We are all aware that our vehicles are prone to a fair bit of danger. Accidents, crashes, collisions … you name it, we’ve heard of it. But there’s one car trouble we don’t pay much attention to, especially if it’s a problem you can deal with before it escalates into a full-blown nightmare.
We are talking about car fires. The cause of a vehicular fire is just as much a shock to the system as it is a question mark. Car fires are not a frequent occurrence, but when they do come to pass, they have the potential to warp into an unmitigated disaster.
We’re all familiar with the concept of a car succumbing to flames, but how and why does such spontaneous combustion occur?
There’s no single cause behind vehicular fires. It is more often than not a mix of different factors involving human errors, mechanical malfunctions, and chemical agents – all working together to lead to an incredibly catastrophic situation. Simply put, there are a number of factors that contribute to a car catching fire. And these include:
Fuel system leaks
A leakage in the fuel system is pretty much the most widespread cause of vehicular fires and is highly fatal. There’s a fair bit of complexity attached to the factors that eventually cause a fuel leak, not forgetting the fact that there’s also very little warning accompanying them.
Cars come equipped with fluids that have corrosive, lethal, and extremely combustible properties. Gasoline easily takes the top spot. At just 45 degrees Fahrenheit (or 7.2 degrees Celsius), gasoline can go up in flames from just one tiny spark. If temperatures reach 495 degrees Fahrenheit (or 257.2 degrees Celsius), it self-combusts. If you seem to notice a lingering smell of gas in or around the car, find and fix the problem instantly.
Electrical system failures
Conked out electrical systems or malfunctions as we know them to be, are the second most leading cause of car fires. Car batteries have always been a major source for concern (not including the hybrid and all-electric vehicle battery pack varieties).
A battery’s charging cycles allow highly volatile hydrogen gas to build up in the engine bay. Any surge in the electrical current (alongside faulty or loose wiring) can stir up sparks that in turn will set off other fluid or vapor discharge. And this isn’t just restricted to the area inside the hood. There’s a lot of electrical wiring running across the entire length and breadth of the car; through channels, into doors, under the carpet and through powered and heated seats etc. It only takes one overlooked wire to strike a heavy blow.
As we’ve stated before, the average vehicle plays host to a number of flammable fluids such as gasoline or diesel fuel, engine oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid, and even engine coolant. All of these fluids also happen to be well in circulation whenever you start your car. It only takes one hit to their lines, hoses or reservoirs to burn your car down to a metal crisp.
There is no definitive pattern for the fluids to catch fire without any just cause. Which translated means that something else probably went wrong first. There’s also the fact that all of them happen to be combustible, a problem if there ever was one. Add in a few complicated factors to the mix, and you find yourselves dealing with a full-fledged inferno.
A car’s engine, to all intents and purposes, is not sufficient enough to cause an outbreak of flames. What does happen is that the engine overheats just enough to let the internal fluids, like the oil and coolant, to heat up on their own. This causes them to trickle through to the engine bay and onto the exhaust system eventually spilling onto other heated parts, where they easily ignite. An overheating engine means you need to carry out a swift mechanical scrutiny. Most often it’s a leaky seal or gasket, an improperly functioning radiator, or a number of other factors.
Overheating catalytic converters
This is one facet that’s ignored but is something that needs to be called attention to. The exhaust system is both the hottest and constantly hard-pressed part of a car. There’s also the fact that it runs across the entire length of the vehicle. Catalytic converters tend to overheat when they work up a sweat trying to burn more exhaust pollutants than they’re equipped to handle.
Case in point: You’ve got an engine that feels sluggish because there’s some problem (maybe a worn out spark plug). Which means it won’t burn fuel as efficiently, resulting in a clogged up exhaust system. This means your car has its work cut out, what with temperatures touching mercurial proportions. Once the catalytic converter turns red-hot, it has the potential to light up the cabin insulation and carpeting right through the heat shields and metal floor pan.
Arson is the calculated, premeditated move to set fire to any property and is labeled a criminal offense. Not considered the leading cause of a vehicular fire, Arson is still a factor one cannot ignore. There could even be an argument made about how unfathomable it is for anyone to just needlessly torch a car. However, it’s still a contributing factor and can never be completely ruled out.
Arson could result as part of a cover-up job in case of a burglary or some other sinister crime. It could simply be vandalism – destruction just for the sake of it. Or it could be an elaborate ruse such as insurance fraud. Whatever the reason, it’s pretty easy to set a car ablaze. An arsonist can use any number of materials to start a fire, and may even get away with it. After all, any physical evidence would have been burnt to a crisp.
Based on the hit as well as the impact generated, a car crash is also culpable for starting a fire. A lot of vehicles come equipped with sheet metal that absorbs most of the force of a hit and guards internal points like the engine, the battery, and even the gas tank. However, a solid knock will prove far superior to such defense. Collisions are more likely to cause fluid leaks and spillage, and copious amounts of heat and smoke – just the very settings needed to set things ablaze.
Carelessness is often the primary cause of accidents, especially when it involves cars. Poor maintenance might not be the spark that sets off an explosion but it does fan the flames. If you become careless about maintenance, you expose your car to a lot more danger. And fire is just one of many hazards that result from such risk. Neglecting to look after your car is most often an indirect cause of vehicular fire – something that’s bound to happen when you choose to ignore broken parts, leaky seals, faulty wiring, engines with a bad gasket prone to oozing hazardous, highly flammable fluids, frayed wiring etc.
A manufacturing flaw won’t usually start a car fire on its own but provides an environment that readily encourages it, and sometimes even builds situations to a point where a fire outbreak is imminent. Generally speaking, manufacturers tend to rectify the situation before anything dire ensues. A vehicle recall is the first step they take because let’s face it, no automaker wants to be known for roasting their customers. Literally.
A design flaw is just one of many actions that result in a fire. There’s always a chance that certain defects will exacerbate the situation and cause an outbreak of flames. Almost every known automaker has recalled a vehicle due to a fire hazard.
And there you have it. A few of the ways in which your car is susceptible to fire damage. While it might make your car seem like a volatile metal death trap, that is not the case. You need to always stay on high alert. Remember, preparedness is key. Just by being aware of potential fire hazards can help you avoid a sticky situation.
Car fires are always a cause for concern. So, always keep an eye out for any signs that seem to be out of the ordinary. For instance, most car fires tend to have a starting point in the engine compartment, which is where you can begin with.
Cars catching fire is a risky business and one that has the power to turn a 3000-pound metal machine to smoke and dust. Which is why you must always be on the lookout for signs that show that things aren’t seemingly right (E.g. the lingering smell of gas in or around the car etc). But most importantly, stay safe!