Even if fire departments can track a car fire back to the incident that caused it, there is rarely a singular cause for any specific incident. A variety of factors, such as human error, mechanical difficulties, and chemical sources, are more likely to have contributed to the incident.
It is also possible that all of the mentioned factors contributed to the formation of a fire. So, after a car has caught fire, many other potential causes can and will make the incident much worse. Knowing such content can help you avoid getting into a potential danger and prevent your car from any risk of exposure to fire.
Before we delve into the list of hazards that present risks for fire in cars, it is worth noting that once a car is on fire, it doesn’t matter what caused it to catch fire in the first place.
Keep your mind off whether the engine was overheated or whether any fluid had been accidentally spilled. However, that information might be helpful later for one or more purposes, such as for insurance or to help a car manufacturer to fix a potential issue with your vehicle.
If ever your vehicle is on fire, make sure to get out as quickly as possible and as far away from the vehicle as possible. A minor automobile fire isn’t going to remain for long.
Considering that car fires account for approximately one out of every eight recorded incidents, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), it is worth learning to lessen some of the danger in your vehicle. Check out some of the hazards that pose significant risks for a fire in a modern vehicle below.
Defects in car design
When a design defect in a vehicle is present, it is unlikely that it will result in a car fire on its own. This is because there is no on or off switch for causing a vehicle to burn. According to the United States Fire Administration, design flaws are responsible for less than 1% of all vehicle fires.
Usually, car manufacturers are alerted to these problems before they become prevalent. They conduct recalls to remove the potentially harmful vehicles off the road and address the flaws.
Not all design defects result in vehicle fires, although any number of issues might increase its likelihood. It is also vital to note that since 2012, most of the biggest and most popular car manufacturers have recalled nearly 10 million vehicles – both gasoline and electric-powered – due to the possibility of catching on fire.
Leaks in the fuel system
Gasoline leaks are something you’d prefer not to have to deal with. Gas and diesel are highly combustible and can easily catch fire if no ignitor is present.
As the most prevalent cause of car fires, leaks in the gasoline system are quite harmful. You probably already know that gasoline is one of the most flammable liquid substances inside your car.
The temperature of gasoline at 45 degrees Fahrenheit or 7.2 degrees Celsius or higher may easily catch fire if a spark is applied to it. But the good thing is your car’s temperature is kept under control by the engine’s cooling system.
Nevertheless, a fire can still happen all the time and on purpose, even if your car is running. Gasoline that reaches 495 degrees Fahrenheit or 257.2 degrees Celsius will spontaneously ignite by the sun’s heat.
It’s simple to understand how fuel leaking onto hot metal and plastic parts might ignite a fire that spreads quickly, let alone a spark from a flung cigarette butt or another ignition source.
One of the most prevalent causes of automobile fires is failing to maintain your vehicle correctly.
Purposely lighting a match and dumping it into your car’s gas tank is unlikely. Thus, there is a slight possibility that the direct and primary cause of a fire in your car is due to your actions.
According to the United States Fire Administration, mechanical failure was the most common cause of automobile fires. However, if you are careless with your car’s maintenance, it may become more dangerous. Thus, there is an increased probability that a car fire is only one of the many hazards you are risking.
Forgetting or purposely neglecting to maintain and care for your car properly might indirectly result in a fire. This is because if you do not fix broken parts, leaky seals, or defective wiring, these might make your car far more susceptible to the cases that cause fires. This is true, especially if you have vintage or old vehicles.
Keep in mind that a car engine with a faulty gasket is more prone to leak potentially harmful and combustible substances into the engine compartment.
Moreover, it is vital to note that a little more than 20% of car fires may be attributed to electrical failures or malfunctions. So, to prevent leaks and frayed wires, open the hood now and again and take a quick check around.
Of course, not every automobile accident will result in a fire, but some may, especially if fluids spill from the vehicle. A single spark can cause combustible substances such as gasoline or oil to catch fire.
A car accident might result in a car fire depending on where the impact occurs. Most cars’ crumple zones are well-designed, allowing the body and frame to absorb the force of a collision. Thus, potentially delicate and dangerous interior parts such as the engine, battery, and even the gas tank are protected from the force of a blow.
However, a significant enough blow will almost certainly result in fluid leaks and spilling and heat and smoke. As we all know, high temperatures combined with spilled liquids provide the ideal circumstances for a fire to erupt.
Because it is difficult for passengers of a crashed car to determine the extent of the damage while still inside, the threat of a fire may not be immediately apparent. Because of this, getting away from a damaged vehicle as soon as possible is always a good idea. Consider yourself lucky if you are not confined inside a crashed car. If the vehicle catches fire, at the very least, you will be able to escape at a safe distance.
Overheated catalytic converters
Excessive heat generated by catalytic converters is a fire hazard that is frequently neglected. However, this must not be the case. Your car’s radiator is one of the most hotly heated components, and it extends the full length of the vehicle.
A common cause of overheating in catalytic converters is that they are forced to work too hard to burn up more exhaust pollutants than they are built to handle. Suppose your vehicle’s engine is not running efficiently due to old spark plugs or any number of other adverse situations. In that case, it will not adequately burn the gasoline, resulting in a significant amount of excess material being expelled through the exhaust system.
As a result, the catalytic converter must exert additional effort to complete its task, making it even more heated than usual.
It is possible for a catalytic converter that has been overworked or blocked to quickly rise from its typical working temperature range of around 800 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit or 648.9 to 871.1 degrees Celsius to over 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit or 1,093.3 degrees Celsius.
This results in long-term harm to the catalytic converter and the car’s surrounding parts, and the surrounding environment, which includes tall grasses and other greenery.
The automobile is built to handle the catalytic converter’s average temperatures, but it is not meant to sustain temperatures that are several hundred degrees higher consistently.
Moreover, the catalytic converter will not catch fire on its own. Still, it has the potential to ignite everything in its vicinity that is exposed to such high temperatures, including other elements of the car.
In addition to an overheated catalytic converter, an overheated engine might also cause a fire. It may not necessarily burst into flames on its own, but it has the potential to induce other combustible components, such as oil, to spread and catch fire.
In this case, an engine that overheats and causes a car to catch fire is a powerful illustration of how one problem may worsen the other. A car’s engine is unlikely to overheat to the point where it will spontaneously combust and ignite.
However, an engine can overheat, causing its fluids, such as oil and coolant, to heat up to dangerous levels and leak out of their allocated zones of circulation and into the surrounding areas. These fluids may drop, drizzle, and spurt across the engine bay and onto the exhaust system, where they can ignite and spread if they come into contact with other hot components.
The vast majority of the time, cars pull over before things become that serious. Overheating engines require mechanical treatment in most cases.
Rarely, such as in the late-2012 recall of approximately 90,000 Ford vehicles equipped with a specific EcoBoost powertrain, an overheating engine is caused by a design flaw that can be corrected with a software update, which modifies the car’s computer to help keep engine temperatures at a safer and lower temperature threshold.
Car fires, such as the one involving a police car set ablaze in Los Angeles during protest marches over the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, might be complicated by the presence of arson.
Arson is defined as the illegal act of intentionally starting a fire. After all, why would somebody purposefully set fire to their car? The most common reason is vengeance.
However, it is possible that it is being done to conceal evidence of another crime. Sometimes it is out of curiosity or old-fashioned vandalism. It is also a fraudulent activity to take advantage of the insurance company. There are countless more reasons, but it is better to leave them to the investigators to figure out for themselves.
It is pretty simple to start a fire in an automobile. Arson investigators frequently discover the presence of tampering with the fuel system or an electrical short.
Batteries of hybrid and electric vehicles
In the autumn of 2013, a Tesla Model S caught fire just a few months after the car was given the unofficial label of “the safest automobile ever” by the media.
That is never a good thing, of course, and it was especially disastrous for Tesla in this case. The business has hinted that the fully electric Model S would be almost immune to the battery-related issues that have afflicted hybrids and electric vehicles in the recent past.
Unfortunately, a Model S moving at high speeds collided with a piece of debris, which perforated the car’s battery, causing the battery to act like any other battery would: it ignited. Since the first Tesla caught fire in 2013, several subsequent Teslas have caught fire, albeit these incidents are highly unusual.
On the other hand, Chevrolet has issued a recall for around 110,000 Volt EVs from model years 2017 to 2022 due to battery fires. It was discovered that the problem was caused by a hardware and software flaw in the batteries. It is believed that around one-third of all fires in electric cars occur while the vehicle is parked and not connected to a power source.
However, hybrid vehicles are the most likely to catch fire, with gasoline vehicles coming in second. A distant third place goes to cars that operate only on electricity. As a result, because there are so many more gasoline-powered automobiles on the road, they account for the great majority of all vehicle-related accidents.
Fluids that have been spilled
Under the hood of the standard car or truck, there are multiple flammable and very hazardous fluids such as gasoline or diesel fuel, power steering fluid, transmission fluid, engine oil, brake fluid, and even engine coolant if the vehicle is equipped with one.
When the automobile is running, all of those fluids are flowing, and if any of their lines, hoses, or reservoirs are damaged, they can all catch fire and spread. Because of this, the fact remains that all of the car’s vital liquids are highly flammable. Even though one of the car’s vital liquids is unlikely to start pouring without notice, something else usually needs to go wrong first.
When a fire is combined with another aggravating circumstance, such as a vehicle accident or a faulty part, the consequence might be a significant disaster. A fire in the engine bay is most likely to start since it is where all of these toxic substances are concentrated but bear in mind that some of them, such as petrol and brake fluid, can spread throughout the entire car if it is not extinguished very once.
Failures of the electrical system
Electrical system failures cause car fires, and they are the second most prevalent cause of vehicle fires. It’s not only the troublesome hybrid and all-electric car battery packs. There are a variety of battery pack kinds that are problematic.
A standard car’s regular lead-acid battery charging cycles can allow explosive hydrogen gas to build up in the engine compartment. The electrical current provided by the battery, combined with defective or loose wiring, can create sparks that can quickly ignite a fluid drip or vapors that have spilled.
The dangers posed by the electrical system are not limited to the region beneath the hood, though. Electrical wiring flows throughout the vehicle, including through channels, into doors, under the carpet, and underpowered and heated seats might cause severe damage or even death.
The most effective strategy to limit the likelihood of a fuel system fire is to ensure that the vehicle is maintained correctly and not subjected to the scenarios we’ve already discussed. Moreover, if you ever notice a gas smell in or around your car, locate and repair the leak as soon as possible.
Remember that the second most common call for firefighters is car fires. That is why you should be informed about the most common hazards you need to watch out for to avoid the risk of car wrecks. Make sure you read our Fire & Explosion Investigation guide, and don’t hesitate to get help through our Vehicle Fire Investigation Services here at Roar Engineering.