The Villages, Florida, is, arguably, the most popular and well-known golf-cart community in the world, and in the summer of 2003, after a series of incidents, city officials discovered a hidden danger in most electric golf carts.
By the end of the year, The Villages Public Safety Department had issued a report on how to reduce the risk to residents and visitors of the community, but unfortunately, incidents continue to occur every year.
Firefighters Alerted by Carbon Monoxide Alarms
Many fire departments across the U.S. became aware of the danger presented by charging the lead-acid batteries used for golf carts after responding to carbon monoxide alarms. Word of the hazard spread via national firefighting publications, unions and trade organizations, and it is now widely known by firefighters. However, many golf cart owners are as yet unaware of the danger.
In 2008, in Palm Beach County, Florida, a couple was awoken at 4:00 a.m. one morning by a carbon monoxide alarm they had just purchased two months earlier. They called 911, and a fire-rescue truck was dispatched. After a series of questions and an inspection centered on the garage, the responders went home without any answers.
Ten days later, the alarm sounded again, and this time, the couple moved their golf cart out of the garage, which prompted firefighters to ask if they had adequate ventilation when charging the electric vehicle. While this solved the problem, the local newspaper running the story erroneously reported that the hazard was carbon monoxide. While carbon monoxide is a life-threatening hazard, the true threat is much worse because it is also highly flammable.
Further Incidents Occur in 2015
Two other incidents similar to the one above have already occurred in 2015. The first was in May in Lakeland, Florida. Fire officials were called to the scene by a homeowner who stated his carbon monoxide alarm had been set off. One of the responders walked through the home with a handheld carbon monoxide detector, which showed dangerous levels of gas coming from the garage.
The fire lieutenant found that a car battery and a golf cart were being charged in the garage that night. This time, however, the firefighters knew right away that used golf cart batteries can emit dangerous hydrogen gas that can be picked up by carbon monoxide detectors.
“When golf cart batteries are older, charging emits hydrogen, and even though these gas monitors are very sensitive and delicate pieces of equipment, they’re not perfect, and it tricked the monitor into thinking it was carbon monoxide,” said Lieutenant Matt Brown.
The most recent incident occurred just four months earlier in July 2015, and it was also in Florida. Captain Andrew O’Quinn of St. Johns County Fire Rescue responded to a carbon monoxide call just as he had done many times in the past. The home was ventilated, a problem was fixed with the gas water heater, and all seemed well until the alarm went off again the following night.
This time, one of the firefighters noticed the electric golf cart charging in the garage, and his handheld monitor skyrocketed when it was placed near its battery bank, which was attached to the charger. The responders had been fooled the first time because the homeowner’s air conditioning blower was also located in the garage, and it was circulating the hydrogen gas from the golf cart batteries throughout the home.
The Wades claimed that the charger usually turned off on its own when the batteries were fully charged, but for some reason, the charger had been remaining on for up to 12 hours at a time, overcharging the batteries with the garage door closed. The highly explosive hydrogen was being blown through HVAC ducts into their bedrooms and other rooms of the house.
“There could have been an outcome where they had a fire, or the gas could have continued to accumulate, and then, they would start to feel the symptoms of gas accumulation, which could be nausea and dizziness, eventually leading to unconsciousness and death,” stated Captain O’Quinn.
Dangers of Hydrogen Off-Gassing
Hydrogen is an extremely dangerous gas to have floating through a home because it causes several different safety hazards, including fire and asphyxiation. Like carbon monoxide, hydrogen is colorless and odorless, making it nearly possible to detect without a monitor or alarm system.
When 4 percent to 7 percent of the air is comprised of hydrogen, it may catch fire when exposed to a spark or open flame. However, hydrogen does not simply catch fire. Rather, it explodes. At these same levels, hydrogen displaces enough oxygen to cause deficiency even when taking full breaths.
One of the most dangerous aspects of hydrogen is that it is very light and wispy, which allows it to migrate through very small cracks or openings where it may come into contact with open flames, such as pilot lights on the oven, water heater or other natural-gas appliances. However, it is so volatile that it can be ignited by something as small as a spark of static electricity.
Although very little research has been done on the health effects of long-term hydrogen exposure, it is believed to cause some short-term medical problems, including nausea, headaches, vertigo and difficulty breathing.
Safely Maintaining Used Golf Cart Batteries
The National Golf Cart Association claims that the best way to ensure electric golf carts are safe is to have the batteries regularly maintained by “trained and authorized personnel.” Always follow the instructions by the manufacturer of the golf cart and the manufacturer of the specific batteries in the cart. Also, the batteries should be recharged when they are between 20 percent and 50 percent discharged.
Many golf cart chargers will turn off automatically once the batteries are fully charged, but these shut-off systems have been known to fail. Chargers working improperly should be replaced immediately. In addition, old golf cart batteries are increasingly susceptible to off-gassing. Batteries should never be used longer than recommended by the manufacturer.
When charging a golf cart, it is preferable to do so outside, but it is acceptable to charge them in a garage as long as the windows and door are open or it is otherwise well ventilated.
Finally, always have a carbon monoxide detector at home. Even though hydrogen detectors are available, they will not detect carbon monoxide. For the sake of efficiency, it is possible to buy a combination smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector that will cover all the bases.