“These electric cars are hot, smoking hot!” said one of the many bloggers who saw a catastrophic garage fire in Connecticut as proof that plugging in a Chevy Volt means taking your life in your hands. But in this incident and many previous ones, critics have rushed to judgment about what caused the blaze — the car or something else. And in this case, the Volt is an unlikely culprit.
The Connecticut garage that burned to the ground belonged to semi-professional clown Storm Connors, and inside were a brand-new 2011 Volt and a far humbler 1987 Suzuki Samurai with 80,000 miles on it that Connors converted himself with lead-acid-batteries.
Firefighters on the scene in Connecticut said they couldn’t rule out the Volt as a cause, but the subtleties got lost as bloggers posted such headlines as: “Chevy Volt Most Likely the Cause of a House Fire.” A frustrating aspect of stories like this: There’s seldom a follow-up to say the EV was exonerated, or to report the conclusion of the investigation.
According to Connors, both cars were plugged in, but it’s the older Samurai that’s the far more likely source of the fire:
In my humble opinion, if it was one of the two cars, it was probably the Suzuki. Everybody is making a story out of this, but there’s no story. At this point, nobody knows what caused that fire, but from what we can see of the damage to the Volt, it started somewhere else.
General Motors, which Connors said sent four engineers to investigate, warned against a rush to judgment. “We believe the owner’s Volt has been a victim of this fire, not the cause,” said Chevrolet’s Doug Parks in a blog post. If a possibly safety-related malfunction is detected in the Volt, the car stops charging and, said Parks, “safeguards are invoked to isolate the high-voltage system to the battery pack.”
It’s wrong to claim that electric cars don’t start electrical fires, but most of those on record have started in homemade conversions or in relatively unsophisticated vehicles such as the Suzuki or the golf cart-like GEM, which is produced by a subsidiary of Chrysler. The celebrity press had a field day when a Florida garage housing supermodel Veronica Webb’s GEM caught fire in 2002. “Hell Car Burns Model’s House,” screamed the New York Post’s Page Six. “Veronica Webb’s eco-friendly electric car turned into a fire-spewing death machine the other night, burning down her Key West house and killing her beloved dog, Hercules.”
C’mon, it burned down the garage, not the house, and, as with the Connecticut fire, the origin was unclear. And contrary to columnist Adam Curry, who said “Apparently this happens all too often with electronic (sic) cars,” it’s actually pretty rare.
But there could be a problem with the low-end, lead-acid GEM, because others have burned. In 2006, I got a call from an Orange County, California, woman named Briana Trump (no relation to Donald) who said one of the little EVs had burned up and destroyed her garage, too. Two other GEMs owned by the U.S. National Park Service have reportedly caught fire at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.
According to Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield of Green Car Reports, conversion fires are often caused by charging stations being left on after cars are topped up. Modern lithium-ion battery packs, she wrote, have thermal management systems that prevent their cells from overheating — a useful addition beyond the reach of home hobbyists.
Hey, I’d be surprised but maybe the Volt did start the Connecticut fire. If so, I’ll let you know. Nobody wants a potential firebomb in the garage. Here's a report from the scene: