By now GM-Volt forum readers know about the Volt that was caught in a Mooresville, N.C., fire last week and controversy surrounding it.

If you’ve not heard, both the Volt and the Siemens level II charger it was plugged into have been called into question as possible culprits.

In the fire, a house and garage sustained an estimated $800,000 damage. Besides the Volt and charger, a whole slew of other potential ways for a fire to start were also reported present.



 

Not least of the critics to suspect the Volt was the National Legal Policy Center. With characteristically questionable ethics, the self-appointed watchdog said GM might be guilty until proven innocent, just as it did when a Volt caught fire and was later cleared in Connecticut.

Where things actually stand is the investigation is ongoing. The media is nonetheless looking at the nascent electric vehicle industry under a microscope while many more fires happen regularly that arouse much less public scrutiny.

Yesterday we contacted the Iredell County Fire Marshal’s office, and learned only that the fire marshal was at the scene investigating. Also there were GM, as well as Duke Energy, insurance company investigators, Siemens, U.S. Department of Transportation and others with a stake in the outcome.

The PR damage began for the electric Chevy when Duke Energy issued a press release immediately after the fire, warning its customers of potential hazards from home charging. About 125 customers were asked to stop charging until Duke “out of an abundance of caution” could be sure of the risks.

While we are waiting like everyone else, our suspicion is the Volt will be cleared. In an interview yesterday, GM Spokesman Rob Peterson said that he could not go on record with any kind of definitive position.

He said only that the fire marshal is doing his job, and he asked for people to exercise patience and suspend judgment until the facts come out.

Reality check

Putting things into perspective would also help. According to a cursory analysis by greentechmedia.com, the odds of a fire occurring at a gasoline station were one in 23, whereas the odds of an EV fire at this point have been one in 3,750.

This roughly calculated determination was based on 5,020 fires per year at gasoline stations reported between 2004-2008 by the National Fire Protection Association. These were divided into 117,000 stations reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2007.

This perspective highlights the extreme vigilance taking place until the public can become comfortable with plug-in cars.

The subjective nature of the general public’s comfort zone was shown in stark relief considering that gasoline stations have had decades to get safety protocols under control, and their percentage of fires is still relatively high.

In contrast, EVs are brand new, and there are comparatively few. Greentechmedia.com estimated out of 15,000 EVs on the road, there have been four fires reported.

Of these four, one was rock star Neil Young’s custom-made LincVolt that burned a warehouse of memorabilia and that appeared to be the car’s fault. Another was a converted 2008 Prius plug-in which had its upholstery ignite after a loose wire contacted it. Another was the Volt in Connecticut about which the fire marshal told me it wasn’t the car’s fault.

And the fourth was this latest fire which the NLPC’s Mark Modica dutifully wrote about being that this involved another Volt, and he said it was becoming a suspicious trend.

Despite the Connecticut fire marshal having cleared the previous Volt, in his latest piece, Modica said that investigation was not done properly, and suggested the second one was starting to look like a cover up among other conspiracies:

The question arises, just how far will GM, the Obama Administration and green ideologues go to prove that the Chevy Volt (as well as electric cars in general) is the future of the American auto industry? Fluffing up the perception of huge demand for the Volt is one thing, but there should be no compromises when it comes to the safety of Americans who buy into the hype of the Chevy Volt and purchase the vehicles. All taxpayers are paying to subsidize purchases of the Volt and plug-in charging stations; it would be a shame to see that the money usurped is putting people at risk.

Are Modica’s insinuations nothing more than one ideologue falsely accusing an alleged other? According to Jalopnik’s Justin Hyde, in his article, “Haters to the Right” earlier this year about the alleged dealer tax rebate gaming scandal, it sure looks like it.

“National Legal and Policy Center is one of a number of groups which criticizes the Obama administration for a living,” Hyde wrote. “Funded in part by right-wing activist Richard Mellon Scaife , nearly all of its stories target Democrats in some fashion, and the Volt piece was part of the site's 'union corruption update' series.”

In any case, the NLPC’s motives and tactics are transparent, so without giving it any more thought, a more realistic consideration would be that if EVs and charging stations are going to be problematic we’d be seeing more issues in the beginning, not fewer.

It is also pretty obvious that EVs are receiving inordinate scrutiny while society tolerates the collateral damage that is proven to be far worse to date from internal combustion vehicles.

Examining only some auto fires, of the 5,020 annual gasoline station fires cited above, around 61-percent were started by internal combustion vehicles on site.

Of these, costs were two lives on average, 48 fire injuries and $20 million in direct property damage per year, according the the National Fire Protection Association. To date plug-in cars have not seen such a death toll or costs.



 

One could go on looking at fire dangers from things like lint-filled clothes dryer traps, barbeque grilles, or other everyday close encounters with combustible materials.

Human society long ago dove into playing with fire, and when convenient, has deemed the risk and loss of life and property through inevitable accidents as part of acceptable chances taken.

As for flammable chemicals, many casualties, burns and losses later, we have learned things like not to look for a gas leak with a match and not to transfer gasoline from one container to another with a lighted cigarette dangling from one’s mouth.

It is possible that a 240-volt electric car charger if not done to code or otherwise compromised could overload an electrical system. If set up correctly, the actual current draw is on par with an electric dryer.

Shall we yank out dryers too since they could be as dangerous as chargers?

Or will we live and learn?

When we learn the cause of the North Carolina fire, we’ll let you know.

greentechmedia.com , NLPC , Jalopnik , WSOCTV .