How to Prevent a Car Fire With Proper Vehicle Maintenance

Did you know that about 20% of all reported fires are vehicle-related? Believe it or not, a car fire occurs every 96 seconds in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, about 75% of these fires aren’t caused by Hollywood-esque car crashes or gunfire but rather mechanical failures and other internal issues.

Car fire

Photo credit: Tony Webster

The following common car issues substantially increase the risk of a fire:

  • Overheated engine: When an engine overheats, the internal fluids like oil and coolant heat up even more and begin to spill into the engine bay and onto the exhaust system. When the fluids rise to dangerous temperatures and come into contact with a hot surface, a fire can ignite.
  • Fluid leaks: Many fluids in your car are flammable and will ignite when leaked onto a hot surface. A fuel system leak is the most common cause of car fires because fuel is extremely flammable and can catch fire from a single spark.
  • Broken parts or seals: Broken parts or seals can lead to an overheated engine or fluid leaks, respectively. Both scenarios drastically increase your Ford’s risk of a car fire.
  • Faulty wiring: Faulty wiring is the second most common cause of car fires because cars have wires all over the place and a single frayed wire can cause a big fire when sparked.
  • Faulty battery: When you have a faulty battery, you’re facing the risk of explosive hydrogen gas building up in the engine bay. Combine that with the sparks from the electrical current from the battery and a fluid or vapor leak, and you’ve got a fire. A loose battery can shift during hard cornering, which exposes the positive terminal to other components and start a fire as well.
  • Overheated catalytic converter: The exhaust system contains the hottest parts of your car, and the catalytic converter is prone to overheating because it’s often overworked. An overworked or clogged catalytic converter that gets hot enough could burn through the heat shields and metal floor plan and ignite the cabin insulation and carpeting.

What do all of these issues have in common? If you guessed that each one is the result of poor car maintenance, you’re correct. We cannot stress enough how important it is to maintain your car on a regular basis. Neglecting to maintain your car will lead to all kinds of expensive problems, including major mechanical failures and, of course, car fires.

Here are five things you can do to make sure your car is maintained correctly.

1. Detail the Engine Compartment

Frequency: Every other year

Cleaning your engine compartment is really about two things:

  • Making sure that any grease or grime that's ended up on or near your engine doesn't accumulate to dangerous levels
  • Making sure you know just how much grease or grime is on your engine, and where

To clean your engine compartment, you can start with soap and water. Very often, this is enough. Just be sure to keep the water from getting too close to any electrical connectors, the coil packs on the cylinder head, and any "soft" parts like the air intake system. After cleaning your engine with soap and water, you may see grease build-up that didn't get washed away. Usually, you can buy a bottle of engine degreaser, spray the greasy parts, and then do a second wash.

If this doesn't work - or if you don't want to mess with this process yourself - it's easy to pay a detailer to steam clean the engine. This is a smart way to clean things, as it works great and doesn't expose the engine to water or caustic chemicals. You can also rent a steam cleaner, if you've got the ambition.

If you see that there's a lot of grease in a particular area (or if the detailer tells you that your engine was especially greasy somewhere), that's something to mention to your mechanic or inspect yourself. A leaking valve cover gasket, for example, will cause quite a bit of oil to accumulate in the engine bay. If you see evidence of a leaking gasket, you can fix it before it becomes a problem.

2. Check the Fluid Levels

Dip Stick

Photo credit: Ellsworth Air Force Base

Frequency: Monthly

A good way to detect any leaks or excessive fluid consumption is to check your fluid levels on a regular basis. Every month, pop the hood and check the following fluid levels:

  • Motor oil
  • Transmission fluid
  • Coolant
  • Power steering fluid
  • Brake fluid
  • Windshield washer fluid

Replenish any fluid that’s low using the type of fluid specified in your owner’s manual. If you notice anything out of ordinary (like a certain fluid running low every month), investigate and see if you can pinpoint the problem and fix it.

3. Check All Fuel Lines

Frequency: Annually, especially if you've got an older vehicle

You want to detect and fix or replace any loose fittings, cracked hoses, worn clamps, or bent lines before they turn into bigger problems. To do this:

  1. Disconnect the battery.
  2. Slide under your car.
  3. Examine the entire fuel system with a flashlight. Feel all the hoses, clamps, lines, and other parts with your hands to see if any of them are loose or cracked.
  4. Tighten any loose fittings you find.
  5. If you find any cracks, holes, or worn components, replace the part(s) as soon as possible.

If you've got a newer car (say, less than 10 years old), you can probably skip this step...only it's never a bad idea.

4. Only Use OEM Replacement Parts

Frequency: Whenever you need to replace a part

OEM parts are made specifically for your vehicle, which means:

  • They reflect the exact specs and tolerances recommended by Ford
  • They are manufactured to standards high enough to be warrantied by the automaker

While aftermarket parts can be cheaper than OEM parts (we sell a lot of OEM parts for prices lower than you can find at the local auto parts store), aftermarket parts vary wildly in quality. Some aftermarket parts are great, and some are terrible. You can't tell by the brand name either, as most aftermarket parts are "white labeled," meaning the same company makes parts for 2 or 3 different competing brands.

So, rather than go with an aftermarket part and "hope everything works out," just buy OEM. It's simpler and, in some cases, safer.

NOTE: We are NOT saying that aftermaket parts cause engine fires. We're saying that you can reduce your risk of a mishap by using parts that are an exact replacement for the factory components.

5. Check the Battery

Frequency: Every 6 months

Inspect the battery periodically to catch any underlying problems that may lead to a fire later on. The main issues to look out for are:

  • Loose battery
  • Loose clamps
  • Loose connections
  • Corrosion on the battery posts, terminals, cables, and tray

Be sure to fix any issues you may find as soon as possible.

Last But Not Least, Keep a Fire Extinguisher In Your Car

While it's never a good idea to try and "fight" a vehicle vire (vehicle fires move extremely quickly), you might be able to stop one before it starts with a fire extinguisher. Basically, if you start to see or smell smoke, you can:

  • Pull over immediately and get everyone out of the vehicle
  • Grab your fire extinguisher (one made specifically for vehicles) and hit the hot spot

If the fire extinguisher works, you can turn a total loss into a manageable repair. If not, you're only out $25 or so (vehicle fire extinguishers are more affordable than ever).