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Choosing and Using a Fire Suppression System

Choosing and Using a Fire Suppression System

Buying and owning a Fire Suppression System is relatively simple, but there are a few common mistakes that can cost you. Fortunately, those mistakes are easy to avoid. A little preparation is all it takes to ward off unhappy surprises later.

Follow along to find out what to expect and how to keep your system ready to protect you.

What system do I need?

The most accurate answer we can provide, which applies to everyone, regardless of where you race: Read your rule book! Get a copy of your rule book (most are available online for free) and learn the fire system requirements. The rule book can come in handy for a lot of other things too -- if you think the guy in front of you is cheating, you'll need a rule book to prove it. If someone else accuses you of cheating, you'll want to have the rule book to prove your innocence.

Once you can tell us what your rules require, we can steer you to the specific fire systems that meet those requirements.

If the rules seem to leave any grey areas or confusion, contact the Chief Tech Inspector in your area to get the official interpretation. After all, the Chief of Tech is the one who decides if your fire system satisfies the rules.

Remember, it is ultimately your responsibility to ensure that you order a system that fulfills your requirements. If you tell us that you need an FIA-rated system and we don't deliver, that's our fault and we'll fix it. But if you don't tell us you need FIA approval, who is to blame when they won't let you race?

Can't I just order a system I like and ship it back if I order the wrong one?

Not so fast! Shipping a fire system is extremely difficult, so it's critical that we get it right the first time.

The US DOT classifies ALL pressurized fire systems as "hazardous materials". Shipping hazardous materials requires the shipper to follow specific packaging and labeling guidelines, provide extra documentation, and pay extra fees. More importantly, most shippers are not certified to ship hazardous materials. You can't just take it to your local UPS Store or Kinko's. Don't even think about dropping it in a mailbox!

This is why we emphasize that all competitors should check the rulebook before ordering.

My rules say I need an SFI or FIA rated system. What does that mean?

SFI and FIA are both organizations that publish minimum standards for racing safety equipment, as well as testing procedures intended to demonstrate that products meet those standards. Your driver's suit, gloves, and racing shoes probably have SFI or FIA tags on them.

SFI (Safety Foundation Inc) is a North American partnership of racing equipment manufacturers and racing organizations. SFI standards are most often required by racing organizations in the USA. Few countries outside North America accept SFI certification. SFI Standard 17.1 covers fire suppression systems.

FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile) is a European group of racing organizations from around the world (including the USA). FIA standards are recognized around the world, with the exception of some American series (specifically, some circle tracks and drag strips in the USA will only accept SFI certification). FIA Technical List 16 covers fire suppression systems.

We carry several systems that meet SFI or FIA requirements. Note that we also carry many more that don't carry either certification!

Is FIA better than SFI?

Only if your rulebook says so!

Neither standard specifies a particular extinguishing agent (although some are explicitly banned).
Neither standard describes a system that will extinguish every possible fire.
Neither standard describes a system that will prevent a car from burning down.

Both standards let you choose from several different systems.
Both standards require recertification every 2 years.
Both standards require you to follow all of the manufacturer's instructions.

What is the difference between the extinguishing materials?

Let's start by talking about the elephant in the backseat -- Halon. Halon was a gas extinguishing agent that smothered the fire and cooled the embers to minimize the chance of reignition. It didn't leave any residue, so it required no cleanup. It was invisible, so it didn't impair vision. Once it dispersed, you couldn't even tell it had been used. It was a miracle of modern science that was actually too good to be true: Halon was determined to be detrimental to the environment, and potentially toxic in high concentrations. Production of Halon was banned worldwide in the 1990s, and the use of Halon was outlawed in most countries several years ago. SFI and FIA now specifically prohibit the use of Halon in fire systems.

FE-36™ is DuPont™s replacement for Halon. FE-36 behaves the same as Halon, but with lower toxicity and zero ozone depletion potential. The SFI-approved systems we currently offer use FE-36 extinguishant.

Novec 1230™ is 3M's replacement for Halon. Novec behaves the same as Halon, but with zero ozone depletion potential. It is effectively non-toxic, so it is approved for use in confined spaces. Some of the FIA-approved systems we offer use Novec.

AFFF (Aqueous Film Forming Foam -- don't worry, that won't be on the test) is a soapy liquid that comes out as a foam. The foaming helps it to reach into nooks and crannies, where it coats surfaces to smother a fire. The downside is that AFFF will require cleanup afterwards. A good rinsing will get rid of it, but that means getting everything wet. Most AFFF can also freeze at extremely low temperatures, which can damage your bottle. We offer both FIA-approved and non-certified systems which use AFFF.

Note: We no longer sell or service AFFF fire systems.

When choosing an extinguishing agent, check your rulebook to be sure your choice will be legal.

What about electrical vs mechanical?

Electrical systems are normally more expensive, but they offer greater flexibility. An electrical system can use as many trigger switches as you want, and the bottle can be located anywhere you want. You can put the bottle in the trunk and have separate actuating switches for driver, co-driver, and course marshals. Typical electrical systems (including all of the electrical systems we carry) run on a separate 9-volt battery. They do not get connected to the vehicle's battery. You will need basic wiring skills to install an electrical system.

Mechanical systems can be a bit more straightforward and less expensive, but they have more limitations. The bottle must be installed close enough to the driver that the actuating pull cable will be within reach. (Don't forget that the cable will probably have to make a 180 degree bend at one or both ends!) Most of the mechanical systems we offer can only take one actuating cable, although SPA mechanical systems can use two cables.

When choosing the actuation type, check your rulebook to be sure your choice will be legal.

I got my system, but I don't want to hook up so many nozzles (or I want more). Can I add and subtract nozzles?

No. Fire suppression systems are designed, tested, and certified to use a specific number of discharge nozzles. Changing the number of nozzles will void the certification. In most cases, it can also drastically change the performance of the system.

Where should I install the discharge nozzles?

First, read the instructions that came with the system. FIA-approved systems will specify the nozzle locations, and you must follow those instructions for the certification to be valid.

Second, check your rulebook. If the instructions do not specify nozzle location, your rulebook might.

If the instructions and the rules both leave the location up to you, the correct answer will depend on how many nozzles the system has. A 2-nozzle system in a formula car will be a very different installation than a 6-nozzle system in a rally car. But some fundamental rules apply.

First, keep in mind that the job of a fire suppression system is to protect the driver (and co-driver). These systems are not designed to stop a car from burning -- that's the job of the safety crew, and look at how many huge fire bottles they carry. Your fire suppression system should be set up so that it gives you time to stop the car and get out safely.

Every car will have two primary targets: 1. The Driver. 2. The most likely source(s) of ignition. Normally, at least half of the nozzles should cover the driver. The rest should be aimed where they can knock down a fire where it starts, before it has a chance to spread.

Do not position any nozzles so that they spray the driver directly in the face. If you are installing a gas system (FE-36, Novec, etc), try to avoid positioning the nozzle too close to the driver. The gas in these systems comes out so cold that it can (theoretically) cause frostbite.

"Likely sources of ignition" means whatever is most likely to get too hot. This could be a turbo, an exhaust header, a bundle of wires, or even the carburetor if yours is prone to backfiring. If a fuel hose or oil line runs close to one of those hot spots, that's your target.

Remember that this isn't sharpshooting. Discharge nozzles are designed to spray in a cone shape. Getting close to your target is fine. If you can cover a secondary target with the same nozzle, that's even better. For example, can one of your cockpit nozzles also hit that big tangle of wires under the dash? Can one engine bay nozzle cover both an exhaust header and a fuel rail?

What about the fuel cell? There's a lot of gasoline back there!

There sure is. In fact, there's so much gasoline that your fire system won't be able to put out a fire back there. But the good news is that fires rarely start in the fuel cell area.

Remember that the purpose of a fire suppression system is to buy you enough time to get the car stopped so you can get out safely. If you aim the nozzles where a fire is likely to start, you may have a chance to knock the fire down before it ever gets to the fuel cell.

If you want to carry a system that is capable of extinguishing a burning fuel cell, you should consider driving one of the safety trucks.

What is the date on the label all about?

SFI and FIA both require the bottles to be recertified every 2 years. The recertification must be performed by the manufacturer or their authorized representative. This can take a few days (plus travel time back and forth). It is important to plan for this downtime, and to incorporate it into your racing schedule.

Pegasus Auto Racing Supplies is a factory-authorized service center for SPA AFFF fire systems as well as SPA and Lifeline Novec 1230 systems. All other brands and types must be sent directly to the manufacturer for service.

Bottles that are past their mandatory service date cannot be recertified or refilled. This doesn't mean that a bottle that expires on Monday has to be discarded on Tuesday, but it does mean that if you ignore the mandatory recertification schedule, we can't help you.

Total service life from the date of installation is currently limited to 6 years for SFI systems and 10 years for FIA systems (assuming timely recertifications). When the bottle reaches the end of its service life, you will need to buy a replacement bottle.

SPA requires the same 2-year service interval / 10-year life span for their non-certified systems as for their FIA systems.

This article was first published on 9/26/2017.

It was most recently modified on 6/7/2019.