OK, time’s up. The 2023 rules are in place, and they require a fire system on all racecars. Come to think of it, a fire system is probably a good idea for full-boogie Time Trial cars, too. To help you figure out how to pick the right fire system for your car, we touched base with Brandon Marshall, brand manager for Lifeline USA, the official fire suppression partner for NASA.
The main considerations are the size of the racecar you’re covering, the type of suppressant you prefer and the type of activation. To a certain extent, particularly for grassroots motorsports, budget can play a role in answering those first two questions. Racecar fires can get ugly, so it’s often best to find the budget to get the system you want, knowing full well it’s better to have it and not need it than the inverse.
“I think for road racers, the most common would be what we call an FIA system, which mainly focuses on the cockpit,” Marshall said. “Obviously that’s number one priority, the occupants, whether driver or driver and passenger, you know, getting them out of the vehicle. Hopefully, we can save the car, but the goal is, is to save you, so you can come back and do it again.”
The two most common Lifeline systems used in amateur sports car racing are the water-based Zero 2020 FIA 3.0-liter mechanically activated system, and the Zero 360 FIA 2.25kg Novec 1230 system, which also is mechanically activated. Both systems have two pull cables for the driver and emergency personnel outside the car.
Both systems are effective, but there are differences in how they perform the same function of putting out a fire.
The water-based Zero 2020 FIA 3.0-liter works like a traditional aqueous film-forming foam system that’s been on the market for years. Lifeline’s Zero 2020 system now comes with a 3.0-liter bottle, which is smaller and lighter than its predecessor, and it’s priced at $440. Foam suppressants must be sprayed directly on the fire to be effective, and once the fire is out, there is no small measure of cleanup work to be done.
“Foam is super effective when it’s able to see the fire, coat the fire, or coat whatever’s on fire, I should say. The challenge is it can only see where it’s sprayed at. So it’s not going to be super effective if it’s not, you know, sprayed at the headers or your turbo or something where the fire is. So that’s one of the challenges with foam, which is water based. So, we have to use more of it essentially in order to get more coverage than an agent like Novec.”
The Novec systems also store the suppressant as a liquid, but it discharges from the nozzles as a gas that’s heavier than air. As a result, Novec offers three-dimensional coverage because it sprays out from the nozzles, expands, and sinks. So, a Novec system that offers comparable coverage compared with a foam system has the added benefit of using a smaller bottle, which takes up less room in the cockpit and weighs less. It does cost a little more at $700 but you are getting a premium suppressant. Novec nozzles must be oriented horizontally so the gas can fan out before it drops.
Lifeline engineers its systems to work specifically with the number of nozzles included in the kit, so adding nozzles provides no additional safety. Placing the included nozzles properly is sufficient.
“We typically try to push people away from doing that. And the reason is with fire suppression there is a science behind it,” Marshall said. “If you get into adding nozzles or taking away nozzles, what you’re doing there is affecting the flow rate and you could, depending on which direction you go, you could not deliver the material as quickly as you need to. And on the other side of things, you might deliver it too quickly.”
In terms of routing the lines, make sure they’re within the crash structure and protected with the fire braid covering. In the cockpit, you would want on the nozzles in an area that sprays from your knee to your belly button area. You don’t want to spray it toward your face. In a moment of emergency egress, the suppressant would inhibit your ability to see your way out of the car. Smoke and flames are already enough of a problem for visibility.
If you have an older FE36 system and you want to switch to the more ozone-friendly Novec, Lifeline can outfit you with a new bottle and you can plug it into your existing lines.
“The good thing about them is they use the same components. So, if you had an FE36 system, we can’t do anything with the bottle other than, you know, recycle it, but you wouldn’t have to buy an entirely new system,” Marshall said. “You can buy just a Novec replacement bottle and it’s plug and play. It uses the exact same components.”
If you already have a fire system in place, it’s important to have the bottle serviced regularly. Regardless of who manufactured the system in your car, SFI and FIA systems require service every two years. FIA-rated bottles must be replaced every 10 years. SFI-spec bottles must be replaced every six years.
“With the different agents, we service them differently. With the foam system, over time, vibration and harshness in the vehicle can accelerate the breakdown process of foam. Foam will separate over time, specifically salt chemicals in there with what we’re doing in a racecar and a track car accelerates that, so that begins to separate quicker, sooner, faster,” Marshall said. “What’ll happen is you’ll get some buildup of salts and other components where it’s actually pulling out of the fluid. It’ll begin to kind of collect around the dip tube or the opening for the discharge. We do replace foam every two years. You know, whether it’s a service or it’s been fired off, you’re always getting new foam.
“With the Novec systems, it actually has a 30-year shelf life. So we’re able to just filter it, put it in a container, and we can actually reuse that, which will help keep the cost of the services down,” Marshall continued. “It doesn’t matter which agent you use. Once we have the fluid out of there, we’re cleaning the bottles, making sure we don’t see anything odd going wrong with the dip tubes. We’re replacing O-rings, seals, Schrader valves, pressure relief valves, pretty much all the consumables on the bottles.”
If you can afford to spend a bit more, you can opt for more sophisticated systems, including those with separate bottles for the cockpit and engine bay. There are systems that are electrically activated, which eliminates the need for mechanical cables. Of course, the pinnacle of safety are the systems that offer mechanical or electrical activation in addition to automatic activation, which discharges the system in the event the driver or emergency personnel cannot.
If you get lost in the process of choosing a system, you can always call Lifeline and tell them what car you have, what class you race in, whether you have any weight concerns and let the technical assistance people help you.
“The number one priority should be the best suppressant. Now, that’s not saying the best system or the most expensive system, which is what that usually translates into, but the best suppressant,” Marshall said. “We have some insanely good systems that, for a couple thousand dollars and higher, don’t even use Novec. But personally from a performance standpoint, if I fire that thing off accidentally, I don’t have to clean it up. It doesn’t damage any electronics or anything like that. So I’m going go with the Novec 1230 system probably nine times out of 10.
“Even going down to that 3.0-liter, $440 system, like that’s entry level FIA, but that’s still a really good system,” he added. “In today’s world, there’s really no reason for anybody to be out there without a system in their car.”
It says so right in the CCR.
Bravo! This is a very well written and timely article that every racer should read more than once along with your “Maintaining Fire Systems for Proper Operations” piece. I have seen, been close to, 3 vehicle fires since I started racing with NASA and heard about 5-6 more. Fires don’t care who you are, how much money you make, what you spent on your equipment, when they take place or if you are a club racer or seasoned pro. Bottom line, you don’t want to meet the beast because the beast is flat out ugly.
“…so it’s often best to find the budget to get the system you want, knowing full well it’s better to have it and not need it than the inverse.” Great line and one all racers should consider. If the difference is between one race or the system you really want, sit one race out and buy the system.
Thank you for a very informative and thought provoking piece.
I’ve come here to say please pop for the automatic system. It’s a dumb way to die when you’re knocked out and on fire, if for only a couple hundred extra dollars you could walk away (or at least be pulled out unconscious but not burnt to a crisp).