Heavy-duty mobile equipment assets carry out essential duties across a variety of industries. Performing this work is not easy on the equipment. Hydraulic shovels, haul trucks, wheel loaders, and similar off-road equipment execute rigorous tasks under some of the harshest conditions – extremely hot temperatures, moving and pushing combustible debris, engines running constantly without breaks. In such dangerous environments, measures must be taken to protect these machines from risks capable of compromising or completely halting operations.
One significant risk to an operation is fire. What may start as a small fire can quickly grow to overtake an entire mobile equipment asset. To combat this risk, organizations across the globe are implementing vehicle fire suppression systems. Let’s explore the ins and outs of these unique systems.
Table of Contents
- Heavy-Duty Mobile Equipment Fire Risks
- What is a Vehicle Fire Suppression System?
- Industries Protecting Equipment with Fire Suppression Systems
- How to Select the Right System for Your Machines
- Maintenance for Protecting Your Fire Suppression System Investment
- 5 Things to Look for in a Fire Suppression System Manufacturer
Fire is an inevitable risk for the heavy-duty mobile equipment used in many high-stake industries. Naturally, vehicle components deteriorate over time, and when combined with environmental factors, fire hazards are imminent. What causes these fires? It comes down to the combination of two sources:
- High-temperature components
- Frayed wiring
- Welding or cutting work done on or near the machine
- Diesel fuel from leaky injectors, fittings, or fuel lines
- Hydraulic fluid from worn hoses or hydraulic lines
- Large quantities of debris, like waste, trash, twigs, etc.
And once a fire ignites on a piece of heavy machinery, the impacts can be devastating. What are some of the tangible and intangible impacts of a vehicle fire?
- Endangerment of operator
- Loss of mobile asset
- Loss of natural resources
- Halted operations
- Increased insurance costs
- Bad press
To learn more about each of these impacts, please read a blog post at: https://www.afexsystems.com/blog/7-tangible-and-intangible-impacts-of-a-vehicle-fire/
While there are many methods organizations use in an attempt to mitigate fires on heavy-duty vehicles, a fire suppression system is the only reliable method to quickly and efficiently extinguish a fire when it does inevitably occur.
A fire suppression system is a safety accessory permanently mounted to a piece of heavy-duty mobile equipment to serve as protection in the event of a fire. Organizations consider these systems their first line of defense against total equipment loss, raised insurance rates, and the other impacts of fire.
A typical system is comprised of four key components:
- Fire-detecting linear wire of spot sensors,
- A control panel to detect a fire and alert the operator,
- Actuators discharge automatically or manually to activate the system,
- Tanks filled with a fire-fighting agent, and
- A distribution network of tubes, hoses, and nozzles.
To mitigate a fire as soon as it happens, fire-detecting linear wire or sensors are strategically placed around the machine. When the high heat of a fire penetrates the linear wire or is detected by the sensors, a signal is sent to the control panel in the vehicle cab.
The control panel alarms and alerts the cab driver to quickly evacuate the machine. At the same time, the panel automatically initiates the actuator, which discharges the fire-fighting agent inside the onboard tanks and sends it through a distribution network comprised of stainless steel tubing and/or hydraulic hosing. An actuator can also activate the system when pressed manually by the operator.
At the end of the distribution network, the agent is disbursed into the equipment’s protected areas via several nozzles aimed at the machine's high-hazard components, like turbochargers, starters, fuel filters, batteries, alternators, and transmissions, to extinguish the fire quickly and efficiently.
Telematics Integration for Remote Monitoring and Discharging
Some vehicle fire suppression systems come equipped with telematics integration. This means that the same dispatch systems many end users deploy to monitor machine hours, downtime, and fuel economy for their mixed fleets are also capable of providing real-time fire suppression system updates.
Some of these integrated features include:
- Remote actuation of a fire suppression system on unmanned equipment
- Notification to the asset manager when a fire occurs
- Display of the exact location of the machine at the time of a fire
- Documentation and relay of engine status and fire system response
- Event timelines for maintenance and troubleshooting
To learn more about telematics integration with fire suppression systems, please visit: https://www.afexsystems.com/when-do-you-want-to-know-your-machine-is-on-fire/
There are numerous industries that benefit from the deployment of fire suppression systems for their heavy equipment. While we’ll discuss some key industries below, this list is not comprehensive. Really, any piece of equipment with an engine is susceptible to the risk of fire.
By conducting a thorough Fire Risk Assessment, mentioned in more detail below, an organization can determine any fire threats specific to their unique operation and decide if a fire suppression system makes sense for their equipment.
Fire risks for mining vehicles include the increased use of hydraulics, lithium batteries, and the machine’s flammable fluids. In fact, 62% of fires start from flammable liquid coming in contact with hot machine surfaces.
- Haul trucks
- Hydraulic shovels
Oil, Gas, & Energy
Machines in oil and gas operations are using larger, hotter running engines with volatile fuel sources. This combined with long operational cycles and less machine downtime poses serious fire risks.
- Frac pumps
- Diesel generators
An article published by Timber Harvesting & Wood Fiber Operations stated, “over 40% of logging machine fires are the result of combustible materials (twigs, leaves, wood chips, sawdust) coming in contact with hot engine or exhaust parts.”
- Feller bunchers
- Log loaders
Steel & Slag
Steel mill equipment operates under extreme environmental heat, often coming in direct contact with molten slag reaching temperatures over 2000°F. This level of heat, equivalent to that of volcanic magma, coupled with flammable dust and debris, puts equipment and operators at high risk.
- Pot carriers
- Slag carriers
Landfill and waste environments are particularly tough on equipment. An article published by Waste Today Magazine reported that between 2016 and 2020 in the United States and Canada, the waste and recycling industry experienced an average of 318 fires each year.
Vehicle fire suppression systems can be utilized in a variety of additional industries to protect people, production, and assets from the risks of fire.
Some of these industries include:
- Wood and paper mills / plants
Once an organization recognizes a fire suppression system is critical for mitigating equipment fires, how do they go about selecting the right system for their unique application? There are three key steps: (1) performing a Fire Risk Assessment, (2) selecting the proper agent type, and (3) investigating system features and accessories.
1. Perform an Equipment Fire Risk Assessment
Once a business has decided to move forward with a fire suppression system, the first step is to have a certified distributor conduct an on-site Fire Risk Assessment.
The goal of this assessment is to analyze the unique fire risks of an operation, including safety concerns of equipment operators and the potential impact of a fire. Once the assessment is completed, a custom fire suppression system can be designed and implemented to address the specific risks identified.
Fire Risk Assessments are such a vital step in the purchasing process the NFPA, an organization that guides fire suppression system standards, outlines and explains the importance of these evaluations and encourages their use.
Common Assessment Checklist
- Ignition sources, such as high-temperature areas and electrical components
- Fuel sources, such as Class A (debris), B (fuels), or C (electrical) materials
- Probability of co-existence of ignition and fuel sources
- Personnel exposure
- Economic risk, such as operational impact should a vehicle be lost
- Need for fire protection as mandated by company policy, governmental compliance, or insurance requirements
- Risk reduction via vehicle design or policy changes, for example
- Available fire suppression alternatives
2. Select the Proper Fire-Fighting Agent Type
The next step in selecting the right fire suppression system is to determine the type of agent needed to successfully suppress an off-road vehicle fire. The effectiveness of each agent type depends on the risks identified in the Fire Risk Assessment.
There are two key agent types – dry chemical and liquid. Some manufacturers combine these two agents and offer a dual agent or twin agent system. We’ll discuss the benefits and limitations of each agent type below.
Dry Chemical Agent
Also known as A:B:C powder, dry chemical agent provides protection against Class A (debris), Class B (fuel), and Class C (electrical) fires. This agent works to flood a volume of space, such as a vehicle engine compartment, with a fire-fighting agent that suffocates the flame.
- Effective for Class A, B, & C fires
- Excels in protecting three-dimensional spaces
- Extremely fast fire knockdown
- Wide coverage
- Effectiveness limited in high airflow environments
Known for its exceptional cooling abilities that suppress Class A (debris) and Class B (fuel) fires, liquid agent works by quickly lowering the temperature of hot surfaces, separating fuel hydrocarbon molecules to prevent fire reflash, and forming a layer of foam to suffocate flames. Used for local applications, this agent is specially designed for high-heat vehicle components, such as turbochargers, exhaust components, and Tier 4 aftertreatment components.
- Effective for Class A & B fires
- Excels in protecting surface areas
- Excellent cooling properties
- Foaming properties prevent reflash of pooled fuels
- Conductive, making it unsuitable for Class C (electrical) fires
- Slower fire knockdown compared to dry chemical agent
- Larger system required to extinguish the fire
- Must have direct contact on target surface
Combining the best features of dry and liquid agents, dual agent (sometimes referred to as “twin agent”) provides the ultimate protection against vehicle fires. Each agent type is used to target fire risk areas they excel best at extinguishing, such as dry chemical for the engine compartment and liquid agent for the turbocharger.
- Dry chemical agent floods, penetrates, and protects engine and transmission compartments
- Liquid agent covers hot surfaces and open spaces to cool and suppress
- More cost-effective and space-efficient than liquid-only systems
3. Investigate System Features and Accessories
A third step when selecting a fire suppression system is to identify the features and accessories that make the most sense for your machines and operation. These items will vary based on the system manufacturer, but here are a few features and accessories you can choose from when selecting fire suppression from AFEX:
- System type: Automatic or manual (requires human action to discharge system)
- Detection method: Linear detection wire or sensors
- Control panel: Circuit Monitor Panel (basic) or Control Unit (advanced)
- Distribution network: Stainless steel tubing or hydraulic hosing
- Accessories: Fire sleeve, horn and strobe, engine shutdown package, linear coil guard, telematics integration, remote actuation, etc.
An organization wouldn’t neglect the routine maintenance required to keep a piece of heavy machinery operating efficiently. So, just like the vehicle itself requires maintenance, so do the fire suppression systems installed onboard. It’s safe to say that any investment in a fire suppression system is futile unless a proper maintenance plan is in place and enforced.
Maintenance serves to uncover a problem before it grows to cause serious issues. Without a regular maintenance plan, fire suppression system components will begin to experience excess wear and tear – hoses chaffing and cracking, distribution nozzles clogging with debris, etc.
It’s also possible that a non-fire suppression technician moves or adjusts a system component while performing other machine repairs or maintenance. This can also lead to a variety of issues that would render the system ineffective.
Bottom line, a fire suppression system that is not maintained properly and at regular intervals might activate when it shouldn’t, delay in activating, or fail to activate at all in the event of a fire. All three of these scenarios present a serious danger to both people and property.
Four Inspection and Maintenance Recommendations
After considering the risks and impacts of heavy equipment fires, reviewing criteria for selecting the right system for your machines and operating environment, and understanding the importance of system maintenance, you’re likely ready to pull the trigger on a vehicle fire suppression system.
But, among the many choices, how do you select the best fire suppression system manufacturer to partner with? Based on decades of experience speaking with end users, equipment dealers, and distributors, we’ve put together a short list of criteria to look for.
1. Experience and Expertise
Experience is invaluable. A fire suppression system manufacturer should have successful, proven installations on equipment in the field. Specialization is also a differentiator among a sea of manufacturers. Does the system manufacturer provide a wide range of products for various industries, or do they specialize in providing fire suppression systems for heavy-duty mobile equipment?
2. Local Distributor Network
It's critical that a system manufacturer have trustworthy, educated distributor partners across the world to aid in sales, installations, and maintenance in any given local market.
Ask the manufacturer more about the distributors they choose to partner with. Distributors should be experienced in heavy equipment environments and receive regular training and certification from the manufacturer to ensure high-quality performance.
3. Independent Testing and Approvals
Rigorous, third-party testing by reputable compliance organizations ensures the suppression system can successfully protect mobile equipment from fire. Testing procedures often simulate years of field use, giving end users peace of mind their systems will perform as expected.
Industry approvals include:
- FM HDME (Factory Mutual – Heavy-Duty Mobile Equipment)
- ActivFire AS 5062 (Australian Standard)
- CE (European Conformity)
4. High Quality Components
Not all fire suppression systems are created equal. Ask the manufacturer about their unique system design. What components contribute to their system’s reliability, like a stainless steel distribution network or side cartridge operation? A system with higher quality components maximizes performance, makes inspections and maintenance easier, and ultimately results in a lower total cost of ownership.
5. Excellent Customer Service and Product Support
Arguably the most important piece of criteria for selecting a fire suppression system manufacturer, high-quality customer service is vital.
- Is the manufacturer responsive to your questions and concerns, not just prior to the purchase but after as well?
- What type of product support is provided?
- Do they have trained installation and service representatives to support their distribution network?
Vehicle fire suppression systems are a reliable, effective way of mitigating the risks associated with mobile equipment fires. These safety accessories protect assets across a variety of industries and are purpose-built to meet each operation’s unique demands. To sum up the benefits of these systems:
- A higher degree of safety for personnel
- Less equipment downtime
- Predictable equipment replacement timing and costs
- Better insurance rates and availability
- Peace of mind