A lot of car-fire videos have been racing across the internet lately. In the case of a drift car at HyperFest and a Toyota MR2 at a track day, the drivers got out of the car and circled around to the passenger side to retrieve their hand-held fire bottles, which ultimately were useless against the flames rising from their cars. We also ran one a few months ago when a Corvette caught fire at Circuit of the Americas.
If videos like that don’t provide motivation to install a fire system in your racecar, and convince you that investing in an appropriate fire system is money well spent, one is left to wonder what would.
For those of us who went to the expense of buying a good system and installing it properly, we harbor in the back of our minds the hope that we never have to use that system. Racing often comes with a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance, and fire systems are no different.
We may never pull that handle or mash that button, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore a system once it’s installed. FIA- and SFI-rated systems require periodic maintenance at two-year intervals. In fact, the FIA recommends that the bottle in a fire system be replaced every 10 years. SFI actually mandates that bottles be replaced every six years.
“We do require service every two years. It’s kind of a mutual understanding between SFI and FIA and manufacturers. It’s a set interval where we’re getting the bottles back for inspection,” said Brandon Marshall with Lifeline Fire USA. “We will actually get the bottles back here regardless of what the suppressant is. We’ll discharge it — or depressurize it — and evacuate the fluid. We’re looking at everything inside the bottle. So the dip tube, all the connected points in there, making sure the actual inner wall of the system is OK,”
The dip tube inside the fire bottle is flexible with a metal pickup on the end, which can bounce and roll around and create wear on the inside walls of the bottle. In road racing, the wear and tear is nowhere near as vigorous as in, say, off road racing, but the periodic maintenance done at Lifeline includes that inspection.
Lifeline will inspect all the O rings, pressure-relief valves and the Schrader valve, then drain, filter and reuse the existing Novec 1230, or discard and replace the foam suppressant. Costs for servicing a system range from $100 to $150 for a system that has not been discharged to $100 to $300 for a system that has. An empty bottle must be refilled with the appropriate suppressant. Replacing Novec is chiefly responsible for the additional cost.
Marshall also highlighted a number of other periodic checks racers, owners and crew chiefs can perform themselves to ensure proper operation of a fire- suppression system. The ideal time to perform these checks would be during the time your bottle is out of the car being serviced.
Mechanically Operated Systems
Luckily, the maintenance involved in vehicle fire-suppression systems isn’t too intensive. For mechanical systems, users should pull the actuator cable — one for the driver and the corner worker, if you have two cables — to ensure that they have 6 to 8 inches of travel, which ensures the system will work when you need it. Inspect them to ensure there’s no corrosion or dirt or kinks in the casing that will prevent them from operating smoothly. Obviously, disconnect them from the bottle first.
It’s easy enough to pull the whole cable, clean and then lubricate it. Marshall recommends lubricating them with a dry graphite lube. Another maintenance procedure involves blowing compressed air through all the lines to ensure there are no blockages. If you’ve already pulled the bottle, it’s easy. Marshall said it’s handy to have another person help while blowing out the lines. One person feels around each nozzle to ensure air is coming out while the other holds the blow gun at the other end of the line.
Lubricating the cables and clearing the lines are applicable to systems that use film-forming foam and those that use liquid-to-gas suppressants like Novec 1230.
Regardless of whether you have a mechanical or an electrical system, it’s better to remove the bottle during the winter offseason, particularly if your car is stored in an unheated garage.
“They’re typically safe down to, you know, 0, – 5, -10 degrees,” Marshall said. “But if you were to get a cold spell, you may forget about it and it could freeze, and could damage something inside the bottle with the dip tube, the head, something like that, just with the extreme cold temperatures.”
Hard-line systems are easy to disassemble. Just remove the lines from the fittings and blow out the lines with compressed air and a blowgun. Most of Lifeline’s latest systems use alloy semi-rigid tubing, which simply presses into connectors, tees and nozzles. The tubing is the same on mechanical and electrically operated systems. It’s designed not to come out, but there is a correct way to remove the tubing from the locking collar. We’ll let Marshall explain.
“There are teeth in that little collar that bite into the tubing. Once you remove it, you see those marks where it is biting,” he said. “You have to push that ring or the collar into the fitting or the nozzle, whatever it’s installed in. And then that will release pressure and you can pull the line out. I’ll typically tell people to push both the line and the collar in, and then hold the collar in and pull the line out.”
Turnaround time for bottle maintenance will take less time than the shipping itself, Marshall notes, depending on where you live. Lifeline has servicing dealers all across the United States.
“Fire systems are one of the few things I think that are measured by the month of a year versus helmets or belts, which are for the full year,” Marshall said. “So, just making sure you’re checking your date when you’re at the vehicle, when you’re doing your prep, when you’re doing your nut and bolt, just make sure you’re on top of checking the dates.”
Fire systems have a month and a year marked on the bottle, which indicates when the system should be serviced.
Electrically Operated Systems
Lifeline’s electrically operated systems, and those of other manufacturers, use a battery to activate the bottle. Obviously, you need to change that battery based on how often you use the car. For example, if you only race a couple of times a year, then an annual battery change is probably OK. If you compete in 20 races per year, then a six-month interval is the way to go.
“It’s just a small 9-volt battery. We do recommend Duracell or Energizer, because we have seen issues with other batteries failing. Between those two brands, it needs to be a 6LR61 9-volt battery,” Marshall said. “So you just replace that and then do a system test, which will go through and make sure all your wiring’s still good. I’ve seen people install a system, run it for a couple years, then all of a sudden it isn’t working and, come to find out, a squirrel or a mouse or something got into it and chewed the wires.”
Again, the procedures for clearing and maintaining the supply lines is the same as on a mechanical system, but there’s one more element to maintain on all fire systems.
Section 16.2.2 of the NASA CCR states that drivers need to be able to demonstrate the ability to exit their vehicle within 15 seconds, starting from being fully strapped in with all driver gear. Part of your regular maintenance regimen should include testing yourself whether you can meet this requirement.
If you’re a one-man driver and crew chief, when you hop out to take tire pressures and temperatures is a good time to practice emergency exits. You can get in a lot of practice per season that way, and your temps and pressure readings will be more accurate.
“I tell people, practice your egress,” Marshall said. “I think it’s critical people practice their egress, and that includes being fully strapped up, helmet, suit, everything, window nets, side nets, all of that up and practice getting out of the car.”
If you can afford the expense, Marshall recommends keeping a spare bottle in the race trailer. That way, if you do have a minor fire that requires you to activate the system — or an accidental discharge — you can make the needed repairs and install a full bottle so you can keep racing that weekend.
“We do have a few servicing dealers at a couple of tracks around the U.S.,” Marshall said. “Somewhere like Sonoma and Sebring, they can do it there. There are a couple of places where it can be done, but that could ruin your weekend if you accidentally fire a system off and then you don’t have a bottle put back in the car.”
A good and timely column.
I have two fire bottles in both my cars. Rather than have the spare in the trailer, I keep them both in the car should I need both. Having had two good blown engine oil fires, and one each clutch and brake reservoir line bursts catch fire under the hood, I can tell you that fire systems only slow the burn for you to get out of the car. Don’t be under the notion they will put out the fires. Another note, oil burns orange hot with a lot of available material. Brake fluid from the clutch and brake reservoirs is small in volume but burns white and yellow hot.
I hope NASA doesn’t mandate sfi fire systems. My limited understanding of the sfi rules is that it you discharge your system, the bottle must be sent back for recertification. The beauty of the Ess fire bottle is that you can recharge your system immediately at the track. I carry 2 recharge kits for that reason. No need to send back the bottle too have the company do exactly what I can do at the track.
At my last recharge the tech found that the pickup tube had failed and the system would not have worked. That was at the second service. The bottle was 4 years old and had maybe 30 track days use. Tech said those tubes are supposed to last longer. They are not expensive though, so I plan to have the tube replaced at every service now.