Where There’s a Spark
Fires, one of the last things anybody working on a car ever wants to
deal with. Statically speaking, you can’t avoid it. Considering the nature of the
auto repair business with numerous chemicals, some highly volatile and explosive,
the odds are it’s going to happen sooner or later. Sometimes it’s just a quick
little poof of a flame, while other times it’s an all-out assault with the fire
extinguishers. All you need is a source of ignition and up she goes! Engines in
general, are nothing more than a controlled fire and explosion, and sometimes
that fire or explosion doesn’t stay where it’s supposed to. 

Over my years of working on cars I’ve had my share of them, some through
pure stupidity and others totally by accident.  And, if anybody who works on
cars tells you they’ve never had one go up in flames (even a little bit) is 100%
fooling themselves or is a complete liar.  It happens to the best of us.

Back when carburetors were the norm a backfire almost certainly shoot
a huge flame up in the air.  Once in a while the oil in those old oil bath air
filters became a rather convenient furnace for the latest back fire. 
Gasoline spills, oil leaks, and just about any other type of chemical concoction
can become a ball of flames in no time at all. 

Of course, ya can’t leave out the ‘electrical fire’ either, but calling a fire an ‘electrical fire’ doesn’t sit well with me. Electricity is only the spark to ignite it.  If there are no combustibles nearby, electricity on its own can’t erupt into a ball of flames. But, you hear it all the time, “Oh, they had an ‘electrical’ fire.”  So, if it’s Ok to call a fire an electrical fire, then I guess it’s OK to call one of those movie scenes where the guy shoots at a pool of gasoline leaking out of a huge tanker which subsequently explodes --- a ‘gun’ fire? Hardly, I believe in that case it would be called a ‘chemical’ fire. But, when electricity is involved… it’s an ‘electrical’ fire. Go figure. Unless, they are merely referring to an electrical spark as the catalyst, well then, ya got me there.

Many years ago I had a 280z that came in and the owner said he couldn’t get it started.  Nothing else, no ten thousand word explanation of the problem, or when he bought it, or what parts he’s changed, or what his friend who’s a mechanic told him was wrong with it, just that it wouldn’t start.  Later that day I made my way out to the parking lot to check it out.  I turned the key, cranked the engine, and WHOOF! Flames shot out from every corner of the hood.  I made a beeline for the fire extinguisher, got the hood open … and doused the flames with the whole can.  Come to find out the owner had pulled the fuel lines off of the injectors and had the coil wire disconnected.  Nice…thanks for the heads up, fella.  Needless to say, it was one of many occasions that I needed to refill the extinguishers.

Another time a customer called and told me his pickup would only run for about ten minutes and then would barely idle.  If he shut it off and waited another ten minutes it would start back up again. He said he was going to try and make it to the shop that afternoon. It was getting late and I was looking forward to going home, but this guy had called several times telling me to wait for him and that he was still going to make it.  So I said I’d stick around.  It was dark by the time he finally arrived at the shop.  We were busy filling out the paperwork when the parking lot lit up like a large candle.  His truck turned out to be the candle. 

I grabbed two extinguishers for this one, and ran outside to find the guy standing next to his truck waving his hat at it.  Yea, like that’s going to help.  It took both extinguishers to put this blaze out.  There was a whole lot more work that needed done besides finding out what was causing the loss of power.  It turned out to be fuel trim issues and a clogged converter that would glow as red as a cherry.  The fire was caused by the truck’s fuel line that ruptured right there in front of the shop.  Pretty scary stuff when I found out how close it was to going off like a bomb. 

What’s even more startling is when you don’t even know there’s a fire.  You’re working under the dash and the next thing you know one of the other guys in the shop is filling the engine bay with CO2.  That’ll get your attention. Then, of course, there’s the car that’s delivered to the shop and the owner tells you, “It had a little fire.”  Sure, just a little fire.  The CO2 is an inch thick everywhere you look.  Anything plastic has melted into an oozing pile of blackened gunk.  All the rubber hoses are charred beyond recognition, and the wiring is one huge clump of twisted copper and melted plastic. I often wonder what some people consider a ‘large’ fire after I’ve seen these so called little fires.

Just this week I had one up on the lift looking for a major oil leak.  The oil was dripping off of the frame from the front to the back of the car.  I had just got the car in and left the engine running while I took a quick look. (Which I’ve done hundreds of times before.)  This time, I wasn’t so lucky.  As I shined my flashlight up into the engine bay there was a loud boom, and a huge ball of fire engulfed the entire area. Luckily, I had enough sense to have extinguishers mounted on every lift and it was out before any damage occurred.  It did give me a quick haircut and a few singed eyebrows though. When you can smell burnt hair… you know you’re too close!  Wow, that was hot, and so sudden and unexpected too!

You hear about entire shops burning down all the time after a car caught fire in a service bay.  It’s something I don’t want to experience, and for that matter any other repair shop.  That’s why I don’t hesitate a second when those guys come around to service all my fire extinguishers each year.  It pays to have as many as you can.  The fire extinguisher companies have recommendations for what kinds of extinguishers you should have and how many based on the size of the shop.  I tell them… double it.  I don’t have a whole lot of hair left these days, and I’d like to keep what I got. Seriously, I don’t need any more of those flame cuts, my barber does a pretty good job on his own.

Accidents will happen; cars will have back fires, electrical issues, hot components, and leak combustible fluids.  Just be sure you’re ready to handle the emergency when it happens.  Cause ya know… where there’s a spark….. 

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