Fire Extinguishers 101

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In the June 2015 issue of BCM, I wrote an article for BCM called “The Talk”. In it, we covered the ins and outs of why you should review the fire extinguisher protection in your beautiful and most expensive bus conversion. Since then, and most recently, you may have heard about the massive recall of about 40 million fire extinguishers.

I am going out on a limb here to guess that most RVers have one of these in their rig. They were installed basically as a “freebie” by the manufacturer of the rig to feign fire protection. The rest of the population of RVers which includes bus conversions, boats, cars etc., have purchased this type of fire extinguisher solely because of their weensy price tag. Let me explain why this is wrong thinking and what the penalty is.

The information I have read on the recall of these fire extinguishers, varies by author. However, it all boils down to the hardware that operates the extinguisher. In a word, it is “plastics”. 

  • The tank itself is strong enough to hold a charge, but the plastic components that operate the extinguisher are not. Think of a grandchild dropping one accidently, breaking the plastic handle assembly off and turning the unit into a mini rocket. The tank is a pressurized tank, and it could severely injure, or kill anyone who is in the way of a ruptured component. • Fire extinguishers with plastic components cannot be recharged.
  • Fire extinguishers with plastic components are not safe as a pressure vessel.
  • Typically, this type of fire extinguisher is rated as a 5:BC, and will not be effective on a class A type fire. Class A fires are what you find in any bus conversion; paper, cardboard, wood, drapery, and carpets.
Buses Really Burn.

The best construction of a good reliable fire extinguisher should be metal to metal contact where the pressurized tank is attached to its operating hardware, and is very difficult to fracture. The gauge can be plastic but little else. Further, small and lightweight fire extinguishers do little for you in the control of most fires. The small fire extinguishers found in a typical RV might extinguish a small fire in a wastebasket. But if it has gotten away from you at all, scram the heck out of there. Grab your spouse and animals, if you can, and get out.

If you had purchased a good 2A:10BC rated fire extinguisher, as I recommended a few years back, you would have the possible extinguishing power for the wastebasket, the curtains, a grease fire on the stove, and maybe even some wood veneer on the walls. 

On the previous page, a coach had a fire in the engine compartment. A diesel engine fire has a chance of extinguishment if you could get your hands quickly on a 2A:10BC fire extinguisher. But if you look closely on these coaches, the fire gutted the interior of these rigs. Sometimes a fire will originate in the engine compartment, but another easy way for a fire to start is to have a tire blowout. The tremendous friction against a blown tire will ignite the tire and the rest of the coach could go with it.

Suffice to say that, the more fire you have, the least you can do about it. The 2A:10BC you have on hand will extinguish a fire that you have observed in its beginning stage. If the fire started two minutes before you saw it, it is time for a fire engine, and you will likely fail or die of asphyxiation before you can get it under control. Adding one more factor to the mix; please know that fire trucks are not everywhere. When you are camping in remote areas, there is no time to wait for a distant fire truck. If you have a 2A:10BC fire extinguisher, you may be fortunate enough to contain a small fire. 

So, the bottom line is this: When you are in dire straits with fire, a small lightweight fire extinguisher will not cut the mustard. Since you can’t tow a fire truck with you as your “dingy”, at least carry a fire extinguisher that will kick the average fire in the derriere; a 2A:10BC that costs something under $100. For that price, you can keep the extinguisher forever, use it repeatedly (after having it recharged), and take it with you in any vehicle you drive. 

At this point, I will stifle myself with the hope that you are now a little fearful of how devastating a fire can be, both physically and financially. Please keep the wimpy little fire extinguisher that you have if you want but use it only after first using the 2A:10BC.

Here are a few reminders about fire that you have probably heard, most of your life:

“It is important to remember where you are when calling 911 – Be prepared to provide them with the City, State, Hwy or street names and number, and the last mile marker you remember. Call 911 for any emergency.”

  •  Small fires develop into out of control fires very rapidly.
  • Smoke from fire very quickly becomes poisonous and overwhelming.
  • Fire, smoke, and water damage will destroy everything you own in the thing that is on fire, (house, vehicle, etc.) Your possessions will either burn, stink, rot, wither, turn into filth, or die.
  • You may have also heard that it cannot happen to you.
 
However, in the journey of life, many things can and will happen to you, including perhaps winning a huge lottery. Odds say that it’s the lottery that can’t happen to you. 

There is nothing complicated about taking care of your fire extinguisher. However, these words assume that you have an ABC rated, dry chemical fire extinguisher, in a metal tank, with metal workings. The little plastic ones do not need any maintenance and cannot be recharged if used. 

Now then, here are the few things you should do or check with a righteous fire extinguisher:

  • First and foremost, store it in an area where you know exactly where it is and where access to it cannot be blocked. I built a plywood box storage for my extinguisher. The box is attached to the wall near one of the exit doors. The extinguisher is heavy when flying through the bus after an accident, and it is under pressure. If the neck of the vessel is broken off during the fracas, the tank will become a missile. Use a bungy cord to secure it to the box.
  • At least once per month, examine the extinguisher as follows: Check the pressure gauge for a full charge. The needle should be in the green area on the gauge. They are very good at holding pressure for years, but if the needle shows in the red, the extinguisher should be recharged. The trigger should be held away from accidental operation by a hindrance pin. In the old days, the pins were secured by a lead and wire seal. Lately the hindrance pin is held in place by any number of plastic or composite seals. Just make sure the pin is in place and sealed. Next, look at the hose and nozzle. If it is exposed to frequent sunlight, the hose could be cracked and weakened. If so, have it replaced. 

“When you need the extinguisher, there is no time to wish it worked properly.”

  • Consider having your fire extinguisher recharged occasionally. Commercially used fire extinguishers are required to be recharged every year in most states. In private use they are not required to be recharged at all, but it is wise to have a recharge once in a while. I recommend every five years.
  • Lastly, be aware that the constant vibration of the vehicle can compact the powder more and more as time goes by. During your once per month exam of the extinguisher, turn it upside down, and roll and shake the extinguisher to loosen up the powder.

Ted Boothroyd

Ted Boothroyd is a retired firefighter Captain. He was also a bus driver on the Golden Gate Bridge. He writes for several automotive publications and is the author of The Gentleman’s Game of Pink Ball Golf.

When he’s not restoring cars or building houses, he takes the time to teach new bus owners how to drive their bus and familiarize them with all the accompanying safety guidelines. These include not just driving, but air brake tests, checklists, hand signals and road courtesy—all delivered in a clear and straightforward manner that builds confidence through experience.

You may reach him at:

fyrcapted@yahoo.com

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