Fire Rover, which is based in Ferndale, remotely puts out fires at facilities such as recycling plants. Pictured is a demonstration.

Fire Rover, which is based in Ferndale, remotely puts out fires at facilities such as recycling plants. Pictured is a demonstration.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Residents warned of fire hazards associated with some batteries

By: Mark Vest | C&G Newspapers | Published March 9, 2021

 Fire Rover, which is based in Ferndale, was credited with remotely extinguishing a fire at a recycling facility in Southfield. CEO Will Schmidt stands in front of a screen with images of Fire Rover’s product in use.

Fire Rover, which is based in Ferndale, was credited with remotely extinguishing a fire at a recycling facility in Southfield. CEO Will Schmidt stands in front of a screen with images of Fire Rover’s product in use.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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OAKLAND COUNTY — Many people may remember the old Smokey the Bear commercials that informed the public that “only you can prevent forest fires.”

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy has a message of its own, and it has to do with fire hazards that can result from batteries.

In particular, the improper disposal of lithium-ion batteries has gotten the attention of Michigan’s environmental department.

Lithium-ion batteries can be found in mobile phones, laptops, tablets, cordless power tools and more.

Being lighter and lasting longer than alkaline batteries has helped make them popular. However, the disposal of the batteries can pose a fire danger, which applies to both solid waste and recycling.

Steve Noble is an electronics recycling specialist with EGLE.

He doesn’t know the specific number of fires attributed to lithium-ion batteries, but he said, “I know it’s increasing. We’re getting more and more.”

Noble discussed why the batteries can be a problem.

“They can start an internal combustion,” he said. “They basically start (an) internal fire, and that can spread to other materials, like if they’re sitting on a pile of paper or around other combustibles. It’s the nature of the batteries.”

Michael Csapo is the general manager of the Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County in Southfield, which he said is the highest-volume recycling plant in Michigan.

He has become well aware of the dangers of lithium-ion batteries.

“When someone puts (a) lithium battery in their recycling cart or recycling bin, it can ultimately break open and create a fire,” Csapo said. “We’ve seen direct evidence of a lithium battery causing a fire at our plant as recently as a year ago in December.”

Csapo said there was also a fire at the plant in 2018 that resulted in the normal operating temperature rising “well over 600 degrees in about 20 seconds.”

“Fortunately, we have a fire suppression system in our plant called Fire Rover that uses thermal imaging cameras and remote monitoring to detect and then react to fires with firefighting foam remotely,” Csapo said. “The Fire Rover operators were able to extinguish the fire, but it was pretty clear to us that it was likely a lithium-ion battery that caused the fire because of how quickly the temperature rose.”

Csapo said the Fire Rover program can install a series of cameras at a facility that might have some risk profile for fires, such as a recycling plant or scrap yard.

Both thermal and regular high-definition cameras are utilized to keep track of temperatures at sites monitored by Fire Rover, and if they get too high, an alarm is triggered at a remote monitoring site.

“At that point, the remote monitor will look at the cameras, identify where there’s a heat signature that’s rising, and monitor it,” Csapo said. “If it does begin to become a combusted situation, the remote monitor can then trigger a number of actions. They’ll contact the fire department, plant management, and most importantly, they can charge a fire-fighting foam system that’s on-site at our plant and extinguish the fire with the firefighting foam that shoots out of the nozzles that are erected in the building. They basically control it with a joystick from their remote location, and they extinguish the fire remotely.”

Csapo added that, “Generally, they do that so quickly that it’s before the fire department’s on site.”

Despite how high-tech Fire Rover is, there is a human element involved.

“The human being is part of it to the extent that there’s a remote operator somewhere looking at the site through a camera, through a monitor, and operating the equipment via joystick. But there’s on-site personnel required to be operating the system.”

Ryan Fogelman is the vice president of fire protection solutions for Fire Rover, which is based in Ferndale.

He said a joystick shoots an environmentally friendly cooling agent onto fires.

“Most of the time, we get it out, especially lithium-ion battery — we’ll hit it, get it out in 20 seconds, and we go back to work,” Fogelman said. “We have enough to shoot for, like, almost eight, 10 minutes.”

Fogelman said Fire Rover is six years into its operation.

He is not a proponent of batteries going into the trash or a regular recycling bin.

“Most batteries still have power in them,” Fogelman said. “Alkaline battery, all they need is a conductor to start to heat. And once it heats, then it’s sitting in a bin with all the other stuff that’s in there, and most of it’s flammable. … You should put electrical tape around (batteries) to make sure that the ends are covered, and they should be put into a baggie, and that baggie should be taken to a drop-off for lithium-ion batteries.”

Fogelman mentioned Lowe’s and Home Depot as potential drop-off locations for the batteries.

RRRASOC represents nine southwest Oakland County communities, and Csapo said there are household hazardous waste collection programs that give residents opportunities to properly dispose of things that shouldn’t go into their trash or be recycled.

Alkaline batteries, oil-based paints, thinners, cleaners, pesticides, unwanted automotive fluid and gas from snow blowers are other examples of things that should be properly disposed of.

“None of those things are proper to (place) in recycling or the trash,” Csapo said. “They need to come to a hazardous waste event where they can be handled properly, properly recycled and properly disposed by professionals that are trained.”

To find a hazardous waste schedule, sign up for an electronic newsletter that can provide tips, and search for recycling directories, visit rrrasoc.org.

Residents can also call (248) 208-2270 for information.

Noble shared another potential source for finding out where to properly dispose of batteries.

“There is a national program called Call 2 Recycle, and they have a searchable website where you can put in your ZIP code, and it’ll bring up drop-off locations where you can take those batteries,” he said.

Despite the potential dangers associated with the improper disposal of batteries, Noble doesn’t believe there has been any deaths as a result and is not suggesting people don’t use lithium-ion batteries.

“It’s fine to use (them),” he said. “It’s just when they get tired and you need to replace, or somehow you need to replace the phone, just properly dispose of the batteries and the phone.”

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