Wednesday Jul 01 2009
Golf cart fires prevantable
By: Brandon Darnell, News Messenger Reporter
One kind of easily avoidable fire is becoming an increasingly common problem in Lincoln. A recent golf cart fire in Lincoln Hills was the latest in a rash of similar fires, according to firefighters. At least five golf carts have gone up in flames in the past six months, and most of them can be prevented, Lincoln Fire Chief Dave Whitt said. According to Lincoln Police Lt. Paul Shelgren, there are more than 1,000 golf carts in Lincoln. Fires like last Thursday’s at the Orchard Creek Lodge in Sun City Lincoln Hills almost always start in the battery compartment and are usually due to improper maintenance, said Tom Tomlinson, owner of Easygolfcart.com’s retail location in Rocklin. According to Tomlinson, the fires are caused when corrosion creates air gaps between battery terminals and their connecting wires. Sparks can fly across those air gaps, much like an arc welder. “It doesn’t take long for the heat to melt that post on top of the battery,” Tomlinson said, adding that in most cases, that’s all that happens. While melting part of a battery will cause that battery to need replacement, there can be a couple of major problems if the plastic top of the battery breaks open due to the heat. Hydrogen gas – which builds up in the battery when it is being used – can ignite once it is exposed to the heat and the spark, causing the battery to either blow its top off or catch fire, Tomlinson said. At that point, golf carts burn quickly. There have been no reported injuries so far, according to Whitt. Capt. Evan Faddis of the Lincoln Fire Department, responding to last Thursday’s golf-cart fire, said his crew was on the scene in four minutes but the cart was a total loss, with the plastic bodywork, roof and seat consumed by the flames. Driving the golf cart was Julie Freeman, who said she first noticed the problem when the cart stopped running and assumed the cart ran out of battery power. Freeman and her daughter got out of the cart to push it and then noticed the smoke. “Within seconds, it was engulfed in flames,” Freeman said. Batteries are most likely to catch fire under heavy loads, according to Tomlinson. That includes going fast or going uphill. With six or eight batteries in most golf carts, that’s plenty of opportunities for problems if they’re not properly maintained. “It’s worth their weight in gold to have them checked,” Whitt said. “They require maintenance.” Golf carts need regular maintenance Whitt and Tomlinson both suggested checking batteries monthly for corrosion and loose fittings. According to Tomlinson, corrosion, which usually appears as a greenish crusting on the battery terminals, can be cleaned with a wire brush. When tightening the wires back on the terminals, Tomlinson said it’s a good idea to use a wrench wrapped in electrical tape to prevent an accidental connection between battery terminals. Another maintenance requirement is to keep appropriate levels of water in the batteries. “We do monthly inspections on our carts,” Tomlinson said. “We water them monthly, clean the terminals and tighten the wires.” For residents who aren’t mechanically inclined, Tomlinson said he does maintenance checks at his store and he sometimes goes to Sun City Lincoln Hills, where he offers free inspections. As a precautionary measure, Whitt said it is a good idea to purchase a small fire extinguisher at Lowe’s, Home Depot and Target. They can be mounted in accessible places on the carts – not in the battery compartment – and are easy to use. “It’s a $25 to $35 deal that can save thousands of dollars,” Whitt said. Barbara Booten lives in Sun City and owns a golf cart. “I have someone come out once a year to check it,” Booten said, adding that she checks the water level in her batteries about every three weeks. “That’s very important,” Booten added, “but I don’t think most people do it.” Another Sun City resident, Howard Liebgold, said he checks his water levels every week or 10 days. “It only takes about 10 minutes,” Liebgold said. “I absolutely do it myself.” Liebgold said he also checks for corrosion when he fills the water levels in his batteries. “I just get distilled water and make sure there’s at least half an inch of water above the plates in the batteries,” Liebgold said. “These golf carts need to be checked because they don’t have any gauges.” According to Liebgold, the water levels drop faster in hot weather than in the winter. Brandon Darnell can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.