Electric vehicles (EVs) have quickly become a widely used mode of transportation for both personal use and in commercial industries. Most federal, state, and local safety codes do not address this rising exposure, leaving building owners and developers without clear direction regarding how to best protect their investments and projects.

The primary concern with EVs is the lithium-ion batteries. These batteries can spontaneously enter a process called thermal runaway, in which the internal temperatures rise unchecked until they smoke and catch fire. The batteries can make smoke for hours and the smoke they release contains propane, methane, and hydrogen, which are all explosive gases. When ignition does occur, the result is closer to an exploding fireball than a traditional slowly building fire. What’s more, the smoke also contains Hydrogen Fluoride (HF) gas, which is extremely dangerous, if not fatal. Additionally, EV fires burn extremely hot (5000°F) and can burn for up to 6 hours. Notable, too, is that modern vehicles contain more plastic products, which also makes for a much bigger fire than vehicles of the past.

It’s not only electric automobiles that pose these dangers; electric-powered mobility devices such as scooters and e-bikes pose the same risks. While they are smaller in scale, they are often stored or charged inside buildings, where the consequences of their thermal runaway can be even more severe.

Distance is critical when it comes to Lithium-ion fires. In the best-case scenario, the EVs would be parked and charging outdoors, 30 feet from the building and 50 feet from other high-hazard exposures such as propane tanks, fuel pumps, etc. If the parking/charging is inside the building, they should be in an area constructed of reinforced concrete. Place them away from wall openings where fire can escape and spread to other part of the structure.

Because most current and prior codes do not cover this potential fire hazard, Nationwide Loss Control Services has adopted the San Francisco Fire Protection Engineering Department recommendation of increasing the fire sprinkler system design to Extra Hazard Group II sprinkler protection for all customers with this exposure. This is particularly necessary when there are multiple EV stations next to each other. It is best to avoid having more than five parking/charging stations clustered together. The involvement of more than five vehicles in an area without adequate protection will likely exceed the ability for responding fire departments to control and contain the fire. It is also critical that parking and charging spaces do not block building egress or access to important building areas such as fire pump or generator spaces.

Beyond fire hazards, there are additional structural issues posed by the weight of EVs. Electric Vehicles can weigh thousands of pounds more than traditional vehicles and have already been linked to the collapse of parking structures.

In terms of electric-powered mobility devices such as scooters and e-bikes, Nationwide recommends prohibiting them from being charged or stored inside buildings. Nothing in that policy should be interpreted to impede or contradict accommodations made pursuant to, or in compliance with, the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Fair Housing Act. In addition, human services-based businesses such as senior living facilities, should add the inspection of these devices and their batteries to their durable medical equipment preventive maintenance program.

This new exposure can be difficult to manage. EVs and their charging stations are everywhere, and without adequate fire protection standards, most local and state building codes and regulations do not provide adequate consideration for fire and life safety controls. With so much on the line, it is important to understand this new exposure and take appropriate steps to protect life and property.

If you have questions about protecting electric vehicle parking/charging or lithium ion powered mobility devices contact Nationwide Loss Control Services.

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