By Carl J. Haddon
What would you think if I told you that, since 1997, there has been proven chemical technology within the international fire service that provides for exceptional and timely fire extinguishment on virtually all types of fires?
Would you also think me crazy if I told you that this same technology extinguishes fire in three ways? It rapidly reduces or removes the heat (remove the heat, remove the fire, right?); it encapsulates fuels, rendering them nonflammable; and it interrupts the free radical chain reaction, thereby dramatically and quickly reducing cancer-causing smoke and soot toxins. Did I mention that it also can drastically reduce the time that interior firefighters are exposed to the physical stressors of heat?
I can personally attest to this technology, known as encapsulator technology, as I have been using it since the late 1990s. Why, you ask, if this technology is internationally proven and obviously tested, do we not have it here in the United States? Answer: We have had it here in the United States-where I have purchased and used it. Unfortunately and simply stated, encapsulator agents fell through the cracks with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). It’s not a foam, and it’s not what we know as traditional wetting agent; it’s closest place for a home is NFPA 18A, Standard on Water Additives for Fire Control and Vapor Mitigation. Let’s take a look at some of today’s challenging fire situations where encapsulator agents really shine.
Transformer, lithium-ion battery, and solar panel fires are occurring more and more frequently. In the United States today, the average age of an electrical transformer is 40 years old. As these transformers fail, statistics show that one in five of these failures results in fire. Lithium-ion batteries are a relatively new technology that presents new firefighting challenges in everything from cell phone batteries exploding to kids’ hoverboards bursting into flames to electric vehicles and passenger airplanes with lithium-ion battery fires that resemble small erupting volcanoes. With the quest for energy self sufficiency and prices for systems having dropped some 60 percent since 2011, solar panels are more practical and attractive than ever.
These energy mediums present fire challenges for industry as well as firefighters. When transformers, lithium-ion batteries, and solar panels catch fire, the traditional response is to use water. We are finding that water is mostly ineffective because it doesn’t penetrate and remove the heat generated by these fires. In the case of transformers, water can’t extinguish the extremely hot mineral oils within the transformer. This is to say nothing of the electrical shock hazard that exists with spraying water on an energized transformer. The next choice of firefighting agents in our existing arsenals would be foam, but foam is not recommended for three-dimensional fires, and foam blankets, when applied properly, retain heat. Additionally, foam is highly conductive, which places firefighters at great risk. Many of us also have powdered chemicals at our disposal, but powders do not remove heat and cannot penetrate, thereby resulting in reignition.
|1 Because true encapsulator agents travel on and over the water molecules, the agent encounters and encapsulates the fuel before the water does, allowing for rapid extinguishment and cooling of the oils and the superheated metal of the transformer itself. (Photos courtesy of Hazard Control Technologies.)|
Transformer fires are tough to fight, primarily because of the heat of the oil contained within the transformer itself. These fires often take hours to extinguish. Because true encapsulator agents travel on and over the water molecules, the agent encounters and encapsulates the fuel before the water does, allowing for rapid extinguishment and cooling of the oils and the superheated metal of the transformer itself. In 2010, ConEdison (ConEd) and FDNY tested an encapsulator agent at a substation on energized 345-kV transformers to see if this technology could be safely used on live transformers. After the testing, participants concluded that the encapsulator could be safely applied (in a three-percent solution) to an energized transformer with a conical pattern from 25 feet or streaming from 125 feet without feedback to the nozzle.
Lithium-Ion Battery Fires
Germany has probably done the most testing of encapsulator technology outside the United States, and the German fire service believes wholeheartedly in encapsulator agents. Bosch, Daimler AG Mercedes, Dektra, and others have taken to testing and adopting the use of an encapsulator agent. Their testing shows that a large (very large) amount of water is required to extinguish lithium-ion vehicle battery fires and that applying water to these batteries often caused dangerous explosions. Much like the results of the transformer fire testing, an encapsulator agent worked to instantly cool the metals (without the explosions), penetrate into the battery modules, and extinguish the fire (unlike foam, water, or powders).
A side note is that true encapsulator agents also work equally as well on class D metal fires. Most of us know the challenges presented when spraying water on a magnesium metal fire. It goes boom. Bada bing, bada BOOM. Flying molten magnesium is no joke, and neither is the reaction to water applied to an involved lithium-ion battery fire. Because encapsulating agents surround water molecules, the chemical attacks the metal fire, offering virtually instant cooling and extinguishment, unlike the reaction when applying water.
|2 An Underwriters Laboratories report shows fire damage to solar panels can result and has resulted in new electrical paths, such as the array’s framework, gutters, or metal flashing. We can’t open up with water because of the potential for electrical feedback to the nozzle. Foam is out of the question because of its conductivity.|
Solar Panel Fires
An increasing number of buildings, both residential and commercial, are being outfitted and equipped with solar photovoltaic panels to generate electricity. As a result, rooftop fires are on the rise. The size of the setup on the roof typically gives an indication of how much electricity is being generated, but the maximum is usually 600 volts at 40 to 240 mA of DC current. It is critical to note that you cannot remove the power from solar panels. An Underwriters Laboratories (UL) report shows fire damage can result and has resulted in new electrical paths, such as the array’s framework, gutters, or metal flashing. If the sun is shining, solar panels are making electricity. Fire incidents are more likely when panels are generating power. Battery storage must also be considered with these fires, as they are often prone to igniting during a fire event.
So, we have a rooftop covered with solar panels that has caught fire. We can’t open up with water because of the potential for electrical feedback to the nozzle. Foam is out of the question because of its conductivity. Based on the testing done by ConEd and FDNY and others across the globe, it is now obvious that one of the few answers for a fire like this is applying an encapsulator agent.
Do your research on encapsulator agents because they are not all created equal. Make the reps and the manufacturers prove to you that their product is right for your needs. I am happy to offer tips and tricks for evaluating these products because I have tried and tested many brands of purported encapsulator agents over the years. Some are good, and some are simply wetting agents or foam. Don’t bet your life, or your crews’ lives, on advertised claims. Find the product that works for your department. I truly believe that encapsulator agents are the future of the fire service and an answer to the ever-growing cancer rate among our ranks, but you have to decide which is the right product for you.
Note that this technology does not require any special equipment or apparatus for its use. It can be batch mixed or simply educted. Most of my experience with this type of agent has been (and continues to be) applied with a 2.5-gallon pressurized water extinguisher. That should be great news for departments who still use a “can man.”
I have touched on just a few encapsulator technology benefits. There are more-many more-applications, including exposure protection, wildland application, flowing fuel fires, rubber and metal fires, explosive dust remediation, and countless others-many of which I have used this technology on personally. I consider my encapsulator agent of choice to be an invaluable asset. The American fire service is just learning about this medium’s benefits, and I look forward to seeing it save lives and help prolong our lives as firefighters.
CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.