were electric car fires.

In 1990 the NHTSA estimated 28,800 fires per year in cars and light trucks.... plus 60 school buses!

That is 157 fires this last weekend alone.

Sadly this is also 345 fatalities a year. Time to stop running cars on dangerous fuels.

http://www.autosafety.org/1990-nhtsa-study-motor-vehicle-fires-and-fmvss...

· John C. Briggs (not verified) · 3 years ago

Let's hope that GM has done the engineering correctly. I used to design disk-drives for a living and you never saw a group of executives so excited as the day one caught on fire. Fortunately, it was a one time occurrence in my seven years of working there.
Designers of curling irons, hot rollers, space heaters, all suffer from fires and have had to put thermal kill switches into their systems as a last fail-safe in a chain of fail-safe systems..
However, most of these systems are UL rated as self extinguishing. That is, remove the power source, and the fire burns itself out. I don't think that is going to be the case for Li-Ion batteries that are both combustible and contain lots of energy.
I hope the fire-fighters track this down, and I hope the Volt was not the source.
Later
John C. Briggs

· · 3 years ago

I updated the post with new information, for all of those following this comment section.

· Djquick64 (not verified) · 3 years ago

There are an average of 250,000 car fires a year the last ten years. Ban gas cars, they're unsafe! I consider myself more on the conservative side of things, but seeing the multitude of two-digit IQ's coming out of the woodwork to bash the Volt without any proof dissapoints me. Only in a few places have I seen ANY comments supporting the Volt. And most of these have been to wait for evidence to prove or disprove the Volt starting the fire. At least some people believe facts should be the basis of a conclusion. I just wanted to thank most of the commenter's on this site.

· · 3 years ago

I think this is a case of certain people scaremongering as usual. As Nick mentions in the article there are many electrical fires caused by household appliances, and yet these never get any mention and we never give them any thought so why should an EV be any different?
I read Anonymous's post about installing sprinklers with interest. I assume they are water sprinklers (please correct me if this is wrong) and would not have thought they would be the best solution to a fire involving a large electrical battery pack as i always had thought that mixing electricity and water wasn't a good idea, a foam or CO2 system would be better suited. I have no doubt someone with better knowledge of such things will be along shortly to correct me on this if my thinking is wrong however.

· · 3 years ago

@senna007,
If I recall my navy firefighting training correctly: CO2 is probably the best way to fight an electrical fire (Class C), however, one can use water, especially if the power has been disconnected but one must be very careful to not spray directly at the fire but rather at the ground in front so as to avoid electrocuting yourself. Foam also runs the risk of electrocution but it really doesn't do much good since it doesn't cool the area as much as water does.
Unfortunately, however, I don't believe we're necessarily dealing with just a Class C electrical fire, we also could dealing with a Class D (self-oxidizing) fire if the lithium batteries catch fire. Unfortunately, there is no real way to fight a Class D fire. The fuel is going to burn until it runs out. Removing the oxygen isn't going to put it out. The best you can do is to try to isolate and cool any fuel (batteries) that isn't burning so it doesn't catch fire too. The good news about Class D is that there really isn't very much burnable energy in a battery pack like there is in a tank full of gasoline. Water can be a problem with some self-oxidizing materials because it often reacts with the metals and actually strips the oxygen and hydrogen from the water, thus making more fuel. The fire department probably should have towed the EVs out into the open and continued to cool them with water but then the story wouldn't have been as interesting :-)
Of course, with the Volt, there's the additional Class B (liquid) fire from all of that nasty, legacy gasoline and oil which will also catch fire.
When you put the cars into a wood garage, you fill out the alphabet with the Class A fire of the garage materials.
A good A B C fire extinguisher could probably be used well here.
I suspect that sprinklers would help to reduce the damage a bit but one might argue that they aren't worth the expense. Remember (thinking back to my navy days) sprinklers need to be tested regularly as the valves clog up and corrode if they aren't used. This is a lot of work.
I think that Tesla's approach to fire safety with EVs is probably the best I've heard. Their early chargers (I'm not sure if this applies to their new ones) had built-in fire/smoke detectors that automatically shut them off if fire was detected. Their batteries are also composed of 6,581 individual battery cells, with a flame suppressant gel in between them to prevent one burning cell from igniting adjacent ones. One cell on fire is dramatic but not particularly disastrous. Tesla has also chosen not to deal with dangerous gasoline and instead focused on getting cheaper batteries with longer range and fast charging in order to meet people's transportation needs.
While we don't know what caused this particular fire, there are things one can (and IMHO - should) do to reduce ones risk. The main one being to have proper wiring and buy your EV from someone who has done good safety engineering.
In this case, the house didn't burn down so it's obvious that some of fire management techniques in place worked ok.

· JJ - from Canada (not verified) · 3 years ago

Throw a bucket of sand or baking soda on the fire.
Laurent Masson had an article a while back that mentioned batteries that use salt.
I wonder if those are safer?

Thanks for the update Nick.

· · 3 years ago

According to the Fox News article,

"Mr Connors's two hybrid cars, the nearly-new Volt and an older Suzuki which he had converted himself, were recharging overnight on Thursday when a fire ripped through his garage, leaving just the beams standing."

How do they know the Volt had anything to do with this? Maybe the home converted Suzuki caused this, or some sort of overloaded wiring, that was trying to charge two cars.

· Priusmaniac (not verified) · 3 years ago

What kind of house is that? It seems to be made up of pieces of wood attached together in a frame structure. That’s not the houses I am used to. A normal house is made of bricks and concrete, two materials that stand fire and are not burning themselves. If you take the care to avoid putting papers and cloth all around, there is normally not a lot that can burn in a house. If you take modern furniture that is usually thinner and at least partly made of metal and glass, you have even less fire hazard. Never forget to close inside doors and don’t leave a mess behind because fire sees it as an available stockpile of combustible materials.
If you install a wooden annex in your garden as storage or garage, avoid standard electric protections and choose steel ones instead together with a bathroom level protection. In more, try to avoid it. People should make way more use of steel and concrete. Especially in house building, because those places remain unattented for long periods contrary to skyscrapers where there is always at least a guardian. A good idea is also to oversize conductors sections to avoid overheating and to increase the voltage to 400 Volts to avoid to high amperages while still delivering large powers.

· JJ - from Canada (not verified) · 3 years ago

Yes Micheal makes a good point. I see a conspiracy here to smear the GM Volt.
I would have made much more sense to automatically blame the older Suzuki that was converted by the owner as the cause.

Priusmaniac...
You'd be surprise as I am to see small condo's buildings being built out of wood (wafer board - I think it's called) then covered in styrofoam and made to look like concrete.

Then in European-mediteranean movies, I saw them building bungalows entirely out of concrete blocks. Then they can add brick for decoration.
Now that is solid and fire proof ! and maybe even Tornado resistant.

· · 3 years ago

@Priusmaniac,

"A normal house is made of bricks and concrete, two materials that stand fire and are not burning themselves."

Where are you from? I've lived in the West and Midwest, and have never seen a house built entirely from bricks and concrete. I wouldn't even want to live in a house made of bricks and concrete in earthquake country.

· · 3 years ago

It should not be surprising at all that a battery pack that has been through a fire, probably now with bare wiring, could short out and catch fire or start smoldering. SOP after an EV fire should be to remove the battery pack, or at least the external wiring. The fact that the car went through a fire and the battery pack did not explode or burn completely is an inconvenient truth for those who try to paint EV's as dangerous.

· · 3 years ago

@JRP3,
Good points. I'd like to see a gas tank survive a big fire like this. I'm sure it was the gas tank that was the reason the garage was destroyed, even if it probably didn't start the fire.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 3 years ago

Pawan, your comments really piss me off. I came here via a Google search looking for more info on the Volt and Electric cars in general. I've been waiting my entire life for the market to be ripe for electric cars. Finally we are at that tipping point. Unfortunately, when I get here, I find you spouting nonsense about how your liberal traits have made you a better, far superior human being and other such drivel. I'm about as conservative as you can get and I love the prospect of real workable electric cars appearing in the marketplace. I don't hate you or your liberal friends. But I do hate your one dimensional view of anyone not like yourself. Now I'm going to try and move on to the matter at hand, getting to know the Volt better.

· · 3 years ago

Anonymous: You have come to the right place to get information about electric cars. There are always going to be comments that offend some people, that's inevitable with a site like this where people post their opinions as well as a fact or two every now and then.

In my opinion electric cars are a good choice for all Americans regardless of one's political affiliation. They will provide jobs for Americans, they will keep the money we spend on transportation fuel local, and they will reduce out dependence on foreign energy sources which makes us more self reliant and secure. This isn't a conservative/liberal issue, and other than an occasional discussion or comment here and there, you'll find the topics here to be centered around the technology and not the politics of it.

Also, if you do like the site and plan on contributing, please take a moment and create an account. It's makes for better discussions when we all know who we are talking to.

· Storm Connors (not verified) · 3 years ago

I would like to offer what update I can to the reasonable discussion. Very careful research sees little liklihood that the Volt started the fire. There is no evidence that the Suzuki caused the fire. No one has come up with what caused it. The 2 vehicles were on separate circuits. The circuit supplying power to the Suzuki charger was checked by CTs top forensic electrician (over a 4 hour project) and no faults were found. Local, state and federal units as well as GM engineers have all been involved in the investigation.

The fire department made a decision on arrival that the garage could not be saved and put all their efforts and water into saving the attached house. They were successful, but the house suffered some smoke damage and even though no hoses were discharged inside the dwelling, some water damage. This should explain why the garage was so thoroughly destroyed.

As an update to my feelings, I ordered a new Volt today. I would also point out for the conspiracy theorists that GM has not given me any special price or premium to buy my product loyalty. I have not been bought off! FWIW, I wouldn't object to being bought off.
Storm Connors

· · 3 years ago

@Storm Connors

Nice to see you post here and sorry for your loss.

Is someone still trying to find the cause ? That would bring some closure ...

· Bill Howland, (not verified) · 1 year ago

At this late date thankfully we can tentatively report that the VOLT was quite conservatively designed, and will not be the cause of any fires anytime soon.

Charging shouldn't be a problem either, now that the default current is 8 amps at 120, or if you have L2 charger docks the draw is a very moderate 14 amps. And when the vehicle is charging in the garage, nothing seems to be straining at all.

I've had several gas cars that seemed to get much hotter in a closed garage than the VOLT.

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