Please - Don't Tell Us of Another Fire!

Courtesy of KDKA Photojournalist Rob Hobson

A story came to us this past week from Pittsburgh television station KDKA that simply frustrated us beyond words.  A fire started in a storage garage in the Washington County community of North Strabane Township which destroyed 12 vintage and collectible cars valued at more than one million dollars. And although the vehicle owner had insurance, the cars are lost forever.


The preliminary report from the State Fire Marshall pointed to a malfunctioning battery charger. The charger likely caused the battery to explode and the fire was started.

Among the loss were Corvettes, Vipers and Cadillacs.  Three Dodge Vipers, each with less than 10,000 miles were either damaged or destroyed. The heat from the fire was so intense, it caused fiberglass panels on one of the $90,000 Vipers to melt.

Additional heavy smoke damage was done to cars and boats stored in an adjacent garage. Two business located above the garage also sustained heavy smoke damage.


As we have written about numerous times, a battery charger is not something to simply plug in and forget.  As we reported in 2013, a Dallas, Texas house fire started by a faulty battery chargers destroyed several irreplaceable classics. After the damage was done, we spoke with the car owner, Duncan Wood, as to what lessons were learned following the fire and loss of his collection.  He told us:


1. EVERY garage should have a smoke alarm and the smoke alarm should be linked to the home or building’s alarm.
There is no guarantee you will hear the garage alarm alone if you are located at the other end of the house, or in an office elsewhere in the building.

2. ANY charger unit should be plugged into a high-quality power strip with a built-in circuit breaker.
A short in the charger would have tripped the breaker preventing household current from flowing directing into the battery, overloading it to the point of combustion. DO NOT rely on a built-in circuit breaker in the charger unit alone.

3. Classic car owners should consider having a sprinkler system installed in the garage.
At a cost for new construction of approximately $1-$1.50 per square foot to have sprinklers installed was worth having any risk of fire damage reduced.

NO Surge Protection
Average Retail Price - $4.00

A power strip is a way of sharing a single electrical outlet with multiple pieces of electrical equipment - think "extension cord". It is generally a series of electrical outlets contained in an electrically shielded case, which are connected to a single cable with a male electrical plug on one side. 

The outlets in your home or office likely have room for two devices. If you need to plug in more than two devices you can use a power strip and plug in additional devices. Some people believe a surge protector is the same as a power strip when in fact this is not true, even if they both appear to be the same.

A surge protector is an entirely different piece of equipment.
Average Retail Price - $9.00

It is a component used to protect from surges in electricity coming through a wall outlet. Such surges can be caused by natural phenomena, such as lightning, and can also be caused by electrical appliances, such as those with large motors inside.

Can you tell if this is a power strip or surge protector?
Answer: Unit B is a surge protector - you can tell by the small "protected" notice green light just below the on-off switch.

A surge protector functions like a power strip; it gives the user the ability to plug in multiple electronic devices, but it also serves another very important function. A surge protector will also protect your electronic devices from a power spike. A power spike is a temporary, very high increase in power that lasts for a fraction of a second. They can be caused by lightning strikes (however unlikely), power outages, tripped circuit breakers, short circuits and more. If a power spike occurs when a device is not hooked into a surge protector, damage can occur.  However, the circuit a device is connected to is subject to a lightning strike, even a surge protector can’t prevent damage.

Because of the electrical sensitivity of computers (and their cost), it is HIGHLY advised that they are hooked into a surge protector. Surge protectors do a very good job of preventing damage from a power spike. A surge protector costs a little more than a power strip. A 6-outlet power strip can often be found for less than $10 while a 6-outlet surge protector might cost between $10 and $20. Not every device in your house needs to be plugged into a surge protector, just the expensive devices. For many, the coffee maker is incredibly important, but it doesn't need to be plugged into a surge protector. Here are some examples of items that should be hooked into a surge protector: desktop computers, laptops, servers*, TVs, home entertainment systems (receiver/DVD player/video game systems ). For a home entertainment system, you can simply get a single surge protector strip and hook in all of your devices.

In order to tell the difference between a power strip and a surge protector, you have to look for an electric rating.  A surge protector will have a rating in Joules of energy, as well as the maximum voltage it can take from a power spike.  If you find those numbers either on the box it came it or on the strip itself, then it is a surge protector. Also, if you have ever heard the term “surge suppressor”, it is the same thing as a surge protector; it is a device used to protect against changes in current.  The bottom line is to make sure that your computers and other electronic devices are hooked into a surge protector. It is a few dollars to spend that can end up saving you thousands in the long run. No Kidding!

Many people may choose to purchase the most inexpensive power strip in a store, thinking there is no difference, not realizing the purpose of a surge protector. If relatively expensive and sensitive equipment such as home electronics are being connected to a power strip, it is advisable to purchase a power strip with a surge protector. And we'll add BATTERY CHARGERS to this list as well.

Thankfully, the smoke alarms did function properly and no one was injured.

Drive safe - when headed to your local hardware store for a good quality power strip with surge protection...

Your Garagistry Team