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EV Recycling: Reducing Risks

Andy Latham, from Salvage Wire, talks about safety and fire prevention when dismantling EVs. Photo: Salvage Wire

Fire prevention and solid safety protocols are essential when dismantling electric vehicles.

Thanks to legislation and government initiatives to entice consumers, sales of electric vehicles are growing. And as more of them hit the roads, more of them accrue mileage, more of them are involved in collisions, more of them are written-off as total losses and more of them reach the end of their serviceable life.

For automotive recyclers this represents significant consideration as hybrid and battery electric vehicles need to be handled differently than conventional cars and trucks.

To help provide more details on exactly how to dismantle and recycle these vehicles safely and efficiently, Andy Latham, from Salvage Wire in the U.K., delivered a session as part of Automotive Recycling Association’s virtual 2020 Conference and Expo.

Battery database

Starting off, Latham talked about a massive battery database which Salvage Wire has been building and will be accessible to ARA members. The aim is to provide an indispensable resource on battery and vehicle information, including which vehicles specifically have high voltage electrical systems and the types of batteries they use, whether they’re starter batteries, 48-volt batteries, key fob batteries, tire pressure sensor batteries, accessory batteries, phone batteries etc.

Overall, Latham said that given the database contains vehicles from the mid-1970s up until today, there are on average 4.62 batteries per every vehicle, with significant increases in batteries per vehicle from 1995 onwards (and a big jump from 2010 and up). Today, he notes that some vehicles can have as many as 22 different batteries in them.

Yet the database isn’t complete and he encourages people in the industry to continually help by adding information to it because “the more data we have, the more benefit there is for everybody regarding the database.”

When it comes to actual recycling, Latham touched upon some very important and critical considerations around handling and storing batteries. He noted that different types of batteries, for example, high voltage nickel metal hydride and lithium ion batteries should not be placed in close proximity and should be stored apart to reduce the risk of chemical reactions and fires.

Latham also says that as the number of EVs entering salvage yards increases along with the demand for processing and recycling them, it is of upmost importance that each recycler has a through fire prevention plan in place.

Intense fires

He notes that while EVs aren’t necessarily more prone to catching fire than a regular vehicle, when they do, they tend to burn intensely. ‘We’ve seen tests where the temperature of the fire quickly reached 1000 degrees Celsius (1832 °F) or more.” He also says that because the battery systems in these vehicles feature multiple cells laid out in series, when one cell heats up and catches fire, it causes a chain reaction, also known as Thermal Runaway.

Therefore, a solid fire prevention plan, which includes a fire and prevention detection kit, equipment such as thermal cameras, as well as regular fire drills for staff who work at the facility and protective and fire prevention equipment are essential.

He also advises recyclers that a special quarantine area should be designated for electric vehicles, that they should be parked at least five metres (15 feet) away from other vehicles, buildings and objects and that they should be powered down and the batteries removed as soon as possible.

When fires do start, he also advises that recyclers look to investing in equipment such as car fire blankets, which are designed to contain the fire and reduce the temperature, keeping the vehicle covered in the blanked for an hour at least until the fire burns itself out. Latham notes this is a far more effective strategy than trying to put the fire with the water.

Firstly, considering that around 10,000 litres of water is needed to put out a burning EV and the average fire truck only carries 1200 litres, using water to extinguish EV fires is not an effective plan. Secondly, it takes too long for emergency services to reach the fire and even if you have access to a fire hydrant and hoses on site, there’s also the consideration of water contamination from the burning EV and its battery system.

Latham notes that tests with car fire blankets have shown that a high temperature fire on a burning EV can be quickly cooled; stops the fire from spreading and also results in minimal mess. Car fire blankets are also reusable, up to 30-times in some cases.

Proper safety and training

Besides proper fire prevention strategies, Latham also stresses the need for proper safety protocols, training and qualifications when working on electric vehicles.

He says that it’s important for recyclers to do this, not only for the health and safety of their employees and staff, but also to provide accountability, responsibility and create an efficient process when working on EVs and hybrids.

Salvage Wire categorizes four distinct levels for employees involved or engaged with EVs on the recycling side.

These are:

  • Level 1 – The informed person. These can be sales staff, those who clean and detail vehicles, drivers or those that handle parts. They aren’t directly involved with working on the vehicle but they need to be aware of how it operates and know what the risks are.
  • Level 2 – These are “EV competent” people that are able to work on dismantle EVs and work with the high-voltage systems provided the vehicle is not in a live state. It is recommended that a higher qualified person can work with them to assess the vehicle and be available to answer questions and assist them, should the vehicle required to be activated to a live condition.
  • Level 3 – These are “EV authorized” people who are trained to a level 3 standard so they can work on high voltage systems when the EV is in a live condition. They are able to check the vehicle and assess it and devise a plan and strategy for dismantling it, working with a Level 2 person on the actual dismantling of the vehicle. They should also supervise physically removing the batteries and placing them in storage.
  • Level 4 – These are senior, authorized personnel, that are in charge and the ones that others come to if there is a particular problem or issue that needs to be discussed. They are also the individuals that can perform diagnostic or specialist repair work and testing when the vehicle is live.

Latham also says that it is important to understand that not only are more and more EVs expected to find their way into the hands of recyclers this decade, but the voltage levels are only going to increase.

Therefore, taking the steps now to introduce proper safety and fire protocols is essential, if auto recyclers are going to be successful at processing written-off or end-of-life EVs and hybrids.

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