Garage Fire? Blame It on the Volt!

By Bill Moore

Posted: 19 Apr 2011

Four days after a disastrous garage fire consumed the Connor family's brand new Chevrolet Volt electric hybrid, along with their EV-converted 1987 Suzuki Samurai, the Volt's damaged battery pack began to smolder. The local fire department responded quickly, as did the media, with Fox News proclaiming, wrongly, "Two Chevy Volts Catch Fire in One Week!"

Two Volts? Gawd, that's terrible. If true, it would really be a tragedy for the owners and even more so for General Motors. Where was the second fire, I asked myself?

First, the background. On the night of April 14, 2011, the Connor family were awakened by their smoke alarm. They discovered that their attached garage was on fire. By the time the fire department and arrived the put it out, both of their family vehicles had been destroyed; one of them their new Chevrolet Volt. The news of the fire spread like... well, wildfire across the web with almost universal blame being foisted on the Volt.

But two Volt fires in a week?

Oddly, the Fox story actually made no reference to the second Volt anywhere in the story. I searched Google for news of the second Volt fire. Nada. Zip. Nothing. Near as I can tell, there was actually only this one fire, which thankfully did not also envelope the Connor's home because of strict local fire codes that required a firewall between the residence and the attached garage. The local fire marshall, an insurance investigator and GM engineers are still looking to pinpoint the source of the original fire, which emulated both electric vehicles. The fact that the severely damaged Volt battery pack began to smolder four days latter suggests to me that one or more of the cells were damaged in the fire, shorted out and began a slow thermal runaway event, melting as a result of chemical reaction. Had the fire started in the Volt battery pack, I would have expected the resulting fire to pretty much have consumed the pack. While the Volt lithium ion battery is T-shaped, all the cells are contained in same housing, which apparently was somewhat protected from the fire, at least until the thermal event began.

So, here's all we know at this point. A fire began overnight in the Connor's garage; its cause is as yet unknown. Both vehicles were plugged in and charging at the time. What type of charging units the family used has not yet been reported. Additionally, what level of charging was being applied at the time: Level I, Level II? -- we don't know. How the garage was wired and how many amps service was being utilized is also not public knowledge. Could having two EVs charging at the same time overloaded circuits in the garage? What other potentially flammable items were stored in the garage that might have spontaneously ignited? Can arson be ruled out?

I am sure an experienced fire investigator could add much more to this list, but my point is there are a lot of questions that need answering before we start pointing fingers. But this hasn't prevented irresponsible bloggers and reporters from blaming the Volt. Certainly, if it is at fault, then I am sure GM wants to know about it and fix it ASAP. Too much of their reputation rests on the technology in this car. Having a product on the market that suddenly sets itself on fire isn't something they want associated with the Volt brand.

That being said, garage fires are painfully common, even with gasoline vehicles. Do a Google News search for "garage fire" and see how many links come up each day. I counted 2,350 references on Google News. To leap to the conclusion that the Volt was the cause of this fire is not just premature, it's patently irresponsible.

GM's Official Response

You can follow GM's responses to the investigation on their Chevrolet VoltAge web site.

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