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FORE! Improper charging of golf carts can lead to fumes and fire

As the world's leading information and knowledge resource on fire, electrical and related hazards, our public affairs department gets asked all kinds of questions. For example, this week's media inquiries included requests for NFPA insight on the Australia wildfire; inept fire protection systems in LA; evacuation practices for disabled residents in Minneapolis hi-rises; fire department response times in Dallas; and golf cart fires in Florida.

I can't say why this last one about golf carts stood out, but it did. It most likely resonated with me because I'm in the Boston area and, as is often the case in New England in February, it is cold and dreary. So, today, the thought of cruising on the back nine, zipping to the beach, or buzzing to a friend's home in a golf cart piqued my interest. And in typical NFPA employee fashion, those thoughts quickly led me to wonder about potential fire hazards that may slow a golf cart owner's roll.

Global Market Insights and other trend-watchers, say that golf carts are popular because they are convenient, economical, and environmental alternatives for moving people short distances. The golf industry leads the user pack, as you might imagine. In 2018 alone, there were over 500 golf courses under development across the globe – and of course they require low speed vehicles (LSVs). But, others are turning to golf carts, too, including the hospitality industry, universities, airports, tourist spots, housing developments, and residents in some states that are authorizing use on streets. Modern day carts are relatively quiet, produce low engine emissions, are easy to operate, can accommodate between 2-14 passengers, and boast all kinds of features.

Golf carts tend to use lead acid batteries, like those used in cars; and typically create a very small amount of hydrogen when being charged. Hydrogen is an odorless and colorless gas that is flammable. It is not usually concerning but it can be if a very large battery is being charged in a small sealed enclosure, or charged incorrectly as recently reported by The Palm Beach Post in Florida. Palm Beach County Fire Marshal David DeRita told the newspaper that fire departments are seeing an increase in carbon monoxide calls that tend to actually be hydrogen-related. The fire official pointed out that when hydrogen is present, just touching a garage switch or garage door light, which work off electricity, could ignite fire. “We are talking about a double whammy here. If it doesn't suffocate you, it can kill you through a fire,” DeRita said.

As part of their basic maintenance, lead acid batteries require distilled water to be added on a periodic basis. Until 2018, carts did not feature safety mechanisms that shut off charging if water levels ran too low. It is equally concerning if water exceeds the fill line because the battery needs extra space or air to do its job. A few years back, Al Guzzetta, owner of Cart Masters, spoke with a Fort Myers news station about the dangers associated with overfilling the cell of the battery with water. He advised, "Do not fill them up like a regular car battery because the charger actually makes them percolate like a coffee maker."

Hazards can also arise when carts are charging. In September, WCSC-TV in South Carolina reported that improper golf cart charging resulted in nearly $60,000 in damage to a Seabrook Island home and van. In that incident, a modified 50-foot extension cord, not the manufacturer's cord, was used to charge an electric golf cart. The cord lacked the third prong needed to ground electricity, prompting the golf cart in the driveway to catch fire, and ignite both the house next to it and a van nearby.

Today, Lithium ion battery-charged golf carts are beginning to take hold in the market. Although upfront costs may be 20% higher, the long- term benefits and ease of maintenance are being well-received. For example, li-on battery models can be fully charged in four hours (or to 80% within an hour), as opposed to eight hours for lead acid batteries. The weight of lithium ion batteries are about two-thirds lighter too, which bodes well for wear and tear on carts. There is little information available about fire or other hazardous incidents involving lithium ion-charged golf carts but as we have learned in recent years, li ion batteries can explode or overheat; and given that golf carts tend to be used in outdoor locations where temperatures may run high, there is a possibility that we may hear of challenges in the future.

Golf carts are meant to help users enjoy outdoor activities, convenient transport, and a host of other benefits. Follow these simple steps to ensure that your LSV and loved ones are kept safe from harm:

  • Follow the manufacturer's charging recommendations
  • Use the charger provided by the manufacturer
  • Charge the vehicle in a ventilated area
  • Be sure to charge the cart when someone is home – and never overnight
  • And if your cart has an acid lead battery, ensure that your house and garage have carbon monoxide detectors

For additional tips and helpful videos, visit the National Golf Cart Association website.

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Cathy Longley
Communications Manager, informing stakeholders about NFPA thought leadership, subject matter expertise, resources, initiatives & research.

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