EV Fires in Office and Residential Buildings

As the number of electric vehicles and e-mobility devices on the road grows rapidly, so has the problem of EV fires. Owners and managers of office and residential buildings (as well as firefighters) are struggling to adapt to the unique challenges posed by burning electric cars, bicycles, and scooters. Buildings need to consider changes to garage configurations, the placement of EV charging stations, building operating policies, fire suppression systems, rental agreements and lease terms, staff training, and emergency response plans.

EV Fires in Parking Garages

First let’s consider the enormous challenges EV fires pose inside parking garages. As we wrote previously, EV fires inside crowded garages are a significant and not widely understood risk. EV fires burn hotter than conventional fires. They take longer and require enormous quantities of water to extinguish. They can reignite up to a week after being extinguished. Fighting EV fires presents a risk of electrocution and exposure to burning lithium.

In 2018, a fire in an 8-story, open air, above-ground garage in Liverpool, England, led to the destruction of 1400 vehicles. Once the fire took off, a new car ignited every 30 seconds. The structure was so severely damaged it had to be demolished. Another garage fire in Norway led to the loss of hundreds of vehicles and a partial structural collapse. A similar fire in a garage underneath a high-rise building could be catastrophic.

Recognizing the growing problem, the National Fire Protection Association changed its standard for fire suppression in parking structures last year, requiring 33 percent more sprinkler water flow.  However, even this higher rate of water flow will only slow the spread of an EV fire, buying more time for firefighters; overhead sprinklers generally are not capable of fully extinguishing them.

E-Mobility Devices

The second source of risk for office and residential buildings is electric scooters, bikes, skateboards, etc. New York City alone had more than 200 fires last year, several of them fatal, caused by electric mobility devices, and is averaging 15 fires per month so far this year.  Most of these fires are occurring in residential buildings, but office environments are not immune to the problem, and with the number of these motorized micro-mobility devices expected to increase five-fold by 2030, the issue will be unavoidable.

To mitigate the risks posed by EVs, building owners and managers may want to consider:

  • Placing EV charging stations with both firefighter access and proximity to fire hydrants and hose outlets in mind. To extinguish an EV fire, typically the vehicle must be flipped on its side to expose the electrical distribution system and battery case, which requires special equipment. Then the vehicle must be sprayed with enormous quantities of water for a long time. Charging stations should be as close as possible to street-level access and water sources.
  • Banning electric mobility devices inside tenant spaces. Require office tenants to store them in bicycle parking areas set in non-combustible areas with sprinklers and/or hose outlets nearby
  • Banning e-bikes used for commercial enterprises from residential buildings – only allow devices for personal use
  • Not allowing charging of e-mobility devices in the office buildings, even those stored in bicycle parking areas
  • Banning overnight charging of EVs in office buildings
  • Requiring that all EV owners only use manufacturers charging cords and batteries. Most EV fires are caused by devices using cheap, faulty, or damaged after-market batteries and charging cords.
  • Asking EV car owners to register their vehicle’s make and model with the building. This information helps firefighters, as the tactics needed to suppress EV fires vary based on how the batteries and electrical distribution system are manufactured and configured.
  • Requiring that EV car owners to get their car inspected after any accident causing visible damage

Some of these options may be difficult to enforce, and some would require updates to building operational rules and lease language. (New York City’s attempt to ban e-mobility devices from public housing was met with widespread pushback.) But building owners and managers should consider which adaptations could be effective. And at minimum, buildings should update their emergency response plans to guide building staff and tenants/residents on how to deal with EV fires.

For more information on how to adapt your building’s preparedness and life safety program to accommodate EV fire risks, contact info@akpreparedness.com. More solutions for emergency preparedness can be found at www.akpreparedness.com.