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Protect lives and property with automated fire suppression

On-board systems respond quickly to knock down fires

A compactor is equipped with a fire suppression system
On-board fire suppression systems are becoming more commonly required in waste and recycling applications. FLO Components

It's a hot day inside a transfer station where various machines are moving recycling and waste materials into their proper places for processing. A wheel loader pushes into a pile to fill its bucket. In the engine compartment, bunched piles of paper and plastic that have gathered unnoticed near hot components start to smolder, then burst into flames.

This scenario might go a couple of different ways. One: The fire intensifies, starts burning more materials, and before the operator realizes it there's a serious – and potentially life-threatening – problem right behind them. It's too big to use a hand extinguisher, if there's one available. The operator abandons the machine and calls for help. They are safe, but the loader continues to burn and so does the waste pile it is next to. Within minutes the fire has spread, and the entire building is now in danger.

Or, two: The flame is detected by an automated system. The fire melts a detection wire or is picked up by a heat sensor, and tanks filled with fire suppressant spray into the affected area. The fire is knocked down, giving the operator more time to get clear. Damage to the machine and the job site is minimized.

On-board fire suppression systems are a regular sight on large mining equipment, popular on forestry machines, and are becoming more commonly required in waste and recycling. With equipment running at higher temperatures and working in hotter climates, automated fire suppression provides a level of insurance that protects against injury and damage.

AFEX Fire Suppression Systems has more than 50 years of experience manufacturing automated fire suppression systems designed specifically for heavy equipment. It has partnered with FLO Components, a Canadian supplier of auto-lubrication systems for heavy equipment, to supply automated fire suppression in Ontario and Manitoba. 

Fire suppression systems and insurance for fleet owners

For FLO Vice President Mike Deckert, a veteran of four decades of dealing with heavy equipment, automated fire suppression is a lot like buying insurance – it protects lives and property if the need arises.

"They want to protect their employees and the surrounding area – a mine, a forest, a garbage dump, a recycling centre," Deckert says. "For customers in construction and recycling, automated fire suppression is increasing."

Deckert says there have been incidents in which waste and recycling facilities have been damaged after equipment catches fire within them. It may not be an everyday occurrence, but the possibility is always there.

Equipment fires tend to be caused by several factors. Tier 4 diesel engines feature turbochargers that run hotter than previous engine types, and the associated aftertreatment systems emit more heat than before, Deckert explains. 

Machines working in sectors like recycling, where a lot of debris can collect unnoticed in various spots, are at higher risk of fires. 

"I was on site at a dealer location where they had a loader compactor that needed work on the rear axle. They pulled the rims off and had to clean all the material that was packed in there from the landfill – they actually filled up a dumpster and a half," Deckert says.

C&D waste may include materials that are flammable or capable of throwing sparks. Even something as small as a frayed wire in the engine compartment can, in the right conditions, start a blaze.

Those factors become part of a fire risk assessment for fleet owners who are considering automated fire suppression. The assessment ensures that any unique challenges an operation might face – ignition sources, types of fuel, and insurance or regulation requirements – are addressed and the correct fire protection system is designed. From there, it is very similar to the process for installing the auto-lubrication systems FLO provides, Deckert notes.

"We look at the specific machine so that we obtain information about the proper size of tanks, the number of nozzles, and installation routing," he adds.

FLO Components' teams handle individual design of the system, which includes a controller in the cab, tanks for the required fire suppression agent, piping, wires or sensors for detecting a fire, and the nozzles covering areas where potential fires may occur – turbochargers, transmissions, and batteries being the most common sites.

Automatic or manual triggers knock fires down quickly

When a fire breaks out, an auto-detection wire in the area melts, or a temperature sensor activates, triggering the system. Nitrogen bottles release into the tank and shoot dry or liquid chemicals through a distribution network for quick knockdown of the fire.

There are also manual releases for when the operator or another worker spots a fire before the automated system is triggered. Up to three manual buttons are installed on machines, with one in the cab and others at ground level along the path of egress.

"The detection wire melts at 356 degrees F, and once that melts the controller alerts the operator that the system has been activated," Deckert says. "If the operator sees flames before that, they can hit the manual button, or if a machine is parked and someone sees a fire, they can trigger the system from outside."

Most fires on heavy equipment can't be handled by handheld fire extinguishers and need a bigger response, Deckert adds. AFEX systems installed by FLO Components technicians offer three different types of chemical response to suppress the fire and give time for operators to get clear and emergency crews to react if needed.

"Dry chemical is like a fog for fast knockdown of flames and suppressing the fire. It covers Class A [ordinary combustibles], B [burning liquids], and C [electrical] type fires. The liquid type removes the heat so it eliminates the chance of flare-ups afterward – it cools the hot surfaces. It handles A and B class fires, but not C," Deckert says. "The dual agent provides a dry and liquid system together."

Fire safety can't be trivialized, even if equipment fires aren't an everyday occurrence. When a fire does happen, it threatens lives, equipment, surrounding materials, and the greater environment. Automated fire suppression systems provide fleet owners with added peace of mind knowing that their equipment and people have an extra level of protection if the unexpected occurs.

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