Many of North America’s 1,800-plus recycling and waste facility fires every year are preventable, with the right technology.
In 2018 371 waste and recycling industry fires were reported in Canada and the U.S., including a major fire at a recycling facility outside Calgary in July.
However, that number is likely low. According to Ryan Fogelman, vice-president of strategic partnerships at Michigan-based Fire Rover, the real number may be over 1,800.
It’s no surprise that number of fires at waste and recycling facilities is higher now compared to years past. Increased summer temperatures may be a factor, says Fogelman, but mainly it’s larger volumes of material due to growing population rates and China’s National Sword policy restricting waste imports.
Increasing numbers of small, hard-to-detect lithium-ion batteries in everything from greeting cards to Christmas sweaters and disposable electronics like Apple earbuds – which each have three – compound the problem. They cause up to half of recycling facility fires.
Fire detection basics
There are only a couple proven ways to detect a fire or pre-fire hot spots. Bryan Staley, president and CEO at the California-based Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF), says he’s heard of some firms posting a ‘watchperson’ after hours to watch for fire-starts.
Fogelman, however, believes thermal cameras are a necessity, “but you need to use top-of-the-line thermal cameras that can sense temperature differentials.” He points out that there are many sources of heat in a waste or recycling facility – equipment running hot for example, and some places use heat in their processes – and that software programs associated with thermal cameras are not yet at the level where they can definitively ‘decide’ in all cases when a fire is close to starting or has started.
“Each facility is generally a very complex environment in terms of heat, so you need human verification of what the camera is picking up,” Fogelman says. “With our system, we get many, many alerts every day analyzed by our team. There are numerous false alarms but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
In these side-by-side shots of a recycling yard, the right-hand image shows the bright heat signatures as seen through an infra-red camera.
His company sells fire detection and suppression systems specifically for the waste and recycling sector. They use the FLIR A310F thermal camera that can detect and pinpoint abnormal heat sources down to the size of a pixel. And that means temperature accuracy within two degrees Fahrenheit.
It has installed systems at over 100 facilities in the USA since 2015 with no major fire incidents at any of them since, and is about to sell its first two systems in Canada, in Edmonton.
Facilities do sometimes have sprinklers installed, but if a sprinkler system is set up so that the structural columns of the facility and workers and /firefighters are protected, the amount of heat required to set it off would mean a fire is already well under way.
Even if a sprinkler system is placed to detect the heat of a fire start, Fogelman does not believe currently marketed systems are sufficient. He typically recommends the use of a pre-wetting foam agent, possibly in combination with water spray that employees can manually or remotely apply.
Staley notes that in addition to foam and water sprinklers, he has heard of facilities isolating a hot or burning mass by pulling it away using machinery, or “if the fire is not on a tipping floor and is away from good access to water, some fires are controlled/extinguished by placing soil on them.”
At Sweden’s Jönköping Energi, which burns waste and biomass to make electricity, spontaneous combustion is a 24/7 threat in its storage areas. “Apart from the environmental consequences and the obvious safety risks for people at the plant, a fire outbreak in a waste bunker can be a very costly affair. If a fire should break out, we need to shut down the plant immediately,” says Magnus Olsson, the company’s plant manager. “These shutdowns cost us quite a lot of money, up to half a million Swedish Crowns a day.”
The plant was using an aspiration-based smoke detection system. It pulls in air from the environment, which is then analyzed for the presence of smoke.
But the system was not fast enough. In fact, for this system to generate an alarm, smoke actually has to make physical contact with the smoke sensor, which is usually installed high up in the ceiling of the waste bunker. By then, a fire will already have developed into something uncontrollable.
A new tender was put out for fire detection and suppression. A contract was awarded to Termisk Systemteknik, a distributor of FLIR thermal imaging cameras and provider of fire detection systems. They installed two FLIR A615 cameras in protective housings mounted on pan tilt systems, one at each end of the bunker. They are controlled via dedicated TST Fire software from Termisk.
When a hot spot is detected by one of the two cameras, the other camera is directed at the hot spot as well. The TST Fire software then calculates the coordinates of the hot spot, based on the combined thermal images, and an alarm is generated. Upon activation in the waste bunker control room, the water canon is directed at the detected hot spot and the fire is extinguished.
“A critical factor for putting out a fire is to have an early response. And that we can achieve with the FLIR cameras. We can even put out a fire before it starts,” says Robert Berger from the fire protection solution company Incendium, which is supplying the fire extinguishing system for Jönköping.
When detection fails
Employees should be trained to prepare for the arrival of firefighters.
No matter what the cause of a fire, most waste disposal and recycling companies don’t focus on detection and what to do during the first ten minutes after that, before the fire fighters arrive.
Fogelman says employees should be trained to prepare for the arrival of fire-fighters, part of a larger ‘combinational approach’ to fire risk that Fogelman created with Jim Emerson, from a firm called Starr Technical Risk Agency. Employees should be ready to connect fire hoses to water, roll out hose and so on.
Some or all of these actions will not only greatly reduce the chance of major fire, but also may mean better evaluations from insurance firms.
“Insurance companies are running from this industry because of the fire risk, so taking these approaches may keep you insured,” Fogelman says.
“I highly recommend that you engage your insurance provider early in the process of assessing and developing a fire protection strategy. It puts you in the best place possible for understanding which investments in equipment, training and tactics make the most sense for your operation and will give you the most gain in terms of lower insurance and preventing fires. This is especially true if you have multiple facilities with multiple types of risks.”