October is Fire Prevention Month, so it's a good time to think about fire safety where collector cars, motorcycles and boats are stored. Gasoline, oil, paints and solvents are just some of the flammable materials found in a typical garage, but there are commonsense ways to keep your clients’ collections – and everything in its vicinity – safe from fire. We asked for some pointers from Rick Worm, Hagerty's in-house fire safety expert, while he was on call at a fire station near Hagerty's Traverse City, Mich. headquarters. "The easy stuff is housekeeping," he said. "The biggest thing I see when I'm doing inspections – or on the job as a firefighter – is that people have a tendency to leave flammables out."
Starting fluid, gasoline cans and other flammables should be kept in a special purpose cabinet for flammable materials. Although commercial buildings are required by law to store flammables in this way, the high cost of a cabinet deters many private citizens from doing so. Worm says that people who can't afford a flammables cabinet should be sure to keep flammable liquids and materials out of the way, where they can't be tripped over and spilled. They should also be kept away from electrical cords, outlets and work benches where torches and grinders are used. The area around a bench grinder should be kept clear of anything flammable.
"Auto oils aren't flammable unless they're hot," Worm said. "Usually, garage fires are started with gasoline in conjunction with electrical sparks, torches, grinders, etcetera."
Oily rags are another dangerous item often left lying around shop and garage spaces. A tiny spark can set one smoldering, which can quickly lead to a fire. Special cans designed to protect oily rags from sparks and starve them of oxygen should they spontaneously combust (always a danger) are a piece of gear most people can afford. Worm says rags soaked in linseed oil – which is often used to clean wood parts – are notorious for catching on fire, and should be properly disposed of immediately after use.
As we all know, electricity causes sparks, and sparks cause fires. Worm advises using smart battery tenders that shut off automatically when a battery is full, thereby avoiding an overheated battery and the potential for a fire. He also recommends disconnecting the battery on a car that's going to be sitting for a while. Dormant cars are prone to rodent damage, which can cause electrical shorts, sparks and fire. Also, it's a good idea to unplug tools, heaters and other electrical devices when they're not in use.
In a small garage or workshop, Worm recommends keeping a fire extinguisher near the work bench, and one near the exit.
"There should always be a fire extinguisher in your line of sight," he said. "If there's a fire, you should head for the exit, grab the extinguisher and – if you know how to use it – knock down the fire."
The proper way to use an extinguisher is to aim at the base of the fire, sweeping from side to side until the fire is out or the extinguisher is spent. Worm says a lot of people shoot at the top of the flames, which does nothing to the fire, but exhausts the extinguisher. The Internet is full of videos depicting correct fire extinguisher use.
Hagerty recommends maintaining a 25-foot brush-free buffer zone around buildings located in zones at risk for brush fires. Keeping fire alarms and smoke detectors in the garage is also recommended. Worm says using home security services like ADT or Ring are the quickest way to notify the fire department of a garage fire.
Now that winter is coming, many enthusiasts will want heat in the garage. Worm stresses that propane heaters, which are designed to be used outside, should not be operated in an enclosed space.
Lastly, think about the way cars are stored in a garage that contains more than one. Are they easy to get out? If there's a fire, more cars will be saved from the blaze if they're easy to remove from the structure. A non-running car blocking in four that run and drive doesn't bode well for survivability.