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Where There’s a Spark


Fires, one of the last things anybody working on a car ever wants to deal with. Statically speaking, you can’t avoid it. Considering the nature of the auto repair business with numerous chemicals, some highly volatile and explosive, the odds are it’s going to happen sooner or later. Sometimes it’s just a quick little poof of a flame, while other times it’s an all-out assault with the fire extinguishers. All you need is a source of ignition and up she goes! Engines in general, are nothing more than a controlled fire and explosion, and sometimes that fire or explosion doesn’t stay where it’s supposed to.

Over my years of working on cars I’ve had my share of them, some through pure stupidity and others totally by accident. And, if anybody who works on cars tells you they’ve never had one go up in flames (even a little bit) is 100% fooling themselves or is a complete liar. It happens to the best of us.

Back when carburetors were the norm a backfire almost certainly shoot a huge flame up in the air. Once in a while the oil in those old oil bath air filters became a rather convenient furnace for the latest back fire. Gasoline spills, oil leaks, and just about any other type of chemical concoction can become a ball of flames in no time at all. Of course, ya can’t leave out the ‘electrical fire’ either, but calling a fire an ‘electrical fire’ doesn’t sit well with me. Electricity is only the spark to ignite it. If there are no combustibles nearby, electricity on its own can’t erupt into a ball of flames.


But, you hear it all the time, “Oh, they had an ‘electrical’ fire.” So, if it’s Ok to call a fire an electrical fire, then I guess it’s OK to call one of those movie scenes where the guy shoots at a pool of gasoline leaking out of a huge tanker which subsequently explodes --- a ‘gun’ fire? Hardly, I believe in that case it would be called a ‘chemical’ fire. But, when electricity is involved… it’s an ‘electrical’ fire. Go figure. Unless, they are merely referring to an electrical spark as the catalyst, well then, ya got me there.

Many years ago I had a 280z that came in and the owner said he couldn’t get it started. Nothing else, no ten thousand word explanation of the problem, or when he bought it, or what parts he’s changed, or what his friend who’s a mechanic told him was wrong with it, just that it wouldn’t start. Later that day I made my way out to the parking lot to check it out. I turned the key, cranked the engine, and WHOOF! Flames shot out from every corner of the hood. I made a beeline for the fire extinguisher, got the hood open … and doused the flames with the whole can. Come to find out the owner had pulled the fuel lines off of the injectors and had the coil wire disconnected. Nice…thanks for the heads up, fella. Needless to say, it was one of many occasions that I needed to refill the extinguishers.

Another time a customer called and told me his pickup would only run for about ten minutes and then would barely idle. If he shut it off and waited another ten minutes it would start back up again. He said he was going to try and make it to the shop that afternoon. It was getting late and I was looking forward to going home, but this guy had called several times telling me to wait for him and that he was still going to make it. So I said I’d stick around. It was dark by the time he finally arrived at the shop. We were busy filling out the paperwork when the parking lot lit up like a large candle. His truck turned out to be the candle. I grabbed two extinguishers for this one, and ran outside to find the guy standing next to his truck waving his hat at it. Yea, like that’s going to help. It took both extinguishers to put this blaze out. There was a whole lot more work that needed done besides finding out the cause of the loss of power. It turned out to be fuel trim issues and a clogged converter that would glow as red as a cherry. The fire was caused by the truck’s fuel line that ruptured right there in front of the shop. Pretty scary stuff when I found out how close it was to going off like a bomb.

What’s even more startling is when you don’t even know there’s a fire. You’re working under the dash and the next thing you know one of the other guys in the shop is filling the engine bay with CO2. That’ll get your attention. Then, of course, there’s the car that’s delivered to the shop and the owner tells you, “It had a little fire.” Sure, just a little fire. The CO2 is an inch thick everywhere you look. Anything plastic has melted into an oozing pile of blackened gunk. All the rubber hoses are charred beyond recognition, and the wiring is one huge clump of twisted copper and melted plastic. I often wonder what some people consider a ‘large’ fire after I’ve seen these so called little fires.

Just this week I had one up on the lift looking for a major oil leak. The oil was dripping off of the frame from the front to the back of the car. I had just got the car in and left the engine running while I took a quick look. (Which I’ve done hundreds of times before.) This time, I wasn’t so lucky. As I shined my flashlight up into the engine bay there was a loud boom, and a huge ball of fire engulfed the entire area. Luckily, I had enough sense to have extinguishers mounted on every lift and it was out before any damage occurred. It did give me a quick haircut and a few singed eyebrows though. When you can smell burnt hair… you know you’re too close! Wow, that was hot, and so sudden and unexpected too!

You hear about entire shops burning down all the time after a car caught fire in a service bay. It’s something I don’t want to experience, and for that matter any other repair shop. That’s why I don’t hesitate a second when those guys come around to service all my fire extinguishers each year. It pays to have as many as you can. The fire extinguisher companies have recommendations for what kinds of extinguishers you should have and how many based on the size of the shop. I tell them… double it. I don’t have a whole lot of hair left these days, and I’d like to keep what I got. Seriously, I don’t need any more of those flame cuts, my barber does a pretty good job on his own.

Accidents will happen; cars will have back fires, electrical issues, hot components, and leak combustible fluids. Just be sure you’re ready to handle the emergency when it happens. Cause ya know… where there’s a spark…..




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Was working on an old 120v inverter and got it fixed. Then the next time I turned it on one of the oil filled caps (capacitor)blew up and the whole room was smoke filled. The guys at the race track got scarred but that was normal for them to do that every once in a while. So they decided to sent the unit back to the shop instead of have me just put in the caps! No fire but lots of smoke! That was when I used to travel to the sites to do repair.

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I contributed to burning a 86 dodge omni. Carb cleaner was used to check vacuum leak. Doh! I was at a shop with 12 fire extinguishers, 11 had steel wire instead of pull pins. 11 out of 11 were dead. Maybe that's why they were wired shut... By the time someone found a good one the car was shoved out into the parking lot with 20' flames. Another time my buddy was welding up a rotted out jeep, whatever was inside on the carpet was extremely flammable. That was on a lift so it was a panic attack until we hosed it out.I'm hoping there's no more for me.

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Gonzo, one day a customer came to pick up their car and we were billing them out when we looked out to see the car that drove in, not the car we worked on on fire. One of my guys grabbed an extinguisher, opened the hood, and put the fire out. The car was totaled and the insurance company tried to blame us. We never touched the car. They later called to see if there were storage fees which we didn't charge but I told them we would like to get reimbursed for having the fire extinguisher recharged. They didn't want to pay the $30 bucks. I told them if they didn't want to pay for the extinguisher they could pay two weeks storage fees. They sent me $30.


I worked for a man that wanted the deposit paid before the fire extinguisher was to be used while the car was on fire.

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      It always amazes me when I hear about a technician who quits one repair shop to go work at another shop for less money. I know you have heard of this too, and you’ve probably asked yourself, “Can this be true? And Why?” The answer rests within the culture of the company. More specifically, the boss, manager, or a toxic work environment literally pushed the technician out the door.
      While money and benefits tend to attract people to a company, it won’t keep them there. When a technician begins to look over the fence for greener grass, that is usually a sign that something is wrong within the workplace. It also means that his or her heart is probably already gone. If the issue is not resolved, no amount of money will keep that technician for the long term. The heart is always the first to leave. The last thing that leaves is the technician’s toolbox.
      Shop owners: Focus more on employee retention than acquisition. This is not to say that you should not be constantly recruiting. You should. What it does means is that once you hire someone, your job isn’t over, that’s when it begins. Get to know your technicians. Build strong relationships. Have frequent one-on-ones. Engage in meaningful conversation. Find what truly motivates your technicians. You may be surprised that while money is a motivator, it’s usually not the prime motivator.
      One last thing; the cost of technician turnover can be financially devastating. It also affects shop morale. Do all you can to create a workplace where technicians feel they are respected, recognized, and know that their work contributes to the overall success of the company. This will lead to improved morale and team spirit. Remember, when you see a technician’s toolbox rolling out of the bay on its way to another shop, the heart was most likely gone long before that.
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