The Effects of Fire and Smoke Damage

Components and Effects of Fire Damage and How They Affect Technical Equipment

Proper and adequate electronics restoration needs to be performed more often than not from events such as fire and water. Electronics were not manufactured made to be in high humidity, heat let alone get covered in a smoke film. Even light smoke damage has the capability to short out electronics by bridging circuits and providing an insulating covering on the heat producing components making them prone to extreme overheating eventually leading to pre-mature failure. What comprises the soot/smoke particle and why does it even need cleaned? Smoke is very corrosive and reactive it causes pitting and oxidizing corrosion. What are the other damages a fire can cause? Fire and smoke pose physical and chemical threats to all technical equipment: Including electronics, machinery, and specialty equipment of all types.

If an advertisement or internet ad claims to clean carpet, restore art work, dry documents, provide structural drying and extract water while adding the additional service of electronics and equipment restoration- “Buyer Beware”. These firms should not be entrusted with your valuable electronics restoration, data recovery and equipment recovery needs. As general cleaning companies they are often unqualified to work on computers, business machines and equipment internally. The typical fire produces the rapid oxidation of a material in the chemical process called combustion. This reaction releases heat, light and various reaction products. Smoke is deadly to humans and may be very toxic after the fire is extinguished. This is commonly called the fire tetrahedron. This reaction is very destructive and produces many elemental and chemical byproducts. The contaminates must be neutralized to avoid rapid degradation of metals and manmade composite materials. Regular fire can be exothermic or give off heat and chemical fires can be endothermic; these are reactions where energy is absorbed instead of released, which can also result in a fire due to explosion and the extreme heat that is produced.

Certainly cleaning carpet involves some chemical knowledge and cleaning methodology but is not the same as cleaning printed circuit boards, control panels and transformers- the substrates are varied and complex. Drying wet documents is its own specialty but is not at all to be compared to equipment restoration.

Thermal, or heat, damage is created by the fire itself which dissipates in all directions. The heat of a fire can affect and melt any substrate if it gets hot enough. The thermal damage in the vicinity usually begins with the opening of pores to the substrates in and around a fire event that starts this heat damage. There are the more hearty substrates that are not consumed by the heat in the peripheral of the fire such as certain structural members of machinery metals, glass, carbon fibers and other composite materials that have higher melting points which may experience warping and deflection from the heating and cooling of the fire.

Other materials such as lower heat set plastic, composites- phenolics and malleable metals are less resistant to heat due to lower melting points, are more quickly defaced and become distorted due to the imposing heat. It is also the initial thermal damage that creates the initial problem of smoke odor.

The opening of the pores of substrates allows various carbon particles to attach to substrates and actually allows the smoke to imbed into the surface of the materials resulting in smoke odor and early surface oxidation. Many paints, varnishes, finishes and oil coatings are either consumed or compromised by the high heat.  Fires give off heat or the process of energy transfer from one body or system due to thermal contact which affects another body or system.

Typical temperatures produced by fires and flames:

  • Oxyhydrogen flame: 2000 °C or above (3600 °F)
  • Bunsen burner flame: 1,300 to 1,600 °C (2,400 to 2,900 °F)
  • Blowtorch flame: 1,300 °C (2,400 °F) C
  • Candle flame: 1,000 °C (1,800 °F)

Smoke Damage- The heat pushes the soot, the by-product of incomplete combustion, and can cover everything in its path.  Smoke seeks a sort of equilibrium; it travels until its energy has been used up and travels to cooler temperatures. Soot, when tested, is always found to be on the acidic side of the pH scale.  Acidic materials are destructive to most elements in nature. Acidity over time continues to degrade most metals by etching and oxidizing leading to discoloration, pitting or corrosion of the substrate. Finish coatings (paint) over metals are often yellowed and softened and will fail over time because they cannot stand the harsh acidic environment.  These acid soot residues have ongoing reactions until removed. Smoke is magnetically charged and contains metals which act as path to short circuits and as an insulators causing overheating of components.

Structural Damage- Deflection, more commonly referred to as distortion or warping from heat, can create metal stresses that may have compromised the metallic components and risk of structural or physical failure may be imminent. Critical analysis and testing to ensure strength has not been compromised may be important to cranes, rolling mills, machining equipment, presses, jigs and templates. Load bearing machinery must be tested and recertified to ensure it has not become weekend.

Pressure Damage- Tight buildings due to good insulation create a lot of smoke and pressure. Extinguishing materials, especially water, expands at high rates creating super-heated steam. These pressure and temperatures can damage any substrate. When a building heaves or expands it can blow out window glass, doors and lift roofs. It can also move very heavy equipment and physically damage structural steel and hard equipment assets.   

Water Damage- Domestic water or process water that is near a fire or water used in fire suppression to control a fire can also cause much of the damage because the instant water touches the hot surfaces it can create super-heated steam which is a very powerful force. This steam must be released and adds to pressure conditions in the building thus affecting equipment contents and structure.

Chemical Residues & Hazardous Materials- The byproducts of a fire and the cleaning process may create a waste stream of acids, hydrocarbons and heavy metals including asbestos, lead and other EPA known and identified hazards.  The potential hazards of decontamination, worker involvement and potentially hazardous waste stream must be handled by staff and technicians that know the routine and understand how to test surfaces, dispose of waste while protecting the worker and a safe job site and leave equipment in a decontaminated condition. 

Electrical Shock- The healthcare industry mandates testing for bio medical equipment for currents and improper grounding. Other types of machinery not properly processed can result in a future fire or electrocution hazard especially if soot is left untreated or internally left wet.

Very specialized restoration methods and measures are used depending on the type of fire damage that occurred. Portions of general fire damage work can be performed by general contractors, property management teams, building maintenance personnel, or by the business or homeowners themselves; however, contracting with a certified professional fire damage restoration specialist is recommended and most often regarded as the safest way to restore fire damaged property.  Most are usually listed under “Fire and Water Restoration” and they can help speed repairs, whether for individual homeowners or for the largest of institutions.

Fire damage and water restoration is best left to professionals and those skilled and trained in their area of expertise because the lingering smoke odors, ongoing corrosions and water damage issues can result in major liabilities and future claims against the property owner. Import restoration resulting in the failure of a structural member or moving machine part or contamination of water supplies can result in life, health and safety issues. These open-ended claims and liabilities can cost carriers, those who have experienced a loss and contractors who are not qualified, for years to come.

I have seen numerous restoration professionals, untrained in technical matters, cleaning every square inch of a room top to bottom including sofas, desks, partitions to remove soot and smoke odor and never touch the electronics, phone switches, computers and business machines. We have seen self-proclaimed knowledgeable restoration contractors freeze wet computer hard drives along with wet documents.  Witnessing others use the “go and blow” method of cleaning the business machines and scanners by removing operational dust but leaving acid soot behind to continue to decay the cruet boards. It has been observed that other companies drying carpets next to machinery – so when the machine was dry the carpet was putting moisture on the unfinished metals surfaces resulting in further corrosion. Still others have moved and worked on bio-medical equipment using wrong chemicals, affecting the leveling and grounding and all along were not even allowed by industry standards to even touch this equipment. Some companies have pressure washed equipment rusting it beyond repair. Some clean the exterior only of the computers and test nothing to confirm it is working properly. T

These are just a few examples of the improprieties and senselessness that exists in the electronics restoration industry.  No real standards exist for the technical machinery and equipment. Some best practices and common sense methods should be employed by those claiming to know this trade set. A business such as a factory or industrial plant must get back in business in short order and cannot afford rookie mistakes and incompetence. Resumption of business is directly related to the company’s survival and future profits.

An insured’s business cannot survive the recovery and aftermath by hiring those that are ill-trained, under equipped and basically general restoration companies to work on their technical electronics and equipment.  Machinery, equipment and electronics restoration should not be taken lightly. In the wrong hands these high value assets can be ruined quickly but in the right hands may often be recovered with good results. Expert restoration of equipment and machinery is vital to a successful project. Auditing a company, seeing their resumes, checking their references and questioning their experience are the responsible steps to take. General restoration companies, carpet cleaners, pack-out companies and general contents cleaners are typically, if vetted properly, are not qualified to work on file servers, business machines and other sensitive electronic equipment.

Electro-Mechanical Receivers, Inc., aka ER Inc. provides professional restoration. We have quality polices and methodologies in place for handling all technical components of a claim and use written scopes and testing protocols.

We employ common sense, engineering principals, best practices and testing & validation in our process. Selecting the wrong company to service your technical items could cost dearly. Our project managers and engineers down to our technicians have understanding of industrial plants and plant efficiencies which are affected by each item of equipment out of production and that the clients overall production process is affected by improperly restored machinery and critical failures. We work with OEMS to recertify equipment and meet these NEMA, NFPA and NETA standards and guidelines. Headaches, profit and overall recovery as well as business survival all depend upon the correct selection of a technical partner that knows how to perform and understands the nuances of these electro and mechanical devices and machines that you depend on for your business.  We offer complete and through not to exceed estimates in advance to help you determine along with your carrier which items are most cost effective and what should be replaced. Call us at 877-378-4183 for help with recovery solutions.