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Should Chevy Volt Owners Worry About Charging Fires? Utility Says Yes, Common Sense Says No 

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2011 Chevrolet Volt charging port

2011 Chevrolet Volt charging port

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A fire in Mooresille, North Carolina last week involving a 2011 Chevrolet Volt has led Duke Energy to advise its customers against charging the plug-in hybrid at home in case it starts a fire. But is the advice justified, or just another example of what happens when irrational fear of a new technology takes hold? 

First , the facts

According to local news organizations, the fire occurred on October 30 at a home to the south west of Mooresville, causing an estimated $800,000 of damage to both the home and the garage where the 2011 Chevrolet Volt was parked. 

While the charger -- a Siemens brand 240-Volt Level 2 charger -- was connected to the Volt at the time of the fire, it is unclear at this time if the car was actually charging when the fire started. 

Nor is it clear at present what started the fire, although investigators have confirmed that the fire started somewhere in the garage

“The charging station was in the known area of origin, but the cause of the fire has not yet been officially determined,” the Iredell County Fire Marshall’s office confirmed last week.

Caution, not blame

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George Parrott

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George Parrott

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At the moment, there’s no smoking gun to suggest that either charging station or car was at fault -- but the fact the charging station was in the area where the fire was believed to have started has been enough for Duke Energy officials to contact 125 of its customers with electric cars to offer cautionary advice about both the charging stations and the Chevrolet Volt. 

“Because the early report said the fire started somewhere in the vicinity of the charging station, we suggested they may not want to use them out of an abundance of caution,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Layne. Later on in an interview, Layne admitted that there was no reason to believe the fire was caused by either the charging station or the car. 

Other causes more likely

It seems however, that while certain media outlets may be keen to blame the fire on the Chevrolet Volt and its wall-mounted charging station, fire officials aren’t so quick to draw a conclusion. 

Just like a house fire earlier this year in Connecticut where a Chevrolet Volt was wrongly accused of starting the blaze, the likely cause of last week’s fire is unlikely to be the Chevrolet Volt. 

For a start, automakers put their cars through hours of extensive testing to ensure that both the car and the battery pack is safe before, during and after charging. And charging stations have similar safety protocols to ensure that overheating and fires shouldn’t happen. 

As Fire Marshal Garland Cloer puts it, almost anything within the garage could have started the blaze. His job is to find out what did. 

““From the electrical wiring to the house, to the vehicles, to anything in the garage -- it could have even spontaneously combusted,” Cloer said. “We won't know until we sift through it and find all the evidence that we can find.”

Charging Station Installation Video (screenshot)

Charging Station Installation Video (screenshot)

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A timely reminder about charging station safety

Most likely, we think the fire was started not by the car or the charging station, but by faulty wiring in the power circuits leading to the charging station. 

Siemens’ domestic charging station -- the Siemens VersiCharge -- is designed to be installed either as a hard-wired device or by plugging into a domestic 30A, 240V receptacle such as a drier outlet.  

In this case -- and we should point out we don’t know the specifics -- we think it’s likely the fire started somewhere between that wall receptacle and the home’s breaker box, vindicating the car and the charging station from blame. 

But it serves as a reminder. If you are getting an electric vehicle charging station installed in your home, pay the extra money to get your home wiring officially checked first, or pay for an electrician to install the unit for you. 

It may cost more, but you could save yourself a lot of pain -- and money -- in the end. Common sense says it's the best way to ensure your car and home stay safe. 

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Comments (6)
  1. The fact that the charger could be plugged into a 240 outlet not rated at 30amps opens the possibility of an overloaded source wire. I would guess that most garages aren't initially wired for 240 and that this garage had a circuit added for the charger, which opens up many possible problems - a circuit with wiring of insufficient capacity, errors in the wiring itself, etc. It is perfectly rational to suspect the charging, probably a charger rather than a Volt problem, but anyone who assumes it can't be the Volt forgets how little real world experience we've had with this car - I remember that the Volt had an overheating problem with a charger cable before it was launched. I don't trust GM to do much of anything right.
     
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  2. This is my opinion as an electrical engineer with experience in electrical safety regulations and testing. General Motors requires that a licensed electrician install the charging station. It's not rocket science but it needs to be done correctly. If it's done right it will be as safe as a 240 volt oven or electric furnace. GM may not be your favorite car company but give them some credit for knowing a few things about engineering.
     
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  3. Reckless reporting. Considering the utility has volts and scores of other hybrids in their fleet, is investing in turning there hometown into a electric-car friendly city by investing in charging stations, and actively works with vehicle manufacturers to promote electric vehicles, I would say it is a fair bet the author is trying to shock the audience into reading her baseless diatribe. I think it was good corporate citizenship to warn others.
     
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  4. Hey Nikki. :-)

    Why do you write all your articles using the word "we" so much? I follow you and watch transport evolved and stuff. Why not just say "I think this", or "my experience tells me this". I know there aren't that many writers at this site, and I don't think you are really having committee meetings to agree every point in each article you write. ....Although I suppose I may be wrong.

    I hope you take this as constructive criticism and nothing else because I like you and what you do.
     
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  5. The charger may have been rated for 30 amps, but the Volt does not draw 30 amps, only 15 amps. so even if undersized wire was used, it would be unlikely to be the problem. If this was the source of the fire, the connections must have been poorly done, and therefore not likely by a professional. This is where insurance companies play close attention. If it was an electrical fire, and the installation was not done to code, then the insurance company will not pay.
     
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  6. With the failure analysis I've done over the years I've learned the hard way that you never want to close your mind to any possibility until you have data disproving it. If there's a chance of the Volt's electric charging circuit overheating, combined with a hot exhaust system and gasoline, etc, leading to a dangerous situation, then it should at least be considered and proven to not be the case. Here we seem to be blindly defending, when that might get in the way of fixing issues and improving the car. But hopefully the Volt has nothing to do with it.
     
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