Chatham Emergency Services Update

By Carey Ruppert - cruppert@chathames.org
Chief, Skidaway Division

Golf Cart Charging and the Production of Hydrogen Gas

Due to some recent incidents of carbon monoxide detectors being set off while a golf cart has been charging, some residents have requested that I address that issue and other golf cart safety matters. This is an update of an earlier article on the subject.

First, allow me to address why residents’ carbon monoxide (CO) detectors are sometimes triggered when their golf carts are charging. The detectors are sensing hydrogen gas (H2) and confusing it with carbon monoxide (CO). H2 is another colorless, odorless gas produced during the charging of all lead-acids batteries. A typical CO detector is designed to activate when the unit detects 150 parts per million (ppm) of CO for 30 minutes. That same detector will activate when exposed to 300-ppm of hydrogen gas for 30 minutes. The amount of H2 produced during the charging of a golf cart battery far exceeds the 300-ppm threshold, and if that charging occurs in a closed garage, it can build up to a level that will trigger the CO alarm. The operating manuals, for most, if not all, electric golf carts warn of hydrogen gas formation and state that the charging area needs to be ventilated.

The silver lining of an alarm from a confused CO detector is warning the resident of another life-threatening hazard. Hydrogen gas can cause asphyxiation or lead to an explosion and fire. An H2 concentration of 4% or greater is explosive and can be ignited by a spark, flames such as pilot lights, or by something as small as static electricity. To prevent such a gas buildup, you should always ventilate the area while charging your cart. You can do this by opening a garage door or window. Additionally, you should keep ignition sources such as matches, lighters, and cigarettes away from the charging area.

Old batteries and overcharged batteries are especially susceptible to “off-gassing” or the production of higher levels of hydrogen. To prevent overcharging, unplug the charger from the cart and wall after charging is complete. Although most golf cart chargers will turn off automatically once the batteries are fully charged, these systems have been known to fail. Chargers working improperly should be replaced immediately. Never use a charger that is not designed for your cart, and never charge a cart when you are not at home to monitor the charging process. Have your golf cart batteries regularly maintained by trained and authorized personnel. You should check your batteries monthly for signs of corrosion (greenish crusting on the terminals) or loose fittings. If your cart batteries are liquid-filled, you should monitor and maintain the water level according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Many fire departments nationwide have experienced calls in which a CO alarm was set off by a hydrogen gas buildup caused by charging a golf cart lead-acid battery. The CO detector provided a warning of a life-threatening situation, just not the one marked on the label. Even though hydrogen gas detectors are available, they will not detect carbon monoxide. Therefore, I recommend you stick with a carbon monoxide detector. For efficiency, it is possible to buy a combination smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector. Additionally, we recommend that you have a fire extinguisher mounted in the garage and one inside the house. A good location for an interior fire extinguisher is in the laundry room, especially if it is adjacent to the kitchen.