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What fire risks should be considered when working with batteries and power storage facilities

James Mountain

James Mountain

Sales and Marketing Director at Fire Shield Systems Ltd
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James Mountain, sales and marketing director at Fire Shield Systems Ltd, explores the myriad of fire risks associated with batteries and power storage facilities, explaining how businesses can best safeguard their people and their assets.

The UK’s sustained rise in consumer eco-consciousness is seeing an increased reliance on batteries and power electrics to fuel industrial vehicles and machinery. However, this high risk power source brings about a whole new set of fire risks and considerations for businesses.

Recent fires, such as that at a battery storage plant in Liverpool, highlight the prevalence of the new risks brought about by batteries and power electrics. So, with the use of batteries only set to increase, how can you mitigate their associated fire risks?

Legislation – what are your responsibilities?

Businesses have a clear responsibility to ensure the safety of their teams. In premises storing batteries or other flammable products, having appropriate control measures in place to mitigate risks is paramount.

Various regulations apply to these situations, including the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (2005) and the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (2002), and these can offer a strong foundation for any risk mitigation strategy.

The Fire Safety Order (2005) requires businesses to ensure regular risk assessments are carried out to highlight any new or evolving safety risks on site. The findings of these assessments should drive the creation or adaptation of a fire safety management strategy, which highlights each of the practical control measures designed to mitigate risks. When it comes to batteries and power electrics, these measures should guide how you design battery storage areas or install large capacity battery charging points, for example.  

For some facilities, depending on the nature of their uses, it may also be necessary to conduct an assessment to ensure compliance with the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (2002).

Battery fire risks

The use and storage of batteries have a number of associated fire risks, including:

Thermal runaway

Thermal runaway is the term used to describe the state of a battery rising in temperature and enabling excessive heat to generate more heat, further increasing its temperature. This can arise as a result of internal battery cell failures, mechanical defects or overvoltage.

Thermal runaway can see the battery reach dangerously high temperatures, gas build-up or even explosions. In this state, once ignited, a fire can become self-sustained, as the affected battery is able to produce its own source of oxygen to propel the fire. If not managed quickly and efficiently, thermal runaway can spread between battery cells, increasing the danger it poses.

Toxic emissions

Toxic gas emissions are a common by-product of a battery entering thermal runaway. Batteries in this state can release a range of harmful gases, one common gas being carbon monoxide (CO).

Difficult to control

Battery fires can be extremely challenging to control and extinguish. For any suppression system addressing battery risks, the primary aim should be to prevent thermal runaway, or, where this is not possible, to delay propagation to enable safe evacuation of the site. Different types of batteries can react differently when ignited, so it’s essential that you understand the potential reactions and put measures in place to mitigate these.

Failure of control systems

If a Battery Management System (BMS) failure occurs, it can cause the battery to overcharge and lose its ability to examine its operating condition (such as the temperature or cell voltage).

Sensitivity to electrical transients and mechanical damage

Lithium-ion batteries are extremely sensitive to any form of mechanical damage or electrical surges. This can cause the battery to internally short-circuit, resulting in overheating, fire and potential explosions. If an individual battery malfunctions, it can quickly cascade to any surrounding battery, which can lead to a large scale fire.

Reducing the risks

When planning to mitigate the fire risks associated with batteries, it’s essential to ensure your controls cover three different elements: storage, transportation and maintenance.

Storage

Batteries in storage pose significant fire risks, so where they’re stored for extended periods of time, it is essential that measures are put in place to ensure safety. Depending on your individual premises, these may include:

Separating batteries from critical business areas

Keeping batteries away from essential equipment and business zones is crucial. This can be done through the use of fire resistant walls and doors. This will ensure that any fire would be contained for a period of time, allowing for safe evacuation of teams and minimising the risk of further equipment loss or damage.

Installing an on-site ventilation system

A good ventilation system can help to quickly filter out any potentially toxic fumes released by batteries, minimising the safety risk to teams.  

Protecting cables and ducts

Cabling, heating, ventilation and air conditioning ducts should all be sealed with fire resistant covers and fire dampers to protect them from damage, should a fire break out or an alarm become activated.

Installing a fire detection and suppression system

Your fire suppression solution should be designed to address your site’s individual risks. A fire risk assessment can help you to identify these.

Should your facility regularly store batteries, your suppression system should specifically account for this, as battery fires are not typically covered using a traditional fire suppression solution.

Transportation

Transportation of batteries

Batteries are extremely fragile and susceptible to mechanical damage if not handled correctly. Any battery damage can result in malfunction and overheating when in use, which, in turn, can lead to increased fire risk.

Electric vehicles

Alongside transporting batteries, where batteries are used as the primary power source for vehicles and machinery, additional measures need to be taken to ensure safety. Traditional vehicle suppression solutions will only go so far in preventing fires for electric and hybrid electric vehicles, as the risks are so different.

Maintenance

Regular BMS maintenance

The battery management system – the system which manages a rechargeable battery – should be maintained on a regular basis to identify any issues which could potentially lead to malfunction, overcharging or overheating.

Planning for perfect protection

Any fire management strategy should be governed by a clear plan, which should be shared with every team member, to ensure they understand the controls in place and how they operate.

With batteries more prevalent than ever before, it’s imperative that you know how to handle their risks before disaster strikes.

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