- EV fires are harder to put out.
- Water damage can cause fires even after your car dries out.
- Even a fender-bender can cause damage to the battery.
Car fires have always been dangerous and difficult for firefighters, but highly combustible chemicals in electric car batteries are posing new challenges.
Not unlike the gasoline tanks in internal-combustion engines, the enormous lithium-ion batteries used to power electric cars pose some significant fire risks. But there are some key differences that make these fires harder to combat.
One major difference is the possibility of what’s referred to as a “thermal runaway,” in which an EV battery falls into a cycle of overheating and over-pressurizing, causing fires and sometimes explosions. These powerful fires are plaguing ships carrying EVs, causing extensive damage to parking garages, and even leading to widespread recalls in some cases.
Even after an EV battery fire appears to be extinguished, lingering energy stored in the battery can cause these dangerous runaways.
“Even when it looks like pretty much a plastic tank on the ground, those batteries are made up of thousands of these small battery cells, and all it takes is one of them to reignite the fire,” said Brian O’Connor, a technical services engineer for the National Fire Protection Association.
O’Connor spoke with Insider this week to provide advice about what to do in the event of an electric car fire. Here’s what he had to say.
Don’t start an EV after a flood
If your electric car is flooded or drives through deep water, be sure to get it towed and checked by a mechanic before turning it back on, O’Connor said. Even after your car appears to have dried out, water stuck in the battery can still cause a short-circuit and start a fire, he said.
O’Connor said this became a particular issue in Florida this year following massive flooding from hurricanes.
“After the flooding receded or dried out, people would say, ‘Oh let me see if my car works,'” he said. “Because there was still water in the batteries, the vehicles short-circuited and started a fire.”
Get your battery checked after an accident, even if it’s just a fender-bender
Aside from water damage, damage sustained in a collision can also cause an EV to short-circuit and start a fire, O’Connor said. It’s best to have your battery looked at by a professional after any kind of accident, no matter how minor.
“If a battery gets crushed at all, that can cause a short-circuit,” O’Connor said. “It’s hard to judge what level of accident can cause damage to the battery – a little fender-bender might do it, a big crash definitely will. It’s always safer just to get it checked.”
Provide first responders with lots of information
When you call 911 in the event of an electric-vehicle battery fire, it’s best to provide the dispatcher and first responders with as much information about the vehicle as possible so they can effectively extinguish the fire.
It is first important to be clear that it is an electric vehicle that is on fire, O’Connor said, and then to share the make and model information as first responders often have access to manufacturer response guides.
“There might be high-voltage wires that go through different parts of the car, the batteries might be located in different places – all these things help inform the first responders about how to best tackle the fire,” he said.