ChopCult Archives: Fire Safety in the Garage


Original published date 11/05/2010

Working in your home garage is a nice setup. Burning your house to the ground because you didn't pay attention to safety basics sucks. Grinding, welding, and torches combined with fluids, vapors and other hazards can make the home builder's base camp a tinder box.

If your shop or garage does double duty as the home laundry room, holiday storage or kid's toy box, you're at even greater risk. Add wooden construction, poor ventilation and a careless craftsman and things get worse. The best defense against fire is a clean and organized work area where loose sparks and other potential igniters fizzle out long before they reach fuel. This 6-Pack was put together with 33'er Tony "Rustrocket" Alarcon. Tony's been a fireman for 12 years, and despite this credential he recently lit his motorcycle on fire in the driveway. We figured someone with real experience would have the most to contribute on a subject like this.




1. Hazards. They exist everywhere in every garage. The key is eliminating as many as possible. Typical tract home garages with a hot water heater, dryer and other devices with a piloted ignition are full of hazards. Newer houses with washers and dryers inside the home cut down on some of these hazzards, but a hot water heater can almost always be found in the garage, except for areas of severe winter cold. Dryer lint is not only messy, but it is like a dense paper or cheap fire logs, and will easily ignite from an errant spark. Statistically speaking, heating and cooking devices cause more fires in the home than any other source. Most of us don't have open stoves in the garage, but plenty of us build bikes in the kitchen or have open-element heaters in the work area. Flammable liquids that put off vapor are the biggest hazards. Pump gasoline will put off vapor that will flash below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and can find an ignition source in a closed room.

Acetylene has one of the greatest flammability ranges of any gas (2.5% on the lean side and upwards of 80% on the rich), and is capable of exploding in a 100% rich atmosphere. Always leave your garage open when handling gasoline, or any other flammable gases. Identify the hazards in your garage and try to isolate them. Keep combustibles in a metal cabinet and store gas cans outside of the work area. Check around the clothes dryer and especially around the vent where lint accumulates. Fix leaky petcocks, carbs, tanks and lines on all bikes, and turn them off when your bike is parked. Keep the floor clean. Empty the trash. Get a real rag bucket with a closing metal lid. Litter that piles up under benches and tool boxes makes perfect kindling for sparks. No home garage is going to be a fireproof shop, but keeping it clean and watching what you are doing with chemicals, welding slag and your torch will go a long way towards preserving your man cave and your house!




2. Rags & Spontaneous Combustion. Rags, clothes, paper towels or other things with chemicals on them are perfect combustibles. When you use rags with cleaners, stains, gasoline or anything like that, dispose of them properly. We're not talking about legal, EPA-style nonsense—we're talking about not burning your house down. Spontaneous combustion is real, and rags with oils are a common cause. Rinse your rags if you have a sink that drains to the sewer, then lay the rags flat outside the garage and allow them to dry. A metal rag bucket with a gravity-closing lid is a good idea in any shop that generates dirty rags. Obviously such cans don't work well if the lids don't close, or if they're kept next to your supply of race gas.



3. Chemicals. Storing chemicals and gas is a common issue in any shop or garage. Most of us don't clean up containers before stashing them on a shelf or putting them in a cabinet. Aerosol cans are nice and don’t generate a big residual mess. Large containers of acetone, mineral spirits, WD-40, gasoline, etc. usually have drip and pour marks on their sides, and even tiny amounts of certain chemicals can generate immense amounts of heat if they come into contact with one another.  Flammable liquids storage containers are ridiculously priced, but placing combustibles up high and as far away from your grinding and welding areas is simple common sense and doesn't cost an extra dime.




4. Extinguishers. Everyone should have at least one extinguisher in his garage, and depending on other factors (garage size, materials, chemicals, heat sources, to name four) as many as three or four. Unless you are working with magnesium or other flammable metals, an ABC type extinguisher is what you need. It’s good for just about everything that you can be presented with in the garage. Those little extinguishers that you can pack onto your bike, or may have under your kitchen sink, aren’t going to pack enough kick to put out a very big fire. Every other month you should turn your extinguisher upside down.  You can even tap the bottom gently with a rubber mallet. They are filled with powder and will cake and harden over time. Nothing would be worse than having an extinguisher malfunction when your outlaw chopper is about to go up in flames.




5. What if you do have a fire? Say you’re in the shop slaving away and the next thing you know you're facing a fire. Whatever is burning should dictate how to handle the problem. It may be the stack of Club International in the corner, a stack of rags in the trash can, or your bike. If you don’t have an extinguisher you are not necessarily screwed. Limited in your approach? Yes, but you can still save it. If it's your trash can or rag bucket, man up and throw that thing out into the driveway (but not under your car!) Remember when you pick it up and try and throw it or run with it, the fire will appear to get bigger, and the flames may come toward you. Be mindful of where your face and hands are, but get it outside. If it’s the bike, pull that thing out of the garage, post haste. A stack of porn or pile of manuals in the corner presents another problem. You aren’t going to be able to grab them and run without spreading embers, and shit all over without possibly causing more things to burn. Confining what is burning and preventing it from lighting more stuff on fire is top priority if you don’t have an extinguisher.  


So you have an extinguisher, now what? First off, know where it is at all times. It should be mounted to the wall so it doesn't move around and it'll be there when you need it. Understand that when you pull that pin and get ready to let her rip the rush of air from the extinguisher will make the fire flare up for a second. Don't worry about that, just keep going! Next, aim the nozzle right at the base of the fire, squeeze the handle, and slowly sweep from one side of the fire to the other until it's out. Don't worry about your paint, or getting powder in your carb, just hose that thing down until it quits burning!



6. On the road. Being on the road and having something catch fire on your bike puts you in a bad category. If you're moving, get off the road quickly, and unless you have an extinguisher on the bike, or someone stops with one, grab what you want off the bike, sit down and put your head in your hands and watch her go. You could try and throw dirt or something at it, water from a water bottle, smother it with your leather jacket, etc. but chances are that it is fuel related and the chances of getting it out sans extinguisher are pretty slim. If you can think fast enough, turn the petcocks off and get the machine to where it will cause the least damage or ignite the fewest secondary fires.




The takeaway from all this? Use common sense. Eliminate as many hazards as possible, use discipline and clean up your area every night. Put things back where they go, separate your combustibles from spark/heat/flame sources and know what to do if all of the above doesn't work and you actually catch something on fire. Who's got stories to tell or advice to share on this subject? Post your best tales ofwhoa—fuck! in the Close Calls thread in the main forum.

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Commented on 5-29-2015 At 10:09 am

Also, if things get beyond control, and you're left calling the FD, try and eliminate oxygen to the inferno. (close the door) I remember that from when Pops dropped his Bultaco tank and it found a space heater!

Commented on 6-2-2015 At 09:09 pm

If you'll bring that 1940 Scout fire rig by and let me play with it, I'll light my shop up.

Commented on 6-3-2015 At 06:28 am

Military auctions are a good place to pick up metal lockers to store flammables and self closing rag cans. They get rid of them if they are slightly damaged or the hinges don't work correctly, which is usually an easy fix, and it will save you cash over buying a brand new one.

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