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Operations and Management

Consequences of an electrical fire

I am recovering from an electrical fire that occurred on Feb. 15th. I thought many others would like a heads-up to check their washes, so the devastating effects of a fire don’t happen to them.

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On Feb. 15th, I received a phone call from my shift leader who said, “It rumbled, then it blew up,” and then I heard nervous laughter. I was confused, because we joke around a lot. He went on to explain that Mechanical Room 2 blew up and the smoke was increasing.

Our wash was built in 1996. At that time, electrical code stated that our 600 amp five-circuit main panel did not require a main breaker. From May to September, Mechanical Room 2 was always hot like a sauna. The ceiling fan was constantly on to remove the heat from the hydraulic pump and air compressor. The five-circuit main panel was an internal panel without moisture seals. 

The normal 17-minute drive from home to the wash only took me nine minutes after hearing the news. When I arrived, one fire truck was just starting to attack the flames, and two more were arriving. So, what happened? 

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After a long, drawn out “crime scene” investigation where the wash was locked down for two weeks, the fire inspector deemed the cause was from corrosion on the main panel lines from the years of moisture in the room. Corrosion on wires expands the wire insulation; corrosion increases amperage and heat on the lines. The increased heat breaks down the wire insulation until it crumbles away, leaving bare wires. I had bare main wires just waiting for the right time to connect, like when a large truck drives by and the building shakes.

Releated: Friendly fire turns deadly

When the main wires connected, it started a chain reaction of arching and heating up to the point of melting the panel box. Without a main breaker, the building transformer supplied the continual high amperage to the panel. The two main lugs that the five circuit breakers connect to melted. 

As the heat from the glowing red, sparking main panel continued, it melted two of the four five-gallon hydraulic oil pails stored in the room. The sparks also ignited the uniform rack of fresh uniforms. The oil drained out of the pails and at the right point blew open both doors and went right through the dryers.

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One customer was in the wash at the time of the explosion, and she said, “It was better than any movie I’ve been to … the fire came out and went through the dryers.”

Reconstruction of the rooms has just started (as of early May) — new roof, repaired concrete masonry unit (CMU) bricks, all-new wiring, and plumbing and equipment is on its way, including a new main panel, motor control center, two hydraulic packs, air compressor, air dryer, eight vehicle dryers and tire shine control board. The process is long, I hope to be washing again in mid-June, that’s a four-month downtime. Will my customers come back?

I would highly recommend having your panel inspected and upgraded. The upgrade cost is a fraction of the total cost of rebuild and lost revenue. 


Lee Morgan is the owner of Roberson Car Wash in Salem, Oregon.

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