Since the dawn of man it has been one of our most valuable assets. Today it is invaluable, from the fire to warm our garage, the fire to cut the steel we use in our vehicles and most importantly the fire in our combustion chambers to power them.
Controlled, it gives our off-road vehicles life.
Out of control, it kills them, and sometimes, tries to kill us in the process.
We spend all this money to build the most high end vehicles. We drop thousands of dollars into axles, tires and engines. We spend countless hours building, tweaking, tuning and at the end of it all we do what?
Protect it from burning to the ground with a couple of $20 fire extinguishers from the local auto parts store? What kind of crap is that?
If you have never witnessed your vehicle burn, let me tell you that it sucks. It is the most horrible gut wrenching feeling of all your labor being destroyed and you can not do a damn thing about it. I had my built 1994 Isuzu Amigo catch fire in the driveway. Yes that's right, the driveway. I was not even on the trail/rolled/upside-down. I was moving vehicles around and I turned around to see smoke billowing out from under the hood. By the time I got to it flames were already starting to be seen in the fender wells. I could not pop the hood due to the flames and heat. I used 5, FIVE !! powder type fire extinguishers on it spraying in any crack or hole I could find and it did nothing. 3 small "automotive" sized ones and 2 5lb industrial ones and the only thing that put it out was the fire department and a couple hundred gallons of water. You do not even want to know how bad the insurance company raped me for what it was "worth". Had it happened before I moved it five minutes earlier, it could have also taken my house.
Could you picture this happening on the trail with no fire department? How many fire extinguishers do you have in your vehicle? In your group? You say "well what if I could open the hood?" and I say "what if you were ON your hood?"
In the past year I have seen no less than a half dozen vehicles on Pirate4x4 burn to a crisp, from daily driver Jeeps to full out tube buggies. Most of them could have been saved or at least not totaled. Let's find out how.
Down and dirty fire fighting basics Firefighters spend a lot of time in school and practical application to learn their job. It is also part of my job in the Navy . When a ship is on fire you can't exactly call someone to put it out. The same goes for on the trail. The fire dept is not going to roll up with lights and sirens. What I am going to teach you here is the very watered down cliff notes of putting out a fire. If you want to learn more then go for it, I recommend it, but this will give you enough information to not be dangerous.
The Fire Tetrahedron The fire tetrahedron is a simple model of firefighting at its basics. Fire requires these elements in order to exist, remove one and the fire stops.
Oxygen: no oxygen and the fire stops
Heat: remove enough heat and the fire can not start or continue.
Fuel: remove the fuel source and the fire has nothing to burn.
Chemical reaction: break the chemical reaction of the fire and it stops.
That's about it in its simplest form. I am not going to cover in detail what each agent does to break the fire tetrahedron as that is a long and sometimes confusing topic. You just need to know what kind of fires and what kind of agent best puts them out. The hard part is using the right agent for the right fire.
And we break down the types of fires by their class.
Class A : normal combustibles, paper, wood, most plastics.
Class B: flammable or combustible liquid or gaseous fuels.
Class C: fires caused or involving potentially energized electrical components
Class D: flammable metals
Class K: cooking oil or fat
Every fire extinguisher is labeled with what types fire it will fight and usually to what extent. The label will have the class of fire it will fight (A/B, A/B/C) and sometimes these letters are preceded by numbers, for example, 3-A 4-B 3-C . The numbers, assigned by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), show the extinguisher's effectiveness against each type of fire (its based on gallons of water to do the same job). The higher the number, the greater the effectiveness. Just remember that this is ONLY if UL has tested it.
Using the wrong type of fire extinguisher for the wrong type of fire can at best just require more agent to put it out. At worse it will actually help the fire spread.
What kind of fire do you have in your off-road vehicle?
All of them, in some level or another. You have mainly A (seats, plastics and whatever random junk on the passenger side floor),B (gasoline, propane, lubricating oil, hydraulic fluids) some C (battery, charging system and related items) and even a little D (magnesium, titanium and other metals if heated enough)
And K, for the bacon in your vehicle, you do have some bacon, right?
What would I worry most about?
Class B fire.
We have a LOT of flammable liquids in our vehicles. 5-20+ gallons of gasoline, a gallon of gear oil, a gallon of transmission fluid, a couple quarts of power steering fluid and every bit of it is a PITA to put out once it gets going. You roll over and your transmission fluid leaks on your headers, taaadaaa you have a car-B-Q. You wreck or roll and your fuel leaks, then catches fire, now you have an ever growing puddle of burning suck. All the fluids short of the soda in your cup holder can and will catch on fire and it is one of the most difficult class of fires short of D to put out.
Major types of fire extinguisher agent, pros and cons for our use
Water: just like it says, water.
Pros: Works great on Class A fire and that is just about it. Its cheap and usually user refillable (screw on top and Shrader type valve for recharging with compresses air) Also works great for spraying your buddies on the trail.
Cons: Heavy, it's a couple gallons of water. Not 4 season, it will become an ice block in the winter. Oh yeh, and it is downright dangerous in the wrong kind of fire. Never, ever use it on ANYTHING but a Class A fire. It will spread the fire or electrocute you. Just because it is a big shiny extinguisher people want to grab it first, don't, keep it for the camp fire not the car fire.
Dry Chemical: Powdered chemical, the most common being Ammonium phosphate, Sodium bicarbonate and Potassium bicarbonate with an inert gas as a propellant.
Pros: Works well on class A,B and C fires with some chemicals being better at B/C fires. Cheap and readily available at pretty much anywhere. It stores well and is 4 season friendly.
Cons: Its usually corrosive to metals, electronics and everything else. It is a PITA to clean up. (think about dumping 2lbs of baking soda into a leaf blower aimed inside your rig). It sucks to inhale and is a lung irritant. It is a "one time use" item, even if you spray and stop the powder will usually clog the valve and leak down its propellant. Its not user refillable unless you use a non pre-charged system and those are not publicly common. It can "pack" due to the vibrations of driving and settle on the side down and when you go to use it you get nothing.
Did I mention that it sucks to clean up?
Halon or Halon replacement: Halon or its replacement gas under pressure or liquid with an inert propellant usually nitrogen.
Pros: works great on 90% of all fires. It is 4 season friendly. No cleanup or mess required. Multiple use, you can spray what you need with a hand held unit and use more if the fire starts again. It will not destroy your electronics. Its non-corrosive so aluminum intakes and stuff like that are safe. And it works, very, very well.
Cons: Not human friendly in an enclosed environment but you would have to have a high concentration. Its big downfall is that it is a gas or liquid that turns into a gas almost instantly. As a gas, if the wind is blowing, the gas is leaving with it. So if you have a re-flash of fire and you are out of Halon you are also out of luck. Its expensive in relation to other agents both in the initial purchase and for refilling. Some Halon replacements are a LOT less effective than "real" Halon so do your research when buying.
CO2: CO2 stored in liquid form.
Pros: it works on a variety of fire classes. Its cheap and you can usually have it refilled locally. 4 season friendly. Able to be used multiple times. Great for speed chilling your beer.
Cons: It is NOT human friendly in an enclosed vehicle. Same problem as Halon with being a gas. It also has the potential to freeze up its valve and nozzle. It can thermally damage items as it can freeze what it is sprayed on.
AFFF or AFFF variant: Water and AFFF (Aqueous Film Forming Foam) or a foam agent.
Pros: Puts out fires and keeps them out. Works very well on Class B fires as that is what they were primary designed to put out and keep out. 4 season friendly if formulated correctly (make sure you ask). It can be user refillable depending on if its pre-pressurized or not. Capable of multiple use with handheld units. Some foams are completely biodegradable and non-toxic.
Cons: Not electrical component friendly as it is mixed with water. Some formulas can freeze solid. Cleanup will be slightly messy but most clean up with just water.
The 2 types of fire suppression that relates to you the off-road enthusiast are hand held fire extinguishers and dedicated fire suppression systems. We will start with fire extinguishers first.
Hand held fire extinguishers: Save a dollar or save your rig, your call.
I have seen the most beautiful, top dollar, high tech off-roaders and race vehicles with the cheapest crap fire extinguishers that you can buy. Little white "kitchen" dry powder extinguishers with plastic handles, plastic mounts and no gauge. They spend all this time to go over every detail on their rig and use something I would be wary to use to put out burnt toast. Or worse than that is the tiny cute little "billet/chrome" ones the size of a beer can. What do you plan to put out with that, a cigar?
Lets start with what you need:
Metal: If you can get a metal valved, metal handled extinguisher get it. Some of the plastic valved ones are pretty much worthless and break way to easy in a off-road vehicle. If they have plastic valves they most likely have plastic pick-up tubes that can become brittle and break. When the pickup tube is gone you may as well throw the extinguisher at the vehicle for all the good it will do.
Here is a plastic valve unit shown side-by-side with a metal valve unit. Both used the same agent and were the same size. You can obviously see how much of a piece of junk the plastic valved one is. Way to easy to damage in our environment and the quality is not something you should be betting your life on.
Notice also the plastic head unit has zero pressure and the metal one is good to go, neither one was "used". The plastic one is 5 years old, the metal one is 15 years old and still has pressure.
Inside it gets worse, the pickup tube is plastic as well and it is very common for them to flex and break. This makes your extinguisher a 2lb paper weight.
Mounting SOLID mounting that is quick and simple to remove the extinguisher. None of this plastic crap. Think about it, you roll-over or stuff the nose into a dune and now you have a 2.5-10lb hard metal projectile. Have someone throw a small extinguisher at the back of your head from 5 feet away. No? Not a smart idea? Now you understand the stupidity of a weak mount.
This example is brilliant, plastic mounting and plastic zip ties to hold it to the cage. Image has been altered to protect the stupid.
Next are these "Twist lever while pushing the button while singing I'm a little teapot and remove the extinguisher" mounts. Having a solid metal mount that you can not open while your vehicle is on fire is worse than just having the extinguisher rolling around on the floor boards. At least then you have a better chance of putting out the fire.
If you can't remove the extinguisher in a panic then it is worthless. If you can not remove it when you can't see because of your eyes are irritated by smoke, its worthless. If it can corrode solid or is not retardedly simple to open it is worthless. SIMPLE saves your ass.
This is an example of a good mount fitted with a craptacular extinguisher, this is like a turd filled twinkie:
Bigger is better, more is better. I would recommend nothing under 2.5lbs as that is pretty much just starting at what a vehicle fire is going to do. Fires either get bigger or go out, 2.5lbs goes quick. The only good thing about the smaller ones is places to mount them, so get 2 or 3 or 4 of them.
Gauges Every sanctioned and most non-sanctioned bodies of racing require them. You NEED to know that extinguisher has pressure and is good to go. This is not debatable. You have to know there is pressure and anything without a gauge is worthless. Just picture the fun of a small engine fire, you know a little one like some oil on a header wrap. You grab your trusty white kitchen ABC unit and press the button.
And now while standing there looking at this extinguisher pressing the button again, shaking it, pressing the button again, you look up and that "small" fire has now melted a fuel line and grown much bigger.
You will see these things all over the internet being sold as "race" this and "performance" that, how in the world are you going to tell that the extinguisher is good without a gauge? Image altered so I do not get sued by some company in china.
Location, Location, Location You need to be able to grab your fire fighting items while strapped into your rig. It needs to be at arms length away so when the dash is on fire and you are about to get burned, the extinguisher is right there to put it out. The other ones need to be easily accessible by bystanders and safety crews. They should be OBVIOUS and labeled. You do not need people hunting for an extinguisher when you are knocked out and your rig is on fire.
Now your choice for what agent to go with is up to you. You know the downside to each one and you need to weigh that with your needs and your rig.
I personally would avoid CO2 as they are usually large and cumbersome with the dispersing cone. They are also not as effective as others with a Class A fire.
Water I would also avoid due to its limitations of anything but a Class A fire.
That leaves dry chemical, Halon type and AFFF type.
I used to like to carry 2 smaller extinguishers mounted next to the front seats in "aircraft" style mounts. They were Marine ABC dry chemical type and I consider them "throw away", but I never picked up the "cheap" ones. I usually get them from a marine/boating place, they have metal valves and a gauge. They have proven to be used more for other peoples fires instead of my own. If I "have" to use them for an interior fire that has gotten bad enough to warrant a extinguisher I can live with the powder mess afterwards.
But like I said, they are used most of the time on other peoples vehicles. Not to be an jerk but once your fire is out and done, the powder cleanup is your problem. They work well on all types of fire, simple and cheap. They are also securely mounted but at hands reach of the driver or passenger should they be needed. I smack them around every so often to keep the powder from settling, I also have the habit of whacking them hard with my hand before I am going to use one.
This was until my fire in my driveway, then things changed, a lot. I will not have another vehicle burn in front of me so it was time to upgrade everywhere.
First I started with my hand held units: After the level of suck I have had to deal with involving dry powder units I decided to step up a notch to a clean-agent extinguisher and went with 2.5lb HalGuard units from H3R Performance.
A good number of our vendors here on Pirate4x4 carry their product line so they were easy to acquire.
They are available in both a chrome finish and red powder coat as shown. Hey, some people like a little chrome in their ride and if this makes them buy a quality extinguisher then it's a worth while option. For me it is more about what is inside and that's why I went with them over something else.
HalGuard contains Halotron 1 as its agent, a liquefied gas. It's electrically non-conductive , UL listed, FAA approved, is non-corrosive, has a non-suck cleanup (there is none) and it WORKS!
Remember what I said about plastic valves? The only plastic here is where it belongs, holding the metal safety pin in place. I can tell at a glance if it is discharged or ready to rock with a simple gauge.
Next comes mounting The H3R units come with a aircraft rated mount included (shown on the bottom) and this is "good" and will be more than adequate for most peoples uses. I am done settling for "good" so for my roll cage mount I used H3R Performance's billet mount (shown on the top).
The mount is offered to be able to be attached to either a flat surface or roll bar depending on the base you get. And if you have a drag race vehicle or your sanctioning body requires it, the mounts are NHRA certified for use. It fits rattle free and secure until it is needed.
Removing the fire extinguisher in an emergency is as simple as pulling a pin.
This is my rear extinguisher on the back passenger corner of the roll cage. It is easily accessible by anyone in an emergency, obviously visible and has a simple to detach mount attached to a quality extinguisher.
For the mounts near the driver's and passenger's seat I needed something more fabrication friendly, so for that I went to our vendor's forum on Pirate4x4. I got a set of mounts from StinkyFab Racing, you may know him better as Dallas or Stinkbug.
Dallas started making these after not being happy with what was available on the market in price, quality, construction, fit or any combination of the above. A simple, well made steel mount that does not suck and holds your fire extinguisher in place no matter the situation until you need it.
Offered in both a bolt/clamp on or a weld on version it is a form follows function piece of gear.
Closed with pin in place your extinguisher is secure, pull the pin and the mount comes apart, there is nothing confusing about it.
These mounts work perfect when you want to weld your mount in place or you are doing a custom mounting like I had to. I added a loop of winch line to the pull ring to give a nice big item to grab in an emergency. Some stainless hose clamps, my HalGuard extinguisher and its done.
Note that everything is located at arms length when I am belted into the seat, the fire extinguisher , the orange handle is my battery kill and the bright green flag is for the fire suppression system that we will cover next.
Full Vehicle Protection Now for when you are done screwing around and want to save your rig and maybe your life its time to step up to a full fire suppression system like the ColdFire system from DJ Safety.
Some people may think this is overkill for a daily driver/weekend off-road vehicle, those are also the same people who have never had a vehicle burn. Blue book for a 2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited with my miles is around $20k, you add to this all the modifications and you can find similar JKs for sale for $40-50k. The insurance claim "may" cover the blue book value if you are lucky. That's a lot of cash to throw away when you could have spent a couple hundred dollars on a fire suppression system.
This amount of money pales in comparison to a race vehicle and most of them we do not or can not get insurance that will cover anywhere near replacement cost.
I wont even get into the cost and overall fun of full thickness burns and skin grafts. Go talk to someone who has had some and ask them if they think a few hundred bucks is a worthwhile investment.
Big fires require big units "But I have a 5lb extinguisher and my buddies do too"
Whoooopty friggen dooooo! I have seen too many fires where a hand held unit did not do squat. What do you see scattered around this picture with a rig still on fire?
This used to be a nice rig and even after it burned the insult was not over with, people were overhead saying that they were going to come back to steal the axles and transfer case. You think I am kidding? Go search in the forums and its not all that uncommon, people are scum and take advantage of your situation. Once the Park Ranger is gone the dirt bags come out.
The other key point is you aim your nozzles at what you have a good idea is going to burn and no matter what, that is where it will spray. If your hood is closed or sheet metal is in the way from the outside it does not matter because the nozzle is right there. You can still be strapped in your seat and still fight the fire before it gets a chance to get anywhere near you.
So we have covered why you need a suppression system, so lets cover why I went with the ColdFire system over others on the market.
It's a AFFF/foam type agent
This was VERY important to me as fuel/oil fires suck to put out and a foam type agent works best for it. The other benefit to this is the makeup is mostly water, this cools hot surfaces such as exhaust manifolds and prevents re-flash of the fire. It also very effectively cools YOU ! It is completely safe, non-toxic, non-corrosive chemical that is even biodegradable should you ever have to use it out on the trail.
A lot of racers will aim one nozzle directly at them in the drivers seat, this way if a fire breaks out they do not burn. Here is a example of a test firing of a ColdFire unit by RedBull racing using that style of setup.
The other benefit of a foam over a Halon/gas type agent was touched on before, but I will hit it again. If you activate the unit and there is a strong wind, a gas will blow away. If you activate the unit and then the gas agent blows away but the item causing the fire is still hot the fire will start back up, but this time you have nothing to put it out with. If the fire is on the ground BELOW your rig from the pool of fuel that is leaking out and the Halon is in the vehicle...you get the idea.
Luckily gravity works the same on ColdFire agent as it does ATF on fire, liquid gets pulled in the direction of "down" and your agent is putting out the fire. This is important with belly pans, skid plates, floors and other areas that can pool fuel. Until the ColdFire agent is removed it will prevent a re-flash, the wind does nothing to it.
Here is a photo of a KOH racer that had the problem of a Halon type agent and it being blown away or not working effectively against what was on fire. I am not saying a foam would have saved the rig but it would have given it a fighting chance.
It's not a powder Because it is not a powder it cleans up with water and will not destroy everything it is sprayed on. I would like to keep the collateral damage caused by the fire to a minimum and not have to scrap everything. Cleaning up after a powder agent sucks bad and you can't just leave your mess on the trail.
Its 4 season safe There are a few other AFFF/Foam suppression systems out there but one of the major reasons I went with DJ Safety and the ColdFire system was it can be set up to run year round. This may not be a big deal for you guys in the desert but I am running this in a daily driver, it has to be freeze safe. Just make sure to specify this with DJ Safety when you order your unit.
Its self contained and simple No piggy back systems with other plumbing and the maximum diameter of the bottle is the maximum diameter. Mounting is simple, plumbing is simple, setting it off is simple and even having it re-loaded should I ever have to use it is a simple as sending it back and getting another cylinder. I could even order a "spare" cylinder and keep it on the trailer should I want a backup.
Now on with the show.
I ordered the 10lb ColdFire system and it is complete minus the mounting hardware that is specific to your vehicle. It does have the billet aluminum clamps for the bottle itself but you need to make the mounts to the vehicle and route the lines. This is as it should be because this is not a "one size fits all" kind of deal, you should always have the option to setup your system to perform best on your application. The system does come complete with everything else that makes the system fully functional with an activation head, handle/cable, tubing, fittings and machined aluminum nozzles.
You can have this setup as either a "push to activate" or a "pull to activate" system. You need to figure out what will work best for you and your rig.
You will need to pick up a bunch of hardware for mounting, things like self tapping screws and rubber isolated clamps. You do not want to skimp on this and install it with zipties and duct tape, you need to make sure the mounting is secure because you will be relying on this when upside down and on fire.
You will also need a tubing bender, cutter and flaring tool to install the system. If you suck at flaring tube you might want to practice a bit on some scrap first. This is NOT the place to learn how to flare lines.
Remember: upside down and on fire
Oh and a little tip: Make sure BOTH the nut and sleeve are on the tube before you flare it. Nothing sucks worse than having to cut off a nice flare because you forgot some parts.
Not saying I did this. Some guy I know did. I swear.
Aiming your nozzles is one of the most important steps in the entire installation. You need to figure out where your fire might be and what you want to protect. I have one nozzle aimed at the entire engine compartment from the radiator back as shown in the picture below. This will hose down the entire engine, power steering and most major causes of fire under the hood. The other two nozzles are aimed at other areas that I see as a serious hazard and needed attention, sorry for no photos as it is very difficult to get a camera in the areas.
As for the areas not shown The first being the automatic transmission and the entire area that the exhaust cross over pipe that runs next to it. Automatic transmission fluid can boil over and will ignite on a hot pipe. This nozzle addresses that and also the front edge of the gas tank that is near it.
The second being the entire gas tank itself, this nozzle is aimed from the rear to spray across the entire top of the tank. I am also running a full skid plate system so any burning fluids that fill into it will be put out by the ColdFire that will also fill into the skid when activated.
Think out and plan your nozzle placement and secure them well, remember the whole "on fire and upside down" thing.
DJ Safety shows some suggestions for the way to mount your ColdFire tank, the best being going from drivers to passenger side with the tank horizontal. Luckily this fit perfect in a space under my Jeep at the rear between a frame rail and my battery box. I constructed solid mounting and a full skid plate for the tank so it would be protected from any damage before I needed to use it. Because you only have to find space for a reasonably small tank it opens up a lot of options over a bulkier system. I had enough space to mount the 10lb unit in a daily driver so I am pretty sure you could do the same in a tube vehicle. Don't give me some BS that its 5lbs more than the smaller unit and you are trying to save weight on your buggy, if your sprung weight is that much of an issue you should go on a diet.
Or don't, fat burns nicely anyways, that would be a Class K fire.
DJ Safety was great to work with and will help you to get the correct system for your vehicle. I had to swap from a "push" to a "pull" activation to match my "pull" battery kill and they had the parts shipped out quickly. They can also supply you with a pressurized tank of just water for testing purposes, this works great for making sure your system is fully functional. Although it is not needed it was fun to use and also produce some video for you all to see it in action.
And for those of you who don't feel like listening to me babble on and just want to see the unit "in action", here is the short version:
In conclusion I hope you have learned a little about how to protect your vehicle in case of a fire, or at least opened your eyes to how sketchy your current fire protection is. I feel "safe" with my vehicle now, I have put the best protection that I could find in my Jeep and trust it. Now should I ever run into another situation where my vehicle is on fire I feel I can give it a fighting chance to not become scrap. I also feel that even if it does burn to the ground that I am equipped to keep myself and my passengers from harm while we get away.
I openly invite all of you to ask any questions about fire protection in our forums as we have not only professional fire fighters but manufactures of fire fighting equipment. They have been invaluable in helping me learn more about fire suppression and in writing this article. They will gladly help you in choosing the right agents and units for your needs. In the topic of fire there is really no "dumb question" because not asking that question could destroy your vehicle or get you hurt.
I would also like to thank the companies used in this article, please go to our vendor forum and get the protection you need.