Mechanical issues often cause of grain dryer fires

Preventive maintenance can help reduce risk of loss of grain — and equipment — due to fire

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When it comes to reducing the risk of on-farm fires, maintenance and prevention are a farmer’s best defence.

Dave McEachren, a Glencoe, Ont., grain farmer, who is also a volunteer firefighter and captain of the Southwest Middlesex Fire Department, confirms the leading causes of fire and calls to emergency services due to fires in grain dryers and storage bins are mechanical failures and a lack of maintenance.

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Why it matters: Proper maintenance and fire prevention measures can save valuable time during the busy harvest season, as well as save lives and reduce property losses.

“Prevention is the biggest factor when it comes to fires,” says McEachren. “Fires in grain dryers are most common at the beginning of the harvest season, and the reason is usually preventable. Blockages in dryer columns, like leftover grain or dirt and debris that haven’t been cleaned out, can heat and ignite when the dryer is first fired up. Routine maintenance and cleaning can go a long way to prevent this.”

Steve DeVries, electrician and owner of Gotham Electric in Listowel, Ont., agrees with McEachren, noting fall is a busy time for him with emergency calls from farmers because their grain dryer doesn’t work properly.

“I encourage customers to spend time before harvest to grease bearings, change belts and clean out any accumulated debris in the dryer or augers,” he says. “And fire up the dryer for a test run to make sure everything runs properly before you need it. This can save precious time at harvest.”

Stand-alone continuous flow dryers are the most common type found on Ontario farms.
photo: Courtesy Dave McEachre

Pre-harvest maintenance

McEachren says that stand-alone continuous flow dryers are the most common type found on Ontario farms. And they also result in the most frequent fires and responses from fire departments.

No matter the type of dryer, McEachren says it’s important to clean out every dryer column at the end of the season and check for blockages again at the beginning of the next season.

If blocked, grain or debris within the columns can restrict grain flow, and in some cases, will heat and can combust. McEachren has seen blockages from leftover grain that has sprouted, causing serious fire risk.

“Blockages can happen throughout the harvest season too, so check each column daily to make sure grain is flowing properly,” says McEachren.

He recommends checking each column visually or using thermal heat guns.

“If one column is hotter than others, it’s a good indication there could be blockages or reduced flowability. And it’s an easier fix than putting out a fire.”

Checking motors, replacing belts and greasing bearings should also be included in a regular maintenance schedule for grain dryers. Thermal heat guns can also be used to monitor bearings, belts and motors.

“If anything is running hot, it should be checked. Otherwise, it’s a fire risk,” says DeVries.

What to do if a dryer is on fire

In the event of a fire, call 911 and if it’s safe to do so, shut off the heat source to the dryer. If the fire occurs inside the dryer, divert the grain outside to be extinguished. This will reduce the risk of spreading fire to storage bins.

“Turn off the heat source and keep pouring wet corn through the dryer,” says Dave McEachren, farmer and volunteer fire department captain, in the event of a dryer fire. “Maintaining the flow of wet corn through a dryer that is heating or on fire can help the situation, but make sure you have a safe place for the corn to go, rather than spreading it throughout the facility.”

Emergency services, like fire departments, respond to all kinds of situations, but not all responders are trained or equipped to handle grain dryer fires.
photo: Courtesy Dave McEachre

Ensure fire extinguishers are on hand too, strategically placed throughout the facility and on all trucks and equipment. And if it’s safe to do so, extinguish the fire with a fire extinguisher.

“Getting back to prevention, farmers need to remember to check that all extinguishers work and are up to date. And are appropriately sized. A minimum of 20 pound extinguishers should be available in multiple locations around a grain dryer,” says McEachren.

Emergency services, like fire departments, respond to all kinds of situations, but not all responders are trained or equipped to handle grain dryer fires.

“We all do our best, but farmers should be aware that while firefighters are always training, these types of situations require specialty training,” says McEachren.

The best solution, he suggests, is for farmers and grain dryer operators to invite their local fire department to tour their facility. “Help your local department become familiar with the set-up, like where heat source shut-offs are located, how the system functions and where problems could occur.”

McEacheren also advises all farms to create an emergency pre-plan that includes tools to reduce fire risks, like routine maintenance plans, family and employee training and fire extinguisher inspections. “It’s important everyone knows what to do in the event of a fire,” he says.

This article was produced as part of the Farm & Food Care Ontario: Livestock Emergency Preparedness Project and the Reducing the Risk of Barn Fires Advisory Panel (2016). A group of concerned Ontario Farm Commodity Groups, Fire Prevention Officers, Electrical Safety Professionals and Government of Ontario staff. The project is funded in part by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership.

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