Burning through port productivity

Blazequel ember detector, mounted above a biomass conveyor. Credit: Blazequel
Blazequel ember detector, mounted above a biomass conveyor. Credit: Blazequel
Fogmaker systems can be installed in any engine room or enclosed area. Credit: Fogmaker
Fogmaker systems can be installed in any engine room or enclosed area. Credit: Fogmaker
A Kalmar Straddle Carrier, equipped with a Firetrace System.  Credit: Firetrace
A Kalmar Straddle Carrier, equipped with a Firetrace System. Credit: Firetrace

Modern engines bring increased fire risks in ports and many are investigating ways to reduce combustion risks, finds John Bensalhia.

Fire can strike without warning in the most unlikely of places and presents a significant threat to ports – even a small blaze in a piece of equipment or machinery can seriously impact port operations.

Fogmaker International's sales and marketing manager, Lars Utterström, explains that a fire in a material-handling machine like a reachstacker, fork lift, straddle carrier or mobile harbour crane can be “devastating for the driver, the port in general and the utilisation of the machine, resulting in unwanted downtime or worse, complete destruction of the machine”.

Mobile port equipment presents a unique set of fire protection challenges. Scott Starr, Firetrace International's pre-engineered product manager, says that equipment items usually work 24/7 under punishing conditions, stressing mechanical components to the limit. “A leaking fuel line, burst oil feed or an improper/failing electrical connection or component can result in an intensely hot, quick-spreading fire. This can severely disrupt operations, pose a serious threat of injury or death to workers, and result in costly equipment repairs and downtime.”

Keith Picton, Blazequel's marketing manager, agrees that working conditions and intense usage take their toll on port equipment. “Harsh operating conditions and long operational shifts mean increased risk of wear and tear on the equipment. This can lead to many types of mechanical failure, or a ruptured fuel/hydraulic hose. A pinhole leak in a high pressure hydraulic/diesel hose, spraying onto a hot surface (i.e. turbo) can cause a spray fire, which can burn a vehicle out very swiftly. As equipment becomes increasingly reliant on electronic controls and systems, there is also increased risk of electrical issues initiating a more serious fire.”

Mr Picton says that the fire risk on machines increases with every passing improvement to the engines' environmental efficiency. “The new Euro 6 engines run hotter than ever before, with the exhaust regeneration burn-off processes reaching temperatures in excess of 600 degrees C. It only takes 250 degrees C to ignite a hydraulic fire. Also, noise emission restrictions can lead to increased engine bay insulation, which further increases operating temperatures.”

With the UK becoming increasingly reliant on biomass as a renewable fuel source, Mr Picton argues that the risk to operators in this sector is significantly higher than with previous fuels like coal. “This material (biomass) is more dusty, lighter, has a lower ignition temperature, and can swiftly cause a dangerous build-up of solid materials which can auto-ignite from the operating temperatures of the engine bay to spread rapidly by igniting wiring looms or hoses.” Other high-risk cargoes like RDF/SRF can cause similar problems. “In this sense, bulk-handling operations are higher risk than container handling operations, as with bulk handling there is a significantly increased risk of dust and material build-up within the engine compartment.”

Increasing take-up

More ports are taking these risks seriously by investing in fire suppression systems. “Interest in protecting port equipment has increased dramatically, led by some of the biggest names in the cargo industry,” says Mr Starr. “Ports across six continents are already using Firetrace fire suppression to protect their critical assets, and in this market of heavy, hard-working equipment where even small interruptions can prove exorbitantly expensive, interest is extremely high.”

Mr Utterström adds that different worldwide organisations have required installation of automated fire suppression systems in the engine room as an important fire safety measure. “Furthermore, some insurance companies and individual port operators already require fire suppression systems. We are seeing a demand for fire suppression systems in harbour machines.”

The high-pressure water mist from Fogmaker is a superior suppression technique in an engine compartment that strongly limits the consequences of a vehicle fire.

“Fogmaker high-pressure water mist fire suppression is approved for many international standards,” explains Mr Utterström. “High-pressure water mist has excellent oxygen displacement and cooling performance. The cooling effect by using water mist is outstanding, with a temperature decrease of around 700 degrees C within 10 seconds. The small amount of foam additive prevents hydro-carbon vapours to re-ignite.”

Fogmaker systems can be installed in any engine room or enclosed area and can quickly detect and suppress fires as a thermoplastic tube melts and activates the distribution system, spreading a mist of micro water droplets within the protected area.

“The fire suppression system is very simple and robust,” he says. “There is no need for electronics, electrically powered sensors or batteries, and the system has full functional detection and activation of the system at a fire even if the vehicle power supply is switched off or failed for some reason. The system also brings low life cycle cost for the operator/machine owner because of its simplicity and cost-efficient service handling.” 

Port specific

Firetrace offers a unique fire suppression system for protecting mobile equipment in ports. “The key is our proprietary detection tubing,” says Mr Starr, “which is immune to the dirt, shock and vibration that port equipment is exposed to, yet reliable enough to avoid false discharges.”

Mr Starr explains that detection tubing functions as a multipoint linear pneumatic heat sensor that bursts when exposed to a fire's radiant heat, which automatically releases the fire suppressing agent and provides fast, reliable fire detection and suppression.

“As the flexible detection tubing can be easily routed in and around the hazard areas in mobile equipment, the time to detect even a small fire can be dramatically reduced, resulting in significantly limited damage to the port. In many cases mobile equipment can be returned to service in a matter of hours after a fire is suppressed by Firetrace.”

“ABC Dry Chemical Powder is our agent of choice for mobile equipment in ports and for engine enclosures more generally. It's an all-purpose fire suppression agent that is used around the world, and recent independent engine testing at the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden confirmed its superiority in protecting these complex enclosures. However, we also offer clean agent gas for electrical systems in order to provide a complete solution.”

Most of the Firetrace systems installed in ports are retrofitted. “The systems and components are flexible enough to be installed on almost any port equipment. We also work directly with equipment manufacturers to deliver new units fitted with Firetrace systems.”

Combatting dust

Blazequel designs, installs and maintains the DAFO Forrex system for mobile plant machinery in the ports environment. The system uses a foam extinguishing agent, which Mr Picton describes as “superb for the protection of engine bays in dusty environments”.

It's also extremely reliable, which is essential in tough operating conditions. “We can achieve excellent knockdown of the flames with our foam spray and foam mist nozzles: but this is the easy part. Preventing re-ignition after discharge of the system is just as important! Foam impregnates and cools flammable solid materials (for example, dust build-up), which prevents reignition of the fire in these materials. The foam also flows over the super-heated surfaces such as the turbo and exhaust system to reduce the surface temperature of these re-ignition hotspots.”

To protect electrical areas on both mobile and static equipment, Blazequel uses an FM200 gas suppression system: a clean-agent that leaves no residue after discharge. Examples of applications include 40 Kalmar hybrid straddle carriers at London Gateway, where the DAFO Forrex system protects the engine bay with a foam suppression system. “We take a very risk-based approach to ports’ fire protection. Each environment is unique and needs to be risk assessed on its own merits, so a one-size-fits-all approach never works for us.”

Maintenance need

Even with a fire suppression system installed, general maintenance procedure is important. “Poor maintenance and cleaning of, for example, the engine compartment or hydraulics, will make your machine more prone to be affected by fire and will make it more difficult for the fire suppression system to extinguish,” explains Mr Utterström. “A fire suppression system is a very good investment in terms of suppressing a fire in the engine compartment and other enclosed spaces with risk of fire. But it doesn't mean you have removed the root cause of the fire and there is no excuse to not do necessary maintenance of the machine.”

Correct risk assessment and professional installation are essential for achieving the best possible function and performance of the system. “It is a fact that not all the countless cases of fire situations that can occur in the machine can be extinguished,” states Mr Utterström. “But the more careful the design, risk assessment, installation of the fire suppression system, and in combination with general machine maintenance, the closer to 100% fire safety will you get.”

As well as the initial outlay required to install a fire suppression system, there is the need to budget for maintenance and replacing the system after it has been activated by a fire.

“There are many things competing for port authorities' budgets,” says Mr Starr. “But arguably no other risk has the same capacity as a fire to endanger life and assets and shut down port operations. So it's important also to consider the cost of not installing fire prevention. These can easily run into millions when you take into account the expense of replacing equipment, downtime and loss of reputation.”

Mr Starr concludes that fire suppression is insurance against loss. “When you evaluate the extremely favourable cost to value ratio, it's unsurprising that ports are becoming increasingly interested in protecting their critical assets.”


Transportation of loose materials such as biomass from the dockside into storage silos and facilities poses fire-related problems. Blazequel's Keith Picton explains that in this type of conveyor application, there are risks which could cause serious damage or loss to port equipment.

“Self-combustion of the material on the conveyor systems or in the storage silos is a risk. When the material is in transit in the ship holds, there is always a risk of self-heating of the cargo to a point where combustion can occur. This hotspot may lie dormant while the material is being stored in bulk, but when it is moved, aerated and then transported across the conveyor networks, there is a risk of this provoking the hotspot into a fire.”

Additionally, a seized bearing on a conveyor roller can cause an immense build-up of heat from friction, initiating a conveyor fire - particularly when the plant has stopped and the heat is no longer dissipated by movement and airflow.

A hot particle could also have the potential to initiate a more serious issue in storage silos, where even a relatively low temperature hotspot in biomass storage could start a fire. “For that reason, it is most important to use the 'conveying' process as a means for ensuring the material being offloaded (or loaded) as a means for analysing the material flow for any hotspots,” says Mr Picton.


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