Engine fire suppression systems in commercial vehicles
Vehicle engine fire suppression systems have been available in the UAE for more than a decade, but have not seen widespread adoption due to lack of regulations.
Statistics indicate that 60–70% of vehicle fires originate in the engine compartment and surrounding areas where temperatures are high and combustible materials are installed. Engine fires can cause extensive damage to vehicles, and in many cases, claim lives. The first line of response in case of such fire incidents is a vehicle suppression system working in combination with a fire detection system. A reliable fire suppression system could extinguish a fire in the engine compartment within 4–5 seconds.
Currently, all public transport buses in the UAE have fire suppression systems installed in their engine compartments. The Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) in Dubai and Department of Transport (DOT) in Abu Dhabi have their own specifications for procurement of public transport buses with engine fire suppression systems.
The first time a regulation was introduced in the UAE for private transport fire suppression systems was for school buses in 2009, when the RTA specified in its School Transport Manual that all 2009 school bus models operating in Dubai were required to have fire suppression systems. Within the next two years, the DOT introduced a similar regulation for school buses operating in Abu Dhabi. The other Emirates have adopted fire suppression systems as part of their safety guidelines and best practices, but have not yet enforced regulations.
Swaidan Trading Company, one of the largest distributors of buses in the UAE representing brands such as Ashok Leyland, Sunwin, Optare and VDL, was among the first companies to supply school buses with inbuilt fire suppression systems. Since 2009, the distributor has delivered over 6,000 Ashok Leyland and Sunwin school buses with fire suppression systems in the UAE, mainly to large fleet operators such as Emirates Transport and School Transport Services. The school buses have both front-engine and rear-engine configurations; while Sunwin supplies rear-engine buses, Ashok Leyland supplies front-engine buses in the UAE.
Harris Kaladi, general manager, commercial vehicles and heavy equipment division, Swaidan Trading Company, says: “Fire suppression systems are crucial for passenger safety. In the case mild fires, it’s possible to evacuate passengers and minimise vehicle damage. When fires occur due to collisions making it difficult or impossible for passengers to evacuate from the vehicle, a fire suppression system could be the life saver.”
Harris Kaladi, general manager, commercial vehicles and heavy equipment division, Swaidan Trading Company.
Several factors are responsible for significant temperatures increase in engine compartments. Many engine fires occur due to poor maintenance of vehicles and driver errors, according to Harris.
“We’ve not seen cases of fire suppression system activation in vehicles that are well maintained are operated by well-trained drivers. However, a few cases have been reported where drivers have pressed the manual emergency button accidently and activated the fire suppression system. One of our school bus customers faced such a situation when a bus driver stuck in traffic switched on the exhaust brake accidently, partially closing the exhaust path and slowing down the vehicle. The driver ignored the warning signal and continued driving in the same manner. This caused pressure to build up in the exhaust manifold and increased the engine temperature rapidly, which activated the fire suppression system. In another case, a foreign object, an aluminium foil, entered the exhaust manifold and increased the engine compartment temperature, leading to activation of the fire suppression system,” says Harris.
Harris warns that once a fire suppression system is activated, the vehicle must be inspected and serviced in a workshop.
“The driver should move the vehicle to the side of the road and take it to the nearest workshop. The vehicle can be driven provided the inspection is done because there’s a chance of re-ignition due to fuel leakage. We’ve supplied an additional safety feature for Sunwin buses, based on a customer requirement. A fuel cut-off system that activates along with the fire suppression system was installed in the Sunwin buses to prevent additional fuel leakage into the engine. After the fuel suppression system is triggered, the safety mechanism does not allow the driver to start the vehicle; instead, a bypass switch is installed, which can be operated only by an authorised person,” says Harris.
Swaidan Trading also offers the Maxus, a 16-seater minibus retrofitted with fire suppression systems for school transport.
“Maxus is the only minibus brand that has approval from the RTA and DOT to be registered and operated as a school bus. We have won a contract to supply 160 Maxus minibuses with retrofitted fire suppression systems to Emirates Transport,” says Harris.
The demand for retrofitted fire suppression systems in the UAE increased sharply a few years after 2009 when the RTA and DOT extended their regulations to bus models manufactured before 2009. Swaidan Trading entered the retrofit business in 2017 as the UAE distributor for Rotarex vehicle engine suppression systems.
“We entered the retrofit business because of the market opportunity and to counter the entry of inferior, unreliable systems that had no international certifications. We opted for Rotarex because it is among the few companies that is certified according to the UNECE R107 standard by Sweden-based research institute RISE, although compliance with the standard is not mandatory in the UAE. Nevertheless, we wanted the most reliable system in line with the safety assurance we provide for our buses,” says Harris.
So far, the company has retrofitted more than 3,000 buses in the UAE.
“The UAE has a significant number of pre-2009 buses that do not have retrofit systems. Considering the maximum lifespan of a school bus in the UAE is 15 years, the phase out of the older buses will happen within the next three years,” says Harris.
Rotarex Compact Line and ABC Powder systems
Swaidan Trading offers two types of Rotarex fire suppression systems for commercial vehicles: the FireDetec Compact Line system and ABC Powder system.
The FireDetec Compact Line system is designed for small and large engines compartments (below and above 4m3) in all kinds of motor-driven vehicles, ships and generators.
The Compact Line system has two kinds of activation: the FireDetec sensor tubing and electromagnetic (EM) actuation. The system can use either FireDetec TS55, a liquid-based agent (water mist) with glycol-free antifreeze, or Berki Cold, a biological foam concentrate, as the extinguishing agent.
An external power source is not required for fire detection or suppression, except for the EM version which is actuated electrically. The combination of the extinguishing agent FireDetec TS55 or Berki Cold and nitrogen is suitable for suppressing fires which are triggered by oils, gasoline, diesels, lubricants or other combustible liquids.
The Compact Line system is made from extruded aluminium alloy and it is resistant to corrosion. The Compact Line has a dual-chamber, coaxial cylinder system, with a high-pressure inner cylinder filled with nitrogen gas and low-pressure outer cylinder with the extinguishing agent.
The nitrogen cylinder has a filling pressure of 200 bar at 20°C. During normal operation, the outer cylinder serves as additional protection for the inner high-pressure nitrogen cylinder. The cylinder is available in three capacities – 4L, 7L and 12L. Rear-engine buses require higher volumes of extinguishing agent than front-engine buses.
The heat-sensitive FireDetec sensor tubing is connected to the Compact Line and pressurized with 16-bar nitrogen gas. The tubing bursts at approximately 110°C and triggers the fire suppression process. If an electronic fire detection system is used or if the FireDetec sensor tubing is not desired, the EM actuator can be used, which upon reception of an external signal, will trigger the release of extinguishing agent.
Rotarex Compact Line system installed in an Ashok Leyland school bus.
When the FireDetec sensor tubing bursts or when the system is actuated by the electromagnetic actuator, a pressure builds up behind the annular piston inside the Compact Line. The annular piston moves and releases the extinguishing agent. The extinguishing agent flows through the discharge line to the nozzles, which distributes the extinguishing agent on the protected area. The number of and distance between nozzles can be adjusted according to the size and geometry of the protected area. While the Compact Line is releasing the extinguishing agent, the pressure and the flow rate remain constant.
The second type of fire suppression system for commercial vehicles is the ABC Powder system, which uses the ABC 90 dry chemical as the extinguishing agent. When in service, the sensor tubing is pressurized with dry nitrogen to 15 bar. If a flame-up occurs, the heat of the fire causes the pressurized sensor tube to burst at the hottest spot. The sudden tube depressurization actuates the special pressure differential valve and discharges the ABC 90 dry chemical agent. Swaidan Trading supplies the agent in 6kg cylinders.
Rotarex ABC Powder system installed in a bus.
“Both the systems are effective for fire suppression. ABC Powder is not compliant with the UNECE standard, which makes it a cheaper alternative to the Compact Line system. Because UNECE compliance is not mandatory in the UAE, price-conscious customer opt for ABC Powder. If safety is the top priority, then Compact Line is the superior system,” says Harris.
Dafo Forrex system
Sweden-based Dafo Vehicle Fire Protection supplies fire detection and suppression systems for buses and coaches, mining and construction, forestry, waste handling, material and cargo handling and agricultural equipment.
As a Tier 1 supplier to bus brands such as MAN, Scania, Ashok Leyland, Volvo, Atlas Copco, Kalmar and Higer, Dafo’s vehicle fire suppression systems are tested for fire performance ability and environmental durability such as electromagnetic compatibility, vibration, corrosion and temperature extremes according to international vehicle standards. The systems are approved as a component with regard to UNECE Regulation No. 107 and P-marked in accordance with SPCR 183.
UAE-based Dafo Middle East, a subsidiary of Dafo Vehicle Fire Protection and distributor of Dafo fire suppression systems in the GCC, has installed its fire suppression systems in over 800 buses in the RTA and DOT fleets operating in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Johan Larrson, general manager, Dafo Middle East, says: “Bus fires are not uncommon in the UAE and every year a few cases of school bus and coach fires are reported. Fire suppression systems are critical to vehicle safety because fires spread fast, endangering the lives of passengers. In vehicles such as rear-engine buses, drivers may not notice fires originating in the engine compartment and it may be too late before they can stop the bus and evacuate passengers. Such systems are also critical in hazardous, waste handling and mining environments.”
Johan Larrson, general manager, Dafo Middle East.
The Dafo vehicle fire suppression system comprises a liner heat detector wire, fire suppression agent (Forrex) container, propellant gas (nitrogen) cartridge, actuator, control unit and pipe system. The system is activated when the temperature in the engine compartment reaches 180°C, and the fire is extinguished in 4–5 seconds.
When fire is detected by the linear heat detector wire, it that sends a signal to the actuator which punctures the nitrogen cartridge and releases nitrogen to the agent container that distributes the Forrex through the pipe system. The system alerts the driver with an alarm and light signal, indicating that the driver must stop the vehicle and evacuate the passengers.
The control unit consists of two parts. The electronics are housed in an IP 67 polycarbonate casing that also serves as a junction box. The other part is the alarm panel providing the operator with system status as well as offering manual release and test/reset of the system. The alarm panel is connected to the junction box by a single cable and the fire suppression system is fully operational even if the connection is broken.
The Forrex suppression agent is developed by Fomtec, a Dafo company. The agent is highly effective on flammable liquid fires like petrol, diesel and hydraulic oils. The system combines the features of liquid and dry chemical, providing flame knockdown and protection against re-ignition as it cools down the overheated engine parts and creates a layer around them.
Dafo vehicle fire suppression system with Forrex installed in a bus.
The Forrex tank is manufactured from red anodized aluminium and is fitted with a detachable top and bottom. The tank is normally un-pressurised. Upon actuation, the tank is pressurised and an internal piston forces the agent out through the distribution system. Forrex tanks are supplied in standard sizes ranging from 5 to 25 litres.
“The tank capacity is scalable up to a capacity of 150 litres for applications such as port handling. We have supplied 150-litre tanks for fire suppression systems installed in mobile harbour cranes and reach stackers in the Middle East and Africa,” says Larrson.
After activation of a vehicle engine fire suppression system, the driver must inspect the engine compartment and move the vehicle to a safe area on the side of the road. If the fire is extinguished and there’s no damage to the engine, the driver can restart the engine and move the vehicle if it is on a busy road.
“A few cables may need replacement if burnt, but generally, the engine can be used after cleaning the engine and compartment by flushing it with hot water and then refilling the tank,” says Larrson.
“Dafo systems require low maintenance. Annual maintenance involves changing a 9V back-up battery and flushing of the pipes. Cables need to be replaced every five years, and the Forrex and piston are replaced every ten years,” he adds.
Regulation, not cost, is the barrier to widespread adoption of fire suppression systems
Currently UAE regulations for fire suppression systems are limited to public transport and school buses, and equipment in hazardous environments. The safety benefits of these systems are yet to be discovered by large market segments such as staff transport buses, trucks, construction equipment, and passenger cars.
Larrson points out that the lack of regulations is a barrier to adoption of fire suppression systems in the Middle East.
“People want the highest levels of safety but are not willing to invest a little more, unless there’s a regulation. It’s encouraging to see more awareness among customers. This year, at Intersec 2020, we received a lot of interest from government authorities in Saudi Arabia,” says Larrson.
The prices of fire suppression systems are insignificant compared to that of vehicles and heavy equipment, according to Harris.
“We supply systems ranging from $1,000 to $3,000. The higher-priced systems have UNECE certification, but as that's not mandatory, customers can opt for cheaper, but reliable systems,” says Harris.
This year, Swaidan Trading will be introducing an engine fire suppression system for passenger cars and other light-duty vehicles, called the Rotarex Blaze Cut. This system consists of a heat sensitive tube made of special plastic which is closed by a stainless steel fitting on each end. The tube has both storage and detection functions, which means that the extinguishing agent is stored directly in the tube and no additional storage device like a cylinder is needed.
“Engine fires in passenger cars and SUVs are common during the summer in the UAE. Every car owner could install a system such as Blaze Cut without breaking the bank. However, without regulation, we don’t expect immediate market adoption for the product.We will need to build the awareness that a small investment in a fire suppression system can make a large impact on life and road safety,” says Harris.