By on April 18, 2011

Cars charred in Barkhamsted fire: wtnh.com

The Hartford Courant reports that the fire reported on in the video above, which first started in a garage holding a new Chevrolet Volt and a converted electric-powered Suzuki Samurai, re-ignited this morning. According to the report

A fire apparently reignited inside the battery of a new Chevrolet Volt car early Monday, less than five days after the Volt, an electric hybrid, was involved in a blaze that destroyed a Barkhamsted garage where it had been plugged in for recharging.

“The rekindle this morning really adds to the mystery,” Barkhamsted Fire Marshal Bill Baldwin said today.

Representatives from General Motors, the vehicle’s manufacturer plan, are scheduled to arrive in Barkhamsted this evening to examine the car, Baldwin said.

The hybrid electric car was not plugged in this morning when the fire rekindled, Baldwin said.

Investigators still haven’t linked either the fire or the rekindle to either vehicle, but GM’s investigators should be able to help narrow down the cause of the fire.

UPDATE: TTAC Commenter mcs finds the blog of a Suzuki EV converter based in Barkhamsted, CT. One post describes a homemade charging system its owner describes as “certainly not a recommended safe practice.” Hit the jump for a screen capture of the post, or check out the blog here.

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49 Comments on “GM To Investigate Volt Blaze Re-Ignition...”


  • avatar
    jimbowski

    Whoops.  Condolences to the Suzuki, though.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    I’m not a fan of the Volt, but I sincerely doubt that car is to blame.  Garages burn.  It’s more likely the ‘converted’ Samurai, or some other mundane cause.

    • 0 avatar

      That converted Samurai went “years” (per the original articles) without starting a fire…

      To make a point that’s not immediately clear from Ed’s summary, the Courant article notes the fire reignited inside the Volt’s battery pack.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        The “went for years” line of thinking is a fallacy of logic that prooves nothing… to wit: Boeing 737’s with self-installing sun-roofs, railroad axles or iron bridges which fail with tragic results, ozone-deteriorated tires or vacuum hoses which let the pressure out, or the pressure in (as appropriate to case), cardiac myopathies that bring the party to an abrupt end…

        Not trying to defend the volt, but in the case of the Suzuki, it could have been the cause of the first fire, say, due to a chafed high amperage wire…

        In the cas of the 2nd fire, I would say that it is likely that the devil is in that Volt, and the garage needs a down-town, bible-thumpin’, kind of exorcism…

      • 0 avatar
        toxicroach

        Two fires, days apart?  So the battery burned, stopped burning for days, then spontaneously recombusted?  Reminds me of a guy around here whose upside down spec house burned a little bit, then caught fire again later in the week.  He’s in jail now.
        The first thing to check off the list of causes would be arson, IMO.  Setting yourself up with a nice scary lawsuit against a company desperate to avoid bad PR for their halo car could easily motivate someone to rig up a fire or two.  Then we can speculate as to faulty wiring, bad batteries, or what have you.
         

      • 0 avatar

        Robert.Walter — Even given its homebuilt status, the Samurai is still the known quantity here; the Volt was the unknown. All things being equal, it’s far more likely an unforeseen issue could arise with a new entity, versus a proven one… even one thoroughly tested by GM’s “top engineers.”

      • 0 avatar
        Secret Hi5

         
        Rob Finfrock said: “. . . The Courant article notes the fire reignited inside the Volt’s battery pack.”

        Well . . . lets see.  Fire starts at another source; fire cooks Volt’s battery; battery ignites due to being roasted.  Conclusion?  Government Motors fail.

        Typical.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        Went for years… Known quantities.. Are still a major flaws of logic Rob… My new car starts every morning without fail for 4 years until it doesn’t… verdict: failed bearing in the alternator… then no problems for the next 2 years until it doesn’t… verdict: old battery… Both were ‘known quantities’ up until they weren’t.

        Speaking of old batteries… their problems go both ways… they fail to convert chemical energy to electrical energy, and one gets a no start condition… conversely, they get very inefficient at converting electrical energy back to chemical energy, and on charging can get hot…

        Add a waacky charging system to a sulfated battery, and IDK, but you may be asking for “an unintended thermal event” (this is auto engineer FMEA-speak for “fire”.)

    • 0 avatar

      Rob: That was a crucial omission, thanks. I’ve expanded the quote to include that information.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      I’d go as far as blame new wiring if any was installed to support the addition of the Volt. A friend’s brand new house caught on fire shortly after he moved in. Apparently an electrician had nicked the wiring with a staple, the staple heated up and ignited the beam it was attached to. If I was placing a bet as to the cause, I’d go with a wiring error on new circuitry added to the garage for the Volt.

      Lithium batteries are scary things. Search YouTube for “lithium battery fire” and you can find some interesting videos. I have many devices with lithium batteries and I avoid charging new devices or batteries unattended.

  • avatar
    mikey

    I’m smelling a conspirecy. Prius owners, Toyota,and the far right wingers,and assorted anti bail out GM bashers.

    @ Rob….Yeah… I read the same thing. So a completly melted, and destroyed battery rekindled eh?

    • 0 avatar

      Turnabout’s fair play, mikey. :-) Toyota bashers had Ray DaHood leading the charge, we have… the Hartford Courant. Sigh.

      In all seriousness, I’d appreciate hearing from someone familiar with the Volt’s engineering to comment what may cause the battery pack to ignite, independent from a circumstance that could also have started the original fire. 

      • 0 avatar
        HoldenSSVSE

        Lithium is in the alkali family on our periodic table of elements, its atomic number is three. It is highly flammable and reaction. Pure lithium does not occur in nature, but must be teased out from ore bearing materials. Lithium is typically stored in mineral oil, as it can just burn on its own once exposed to air or water.

        So if you have a large Lithium-ion battery pack that is charred and been broken open with fractured cells, the cells could in theory after the damage, catch on fire on their own.

        Lithium-ion-polymer batteries use LiCoO2 or LiMn2O4 for the negative charge, then the chemical reaction on the positive side releases the energy. The major disadvantage to this matrix is it is expensive to make (we knew that) and when puncture the cells are highly reactive to water and oxygen, and can burst into flames.

        Now, before the lynch mob comes out with torches and pitchforks, these same Lithium-ion batteries are in use by Hyundai, Tesla, Nissan, soon to be Toyota in the North American Prius (and already used in Japan), and both BMW and Audi have been playing around with them. When I say same I mean the same chemical formula and reaction with the battery, there are different manufacturers. To quote Scottie, “you cannot change the laws of physics.”

        If I remember correctly the Volt batteries are made by LG.

        The bottom line is a charred, destroyed battery pack now sitting exposed could have easily corroded through its case, the resulting heat generated would burn a larger and larger hole into the pack and tada, you have a new fire in the Volt’s shattered battery pack. As the fire burns hotter, bigger, more cases give up, creating a bigger fire. Not a big surprise.

        Tons of unanswered questions. If this was in fact some design flaw within the Volt – it is catastophic for the program, and electric cars in general. If this was one of a long list of other issues (non-related wiring fault in the garage that just happened, arson, spontaneous combustion from oil rags, solvents, or some spilled chemical reaction, self-wired car chargers for the Suzuki and Volt taxed out the 40 year old wiring, improperly disposed of or forgotten smoking materials, or a wood stove, fireplace, or other firebox emptied out too soon with embers still warm). Lots of things can cause a fire in a 40 year old garage.

        I am not an electrical engineer, but I sure did pay attention in my college chemistry classes. If I’m surprised by anything is that the battery pack wasn’t better secured by fire officials after the first blaze was put out.  This will be a growing problem in the future, as more and more Lithium-Ion-polymer batteries of larger and larger size find their way into vehicles.

      • 0 avatar
        gslippy

        Excellent summary, HoldenSSVE.  It would be terrible if this incident does to EVs what the Hindenburg did to hydrogen power.

      • 0 avatar

        Fantastic summary, HoldenSSVSE. Thanks!

        It will be interesting to see how hot this fire burned; given the damage seen in the pics it doesn’t seem to have been all-that hot, but maybe it was.

        To what temperature were the Volt’s battery pack protection systems tested to?

        How much effort does it take to break open a cell?

        How much damage can be done by water alone? 

        Whatever the cause is ultimately determined to be, it’s good to see this story attracting more attention than it originally gathered. Even if the Volt is cleared fully of blame (by impartial investigators,) this example shows the buying public these cars are quite different animals than what we’re all used to, and do carry some added risks.

    • 0 avatar
      KixStart

      mikey,

      It’s the Volt’s turn!  I’m quite sure I remember reading posts from the D3 Faithful about the relative safety of the Prius and how, in an accident, the thing was likely to electrocute the occupant, first responders, people in nearby homes, etc, etc…

      holdenssvse,

      Not so much a catastrophe for EVs, as it would be for GM’s EVs.

      In any event, it also seems to me that it’s not particularly likely that the Volt itself was at fault.  As others (here and elsewhere) have pointed out, garages often contain lots of interesting and combustible things (I recently discovered an extension cord I use for my electric snowthrower has a short because it was smoking but hadn’t tripped the breaker) and a homebrew EV with homebrew charger might be another source of trouble.

      However, the new tech always gets more than its fair share of suspicion.

      And it’s not just the media having their fun, I’m sure the local lawyers are rubbing their hands together in glee.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @Kixstart: No, it would be a disaster for EV’s in general, as they share all of the same methods of utilizing the batteries, as Holden explained.
         
        Even old tech has it’s hazards, as when Ford was (may still be) having issues with the ignition systems suddenly bursting into flame. I eventually stopped parking mine in my garage underneath my bedroom, even after it was repaired. I’m not really dogging Ford, but I did lose confidence in the car.
         
        Lets see what happens with the investigation.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    BORIS: Oops.

    NATASHA: Hush, Dahlink.

    /tiptoes away…

  • avatar
    Mike Kelley

    These hybrid-type cars have some issues that will mostly be ignored by the media.  A gal at work drives a Prius.  A while back a deer ran into the car from the side, near the back.  An engine light came on, and when she got to work she called the dealer about her warning light.  They told her not to drive it and towed it in for repair.  She had to catch a ride home.  This would never happen with a conventional-engined car.  Trust me I know.  I have killed 3 deer over the years with direct hits and never had to rush my car in for repairs.  I have also heard that some tow-truck outfits will not tow hybrids over fears of the unique electrical hazards they present.
    Maybe GM can bring back the old “Blazer” name for their new electric flagship.

    • 0 avatar
      poltergeist

      A side hit can easily compromise the fuel filler, fuel tank, or EVAP system on virtually any modern car.  In any case the car shouldn’t be driven until the cause is determined, hybrid or not.

  • avatar
    ChesterChi

    Ray LaHood: “Everyone, stop driving your Chevrolets immediately !”

  • avatar
    GS650G

    +1 on renaming it the Blazer.
    This is going to play hell with not only comp insurance on the car but HOI.
    Question on form: ” Do you have a Chevy Volt in the garage?  20% surcharge.”
    The interesting thing will be what or who get’s the blame. GM will viciously defend their product in the media and accuse the homeowners of anything and everything, just like in the comments above. Neutrinos from space bombarding the fuse box, you name it.
    Until the next one. And the next. And so it begins.
    Or maybe these Mother Earth News types plugged two cars into an extension cord and burned their own garage down.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    I had a deer run into the side of my GTI cabrio, rippled the sheet-metal was all… car was not quite a year old… i decided not to have it fixed, was worried the repair would look worse than the damage…

    Deer ran into side of a friends Ford, tripped the efi kill switch… was stranded until tow truck showed up and reset the switch … until then, none of us had ever heard of such a component … all of us being little gear-heads, and later becoming engineers…

    Never had any damage hitting a squirell…

    Glad to have never tested a moose (a CEO of SAAB died that way in the early 1990’s)

    Toyota got the hysteria they deserved beause they were serial liars and problem hiders who rode that wave until it swamped them… (this is typical human behavior, things start small, get big until they can’t any longer…)

  • avatar
    Steven02

    I think it was explained why the Volt caught fire this time, the battery back was likely damaged and rekindled from air, but here is something interesting in article as well…

    “The first fire, which occurred last Thursday about 5 a.m., destroyed the attached garage, the Chevrolet Volt and a Suzuki vehicle that had been converted so that it too ran on electricity. The homeowners had apparently plugged both vehicles in for recharging when Thursday’s fire broke out.”

    Both cars were charging when the first fire hit.  I really wonder about the wiring in the garage now.

    • 0 avatar

      I would tend to think someone as “eco-conscious” to build his own electric Suzuki would know better than to charge both vehicles on the same line.

      Granting your premise, though — and to bring a question over from my earlier posts — doesn’t the Volt have protection systems in place to prevent such overloads from occurring, be it on the charging side (house) or in the vehicle? Did that system work as advertised, but it was too late to prevent the line from catching fire? Or did that system fail outright?

      Lots and lots of unanswered questions…

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        Charging both cars on the same circuit should not cause any problems other than a tripped breaker if the wiring was done correctly.  If the total amperage draw was greater than the circuit could safely provide, the overcurrent protective device will open the circuit before any component gets hot enough to start a fire.  A primary cause of electrical fires is high resistance in poor splices.  Throw some long term high current loads like an overnight charge for both and marginal splices may heat up to the point of ignition.  Recall that aluminum wire fires were simply caused by aluminum oxide, which is non conductive, causing high resistance.  The voltage drop across that resistance caused high temperatures and fires.  Simple as that.  What causes a battery pack to ignite is another matter….

  • avatar

    As an electrician by trade, I’d be willing to lay a significant sum on this being bad or insufficient wiring having the proverbial straw placed on it’s back with the addition of the Volt.

    Charging 2 electric cars at one time would draw one hell of a load, and therefore a lot of heat. Then, as Holden said, the damaged battery packs in the Volt broke and ignited, causing the second fire. Even with that said, I’m still not blaming the Volt, as Chevrolet can’t be reasonably expected to make their cars fireproof, after all.

    However, it will no doubt be used as ammo by the anti-electric car crowd regardless of real cause.

  • avatar

    someone should get “fired”.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    It seems that every year we hear of a fresh Darwin award candidate who:
    1. Shovels ashes from the fireplace into a paper bag or cardboard box.
    2. Stores the box on the deck or porch next to the outside wall of the house.
    3. Is amazed when the house subsequently catches fire.

    Given that, it seems to me also that blaming the fire on the Volt at this point is stretching things.

  • avatar
    mcs

    Well guys, I think I found his blog and, well, after you read about the Suzuki, the Volt seems like an unlikely cause for the fire…

    http://www.stormselectric.blogspot.com/

    • 0 avatar

      It’s rather odd there aren’t any posts after December 2010, but nothing I see on that blog automatically vindicates the Volt? If anything, it’s clear Storm knows what he’s talking about and what he’s dealing with… even if he employs some jerry-rigged “solutions.”

      • 0 avatar
        mikey

        jerry-rigged “solutions” ? or lets just call what it is… Wiring by Mickey Mouse.   And then the garage caught on fire.

        @ mcs….Good research you represent both “B’s” in  the B&B.

        @ Rob…Give it up

      • 0 avatar

        Well mikey, given you worked on a union line for General Motors, I guess you’d be the expert on jerry-rigging…

        Still, I absolutely stand by my initial assessment.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        but nothing I see on that blog automatically vindicates the Volt?
        True, it doesn’t vindicate the Volt, but I think my concern was the part where he mentioned he was using his cell phone as a timer to prevent overcharging and the fact that it wasn’t a well tested commercial product. He seemed to be taking more risks than I would take. It seemed like he was asking for trouble. Something could have failed in the Samurai – especially if there had been an overcharge situation. 

        I doubt it was the house wiring. If he had overloaded the wiring, a breaker would have been thrown. Houses of that vintage do have breakers – and if they don’t, they have fuses. It was a cold night and damp, so I don’t think it was spontaneous combustion.  Either the Samurai charging system, a botched install of the Volt charger, or an issue with the Volt – either design or manufacturing quality. Yes, I know it’s all speculation – hopefully we’ll know what really happened soon. 

    • 0 avatar

      Rob, I would clue you in here, but being as I’m a union electrician (and quite proud of it, too), I suspect you’d disregard anything I said as pinko propaganda.

    • 0 avatar

      mcs: great find, nice digwork. I’m updating the post to reflect this new information.

    • 0 avatar
      HoldenSSVSE

      Great homework mcs. It doesn’t “vindicate” the Volt but it sure is a smoking gun (pun sort of intended) that the real problem lies in a botched/jerry rigged wiring solution by the owner – and not the fault of the home built Suzuki or the Chevy Volt.
      The road to Hell is paved by good intentions; appears an electric car enthusiast got to enthusiastic and has created a lot of fodder.

      • 0 avatar
        cfclark

        I’m going to side with the jerry-rigged Suzuki caused initial fire/initial fire left Volt lithium battery pack vulnerable to subsequent combustion theory. What’s disturbing is that the local FD seems not to have been aware of the possibility that this might happen to a damaged lithium battery pack, which means a lot of other local FD’s also don’t know, and I don’t know if GM (or, say, Toyota) has made any effort to communicate what SOP is when a Volt or other hybrid is damaged in a fire not of its own making. 

        The blog post by the (apparent) homeowner reminds me of an incident in my own neighborhood a few years ago: House behind us is up for sale for a long while and is vacant; over the holidays, the house goes up in flames one night and is gutted inside an hour; homeowner, who has moved but locally, shows up mid-blaze and comments to the fire captain, “oh, it was probably the air conditioner.” D’oh!  

  • avatar
    thornmark

    GM has bigger things to worry about:
    ‘Government motors’ is still a lemon
    Neither current management nor its government masters dare admit it, but the truth is obvious: The bailout’s been a disaster for taxpayers and GM’s pre-bailout stock- and bondholders — and for GM itself.

    Read more: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/government_motors_is_still_lemon_BdOQV86lpsfZx5LkTZd7aK#ixzz1JvtYk3kx
     

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    It can’t be a problem with the Volt. It is politically correct. And it can’t be a problem with Li batteries. They were sent by Gaia to save us from the evil oil companies.

    And don’t you dummies know, never charge two cars at the same time. It would be like making toast and using a hairdryer at the same time.
     
    Note to self: Another BEV drawback, no more than one per household.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    To all those saying it can’t be the “house” wiring because house wiring has circuit breakers aren’t seeing the big picture. Circuit breakers only work if they are sized properly for the wire and type of load they are carrying. In the case of a “continuous load” (more than 3hrs) the wiring and circuit breaker is supposed to be down rated to 80% of it’s capacity. The other thing is that wiring is rated in “free air” so if it was run parallel with or through the same conduit or hole in a stud as another wire carrying a high load it is down rated even more. So a 50 amp load on a 50 amp circuit breaker could easily start a fire w/o causing the breaker to trip.
     
    The other thing to consider is that circuit breakers can fail. Around here in the 50’s and 60’s many houses were built with Zinsco brand panels and circuit breakers and they are widely known to not trip even with direct shorts.

  • avatar
    doctor olds

    From the owner’s blog,
    “I had to send a 24V module out for replacement by the vendor. This means I have a 132V pack and a charger that has 144 and 156V settings. How to charge? I decided to try a “bad boy” charger. A bridge rectifier is connected to the 120V AC with the battery pack connected to the + and – of the rectifier. This bridge rectifier is about an inch square and consists of 4 diodes connected such that the AC is converted to DC. It works out to about 160V of pulsating DC. It can be used to charge batteries from 96V up to about 144V. 144V won’t fully charge.

    This is certainly not a recommended safe practice.”

    You ought to start on the premise that the owner is responsible for the incident. Volt has been in development for 10 years and GM has far more knowledge and experience with electric propulsion than any other company.

  • avatar
    Jellodyne

    The facts in this case are as clear as mud. The only way to find any answers about the cause of the initial fire is to work backwards from your preconceived conclusions.

  • avatar
    doctor olds

    @Thornmark- I doubt many recognize the NY Post as expert on anything, particularly the auto industry. btw- the article was written by a disgruntled business manager at a closed Saturn dealership. That makes him a real expert on the industry, huh?   

    Chevrolet just had the largest quarter in history and GM is the largest automaker in the world again. GM will outsell Ford in April, and is likely to accelerate away from them when the new product pipeline starts flowing. 

    GM made over $5B in North America last year in still down market.  Sales are recovering in Europe, which did overcome other foreign region’s profits to drag the net down to $4.8B. Their net profit margin was only a fraction lower than Ford’s.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    It would be interesting to check with the city and see how many permits have been pulled for all the electrical work that was done in that garage since the home was built. My guess is you won’t find any.

    Mikey – Stop feeding the GM troll!  

  • avatar
    Mike Kelley

    As a taxpayer, I am not too thrilled on the return we have gotten on this “investment”:  http://finance.yahoo.com/echarts?s=GM+Interactive#chart1:symbol=gm;range=6m;indicator=volume;charttype=line;crosshair=on;ohlcvalues=0;logscale=on;source=undefined  I believe it would have to get up over 50 bucks for Uncle Sam to come out on the deal.  Fat chance.

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