As he rounded the last complex of corners that lead onto the front straightaway, a fire ignited under the hood of his Spec Miata. The driver followed the rules to the letter. He pulled over, evacuated and stepped away from the car and waited for the emergency crews to arrive.
The problem was that his car didn’t have a fire system. He did have a fire bottle, as section of 15.1 of the CCR requires, but when a fire is contained under the hood of car, the last thing you want to do is open the hood and feed it more oxygen. The resulting flare-up would have overwhelmed most any handheld fire extinguisher.
So he sat and waited for what must have seemed like an eternity for emergency crews to arrive and put the fire out. The result is shown in the photo that opens this story. The car survived and is back on track, but what a mess.
Having seen this happen, I knew a fire system was a must on the new car, so I turned to Maelstrom Kiewiet at Competition Motorsport, who supplied a Lifeline Zero 360 Novec 1230 manual system. I specifically wanted to go with a Novec 1230 system because it’s discharged as a gas, but stores as a liquid, and leaves no residue if you ever need to use the system.
Novec 1230 is a halocarbon introduced by 3M around 2012, and it offers the highest margin of safety for human occupancy among clean-agent extinguishants, including inert gases. Novec 1230 is non-conductive, which makes it appropriate for flammable liquid and energized electrical fires, and it’s also rated for solid material fires. Unlike Halon 1211, a hydrofluorocarbon, Novec 1230 is environmentally friendly, and doesn’t harm the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.
“I think other there’s been some other Halon used, but 1211 was the most prevalent,” said Brandon Marshall, brand manager for Lifeline Fire Systems, a British company with roots in military applications. “Over time they did studies and they started realizing that it had some detrimental health effects for you. It wasn’t great for the environment. It has ozone-depleting properties that supposedly will hang around for centuries, and just eat away at the atmosphere.”
Halon works by robbing the area around the fire of oxygen to extinguish it. The fire can’t breathe. The bad thing is that it robbed the area of oxygen, so the driver also couldn’t breathe. Halon was replaced with FE36 a DuPont chemical, which was safer than Halon, but produced some health drawbacks such as headaches.
“You might say Novec, it doesn’t suck the oxygen out of the area,” Marshall said. “What it does is create the barrier between the heat source, being the flame and oxygen. But rather than sucking that oxygen out or displacing the oxygen, it just creates a barrier around the fire to where the fire can’t access more oxygen.”
Unlike aqueous film-forming foam, or dry-powder extinguishants, Novec 1230 is safe to use around electronics because it leaves no mess behind. Marshall is fond of telling the story of a Ferrari that caught fire in about hour 10 of the Petit LeMans, and the team had to retire the car because it was going to take them more time to clean up the dry powder than was left in the race.
Some AFFF system manufacturers let the user refill the bottle with the liquid and install a new C02 canister themselves. Lifeline insists on refilling its AFFF and Novec 1230 systems, too, which minimizes leaks. Return the bottle to Lifeline or one of its authorized distributors because of FIA and SFI standards.
“So, we take some of the guesswork out, which not only helps the end consumer, but also the sanctioning body, for tech inspectors and that sort of thing,” Marshall said. “When you see that bottle and it’s got, you know, not only the Lifeline or SPA, Safecraft, whoever, it’s got the Lifeline serial label, but then you also see the other labels that show when it was serviced, when service is due and that sort of thing.”
Another benefit of a gas extinguishant has over foam is that foam only works on what it can physically touch. Foam sprays out of the nozzles and lands on a surface. Gas is three dimensional. It leaves the nozzle and fills the volume of a given space.
“Novec is a heavy gas,” Marshall noted. “Helium is light, so it rises. Novec will actually fall. So you never want to aim it down or too far down.”
Instructions for mounting the nozzles are quite specific as a result. The slots in the nozzles must be oriented horizontally, which allows the gas to fan out and then fall due to its weight. Orienting the nozzles vertically greatly reduces the area of coverage.
“The gas is going to fill the volume. So the cockpit, engine bay, whatever we’re talking about, it’s going to fill that area and then it’s going to drop,” Marshall said. “So you’re getting more coverage horizontally, and then it’s going to do the work when it starts weighing down and falling through that area.”
It’s also important to mount the nozzles to a strong surface. The gas comes out with such force, it can cause deflection in the lines if they’re not secured, and that can throw off their aim. For this installation, I mounted the nozzles for the engine bay to the top of the firewall, aimed at the intake and fuel plumbing and at the exhaust side of the engine. For the driver nozzles, I mounted one behind the driver through the rear bulkhead and one through the console aimed at the driver’s legs.
Of course, with any prescription, there are side effects. One, opposite of helium, it will make your voice go deeper, and two, it can cause heart arrhythmia. So, take a breath, pull the activation handle and get out of there.
“There’s a science to the volume of the cockpit,” Marshall said. “Obviously we’re trying to protect the driver and we’re trying to, if there is a fire in there, we’re trying to put that out, or at least suppress it to buy you time to get out of the car, but we’re also not trying to make the situation worse. So, in that system, you have, I think we’re dumping in 0.75 of a kilogram into the cockpit, which is completely safe for you.”
In terms of the installation of the kit, the bottle in this system weighs about 7.5 pounds, so you should be strategic with where you put it. Like the lines that feed the nozzles, the activation cables should be firmly fastened, preferably to something steel. I put the handle for the corner worker on the steel plate next to the kill switch and the handle for the driver on a bracket through-bolted to the transmission tunnel next to the shifter. Mounting the handles properly means when you pull the handle, you’re pulling the cable inside rather than the exterior casing.
I mounted the bottle and the cables first, then routed the tubing, which is one of the greatest things about this system. Rather than using a hard line that you have to bend with a tubing bender and flare for use with flared fittings, the Synflex tubing that comes in the kit can be bent and routed by hand. The nozzles and couplers feature compression fittings that hold the tubing in place. Just press the tubing in and that’s it.
If you put a bend in the wrong place, you can straighten the tubing and bend it again. If you need to pull the tubing out of the fitting, use a pair of pliers to hold the collar down and pull the tubing back out. Lifeline also offers other fittings on its website that don’t come with the kit, but could come in handy. I used the 90-degree bulkhead fitting and order 3 extra meters of tubing, which I ended up needing to complete the installation.
The kit retails for $699, which is more than the AFFF system at $399, but the Novec system is more effective than foam at half the weight, which is important in any racecar.
“Novec, or gas in general is so much more effective than AFFF. We can actually use it in smaller doses or smaller concentration,” Marshall said. “So that 2.25 kilogram you have is roughly, I think it’s seven, seven and a half pounds. Um, whereas the equivalent 4.0-liter (foam) system is about twice the size and it’s about 15 pounds. So it it’s, you know, a little bit less than twice the size and twice the weight. So you’re, you’re working with a much smaller package.”