There are dozens of fluff fires in scrap yards across the United States every year, with piles of shredded car upholstery and tires spontaneously combusting like damp hay on a farm. There were 23 of them from 2010-2012 in California alone. One Indiana scrapyard had six fluff pile fires over a single two-year period. At that rate, fluff pile fires aren’t a just a once-in-a-blue-moon accident—they’re a predictable workplace hazard.
And those hazards are more than just a “slip and fall” sort of accident. Those yards unfortunate enough to host a fluff pile fire suffer devastating consequences:
- Significant cleaning and repair costs, sometimes in the millions
- Release of cadmium, chromium, lead, PCBs and other hazardous materials
- … which leads to the remediation of those materials, resulting in high costs and lengthy downtime
- Additional downtime, thanks to subsequent inspections and permitting
- Higher insurance premiums
Maybe your business has been lucky enough to dodge a fluff-fire bullet, but the odds are against you on maintaining your winning streak. While you may never completely eliminate the risk of fluff fires, there are ways you can reduce the chances of your business becoming another fire statistic.
Solution 1: Review Your Emergency Preparedness Procedures
Combating scrapyard fires starts with your people and processes. Without both of those components on board and working smoothly, no amount of technology—even sophisticated systems like ours—will protect you as completely as your employees and your investment deserves.
Start with an Emergency Preparedness Procedure, accounting for several possible eventualities—including fires—and ensure that your employees know it inside out and backwards.
Every business is different, and every yard contains specific hazards and risks that don’t apply to every space. (For example, scrap yards that process automobiles to create those giant fluff piles of flaming doom are more vulnerable to fire hazards than those that, say, simply store leftover oil or gas on the property.) Consequently, there won’t be one single perfect “template procedure” to copy from; you’ll have to write your own.
That said, we have some points that your Emergency Preparedness Procedure for spontaneous fires must address.
- What is your yard’s fire suppression system? Is it water or foam based? Is it automatic or manually operated? If the latter, are employees trained on its use—and is it easily accessible near vulnerable areas?
- How does your yard watch for fires? Do your employees know what a smoldering pile looks like? (If not, they may try to move part of a fluff pile with the picker, expose its smoldering core to open air, and start a true inferno.)
- On that note, what “degree” of fire is okay to put out on-site, and when should your employees call the fire department?
- Is access to flammable areas clear of debris? Calling the fire department will be a useless exercise if their hoses and various flame retardants can’t actually reach the fire.
Simply having a plan to respond in an appropriate manner can take a potential million-dollar disaster and make it merely a lesson learned—with no loss of life.
Solution 2: Inspect—and Upgrade! —Your Surveillance Camera System
Admittedly, this point sounds a bit self-serving, but it’s honestly a vital part of the fire suppression puzzle at scrap yards. No matter how much training you give your people, the fact is that no one can be constantly vigilant 100% of the time when they’re preoccupied with their “real” jobs. Plus, as time goes on and no fires come up, your employees will relax—and no longer be as careful looking out for smoldering fires.
Therefore, you need a system that never lets its guard down—which means your yard needs a surveillance system. Ideally, your surveillance system should include:
- Thermal cameras that alarm whenever they sense dangerously high temperatures in your fluff piles;
- Updated positioning and analytics to compensate for moved fluff and scrap piles, since there’s little use aiming expensive equipment in an area that used to have fluff but no longer does; and
- Functioning alarms that can’t be turned off because they “got annoying.” An alarm system with its alarms turned off does not protect your property; it just records accidents for posterity.
Eyewitness can partner with you to ensure that your yard is completely covered and under control. If you choose to DIY this solution, however, then you’ll need to constantly ensure your cameras are working properly, watching what they’re supposed to, and checked frequently for signs of smoke.
Solution 3: Evaluate Your Fluff Pile Management
Now that we’ve looked at monitoring and training, let’s take a look at the fluff piles themselves. Several factors in scrap yard pile management dramatically impact the probability of a fire at your facility.
- Consider fluff pile placement. If at all possible, keep the piles out of direct sunlight.
- Keep your fluff piles small. Like a damp barn loft or a humungous compost pile, larger fluff piles generate higher internal temperatures, making them more prone to combustion and more difficult to manage should a fire break out.
- Actively manage your fluff piles. Don’t leave them alone for too long without inspecting them for signs of smoke or high internal temperatures. If piles simply cannot be removed or reduced in size, at least make sure to turn them frequently.
Solution 4: Consider Atomizing Mist for Dust Suppression
Dust is more than a minor inconvenience at a scrap yard. It can present real health problem for your employees, not to mention interfere with day-to-day operations.
That said, spraying water from a standard sprinkler is not best practice for controlling dust in a scrap yard. Plus, standard sprinklers and hoses with large water droplets use a lot more water—sometimes upwards of ten times the volume of water. That gets pricey and can result in puddles of standing water.
But why does this matter for fire management at scrap yards? Well, moisture levels play a huge role in spontaneous combustion.
You won’t get a conflagration popping up during a thunderstorm, of course. However, spraying extra water onto especially dusty piles and locations—say, a fluff pile—adds excess moisture to the center of the pile, where it remains trapped and unable to evaporate. The extra moisture combined with potentially organic materials in the pile—like fibers from upholstery—can encourage bacterial growth, which makes the piles’ internal temperature rise to dangerous levels.
Still, if we shouldn’t spray down with hoses, what can we do to control the dust without adding extra problems like potential fires? Try atomizing mist systems.
Atomizing mist systems create water droplets that are 10-50 times smaller than water droplets from a hose or sprinkler. These “atomized” water droplets are closer in size to the dust particles they’re supposed to bind to. More efficient binding means more effective dust suppression with less water—and no excessive moisture making its way into scrap piles. That means better performance, better moisture management, cleaner scrap yards, and lower costs.
So evaluate your procedures, educate your staff, and make sure your systems are both sufficient and up-to-date. Then, you can rest easy knowing that you have done everything within your power to ensure scrap yard fires due to spontaneous fluff pile combustion will never destroy your livelihood—or take the lives of your crew.