Wave of the future: Electric fire pumpers are more than simply green technology

Zero-emissions pumpers can save municipalities money, plus reduce wear-and-tear on expensive equipment


It’s been nearly seven years since I wrote “How this new fire station will use 70% less energy” about the Madison (Wis.) Fire Department’s efforts to reduce both the energy costs and the impact on the environment from the operation of their fire stations. Well, that forward-thinking fire department is at it again as it’s placed the first electric pumper in service in North America.

Recently, the Madison Fire Department announced that the Pierce Volterra zero-emissions pumper was now providing service from Station 8, the city’s busiest station. The department has also formed a partnership with Pierce Manufacturing to continue working on the final development, evaluation and on-highway certification process for the Volterra electric pumper. It plans to use feedback from the Volterra’s performance in Madison.

North of the border, Brampton (Ontario) Fire and Emergency Services recently announced that city’s plans to replace a front-line pumper with a fully electric-powered fire truck, the Rosenbauer RT. Like Madison, Brampton is a “green city” dedicated to improving sustainability and being a leader in environmental innovation. Brampton is scheduled to receive its Rosenbauer RT in late 2022 to coincide with the opening of city’s new, state-of-the-art Brampton Fire Campus.

Madison is just one of more than 170 cities, 10 counties and eight states across the U.S. that have set goals to power their communities with 100% clean, renewable energy.
Madison is just one of more than 170 cities, 10 counties and eight states across the U.S. that have set goals to power their communities with 100% clean, renewable energy. (Photo/Pierce Manufacturing)

THE CASE FOR ELECTRIC FIRE TRUCKS

The cities of Madison and Brampton are not alone in innovation. Across the United States, as public awareness about the impact of climate change rises, local governments are increasingly taking responsibility for reducing their carbon emissions and boosting their use of green technology to reduce energy costs. As municipalities confront these challenges, there are several key indicators helping to drive change, including changing regulations, environmental initiatives and cost-saving opportunities.

Madison is just one of more than 170 cities, 10 counties and eight states across the U.S. that have set goals to power their communities with 100% clean, renewable energy.

  • In 2017, California Governor Jerry Brown successfully backed legislation for 100% zero carbon electricity by 2045 and an executive order for economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2045.
  • In June 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, setting a legislative target of zero net emissions economy wide by 2050.

Further, the federal Clean Air Act (CAA) requires that every engine and motor vehicle in the United States meet a set of emission standards and conformity requirements. All the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) emission regulations specify test procedures to measure engine or vehicle emission levels, including those of fire trucks.

  • In January 2020, the EPA issued a notice for the proposed Cleaner Trucks Initiative. Those envisioned regulations, focused on further reductions of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from heavy-duty engines, and on achieving low emissions under real driving conditions.
  • In August 2020, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted a low NOx emission regulation for heavy-duty engines that tightens FTP (Federal Test Procedure) NOx limits to 0.050 g/bhp·hr from 2024 and to 0.02 g/bhp·hr from 2027.

Note: For purposes of consistency and comparability, most EPA standards are expressed in grams per brake horsepower-hour (g/bhp-hr), even though some federal regulations express standards in grams per kilowatt-hour (g/kW-hr).

[Read more: Emission Standards Reference Guide for Heavy-Duty and Nonroad Engines]

It’s becoming quite clear that local governments are looking for options to reduce the community’s emissions and the carbon footprint, plus meet federal and state environmental goals. Electric fire trucks can provide municipalities with a sustainable solution to help meet their local and state legislative requirements.

IT’S ABOUT OUR ENVIRONMENT

An estimated one-third of all U.S. air pollution currently comes out of the tailpipes of idling cars, trucks and buses, all of which are having a negative impact on our health, safety and welfare. When local governments choose electric vehicles for their municipal fleets, it sets a standard for excellence with a focus on improving overall community health.

So, it’s not surprising that when forward-thinking municipalities like Madison and Brampton make their transportation plans that they’re doing so with an environmental focus that includes electric-powered vehicles for their community’s municipal fleet.

Photo/Pierce Manufacturing

it’s also about Cost-savings

Any community’s transportation fleet, including fire trucks, represents a major source of fuel consumption with fuel costs taking up a large part of the annual operating budget. Adopting electric-driven vehicles for their fleet can significantly cut fuel costs.

Electric-drive vehicles have been shown to require significantly less maintenance than those powered by an internal combustion engine. Because the chassis operates under electric power in all normal operational situations and leverages the internal combustion engine only for backup power in extended emergency operations, there is less wear and tear on the internal combustion engine. Municipal governments can anticipate savings on preventive maintenance and ongoing engine repairs when they purchase electric-powered fire trucks.

Note: Fire departments and their municipal governments should factor those savings into their long-term vehicle replacement strategies to help offset any concerns about any upfront capital costs (i.e., the potentially higher initial cost for an electric-driven fire truck when compared to fire apparatus powered by an internal combustion engine.

Photo/Rosenbauer

ELECTRIC FIRE TRUCK TECHNOLOGY

While they both look like a traditional fire pumper, the RT and the Volterra are far from traditional fire pumpers in how they operate. For both pumpers, the chassis operates under electric power from the vehicle’s battery storage – 150 kW for the RT and 155 kW for the Volterra – in all normal operational situations (e.g., pumping and operation of electric-powered tools) while having a diesel engine available to provide backup power for driving and extended emergency operations (e.g., long-duration pumping or rescue operations).

Point of reference: A small home in a temperate climate might use 200 kwh per month while a larger home in the South where air conditioners account for the largest portion of home energy usage might use 2,000 kWh or more (a kilowatt hour is how much power you are using at any given time multiplied by the total time the power is being used). The average U.S. home uses about 900 kWh per month.

The point I’m making is that 150 or 155 kW of stored electrical energy on a fire pumper is a big deal. For example, several external devices (e.g., portable lights, blowers, or rescue tools) with a combined power consumption of up to 18 kW can be operated simultaneously via the power outlet.

WHAT ELSE YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW

Rosenbauer and Pierce (and I’m sure other fire apparatus manufacturers as well) are working to create a more sustainable future for communities around the world by reducing diesel engine exhaust emissions while continuing to give firefighters what they need to do their job safely, effectively, and efficiently daily.

While new electric-powered pumpers are a big step forward in creating sustainable communities, they also bring operational improvements to the table with key features:

  • Reduced emissions. When the pumper arrives at the scene and is placed in park, the electric motor disengages from the pumper’s drivetrain to power the fire pump; lighting and other equipment are powered directly from the batteries. Using power from the batteries ensures that no fuel is burned while driving or pumping. The absence of diesel engine exhaust emissions also reduces the inhalation risk to firefighters—particularly the apparatus operator—from those emissions (diesel exhaust emissions are an identified carcinogen). [Read More: Protecting driver/operators from fireground health hazards]
  • A quieter emergency scene. With no diesel engine running, there’s less noise, which makes it easier for firefighters to communicate as they work, reducing everyone’s stress level the noise pollution affecting nearby residents.
  • Driving dynamics. With the RT, Rosenbauer developed a new drivetrain concept whereby their engineers were able to create a pumper with a lower center of gravity and a more balanced axle load distribution. These improvements enabled their engineers to design a fire pumper with better cornering stability, and thus reduce the risk of fire apparatus rollover crashes.
  • Improved accessibility. The RT has the capability to raise and lower the chassis – like that of a modern passenger bus – making it easier and safer for firefighters to get on and off the pumper. That feature also reduces the overall height of the apparatus, making it safer and easier to remove or replace equipment. Not only can the ride height be lowered by almost seven inches, but it can also be raised to a height of 18½- inches, which reduces the chance of water entering the engine compartment when operating in water conditions, such as low-level floods.
  • Battery charging. The batteries of the RT can be charged with three-phase alternating current (AC: 11 kW or 22 kW) from a high-voltage industrial socket without the need for an adapter.

CONSIDER THE FUTURE

Much like the internal combustion engine revolutionized fire apparatus in the early 1900s, it is likely that the electric drivetrain will have a similar impact on fire apparatus continuing through 2021 and beyond. Progressive fire departments and the communities they serve can only benefit from this newest fire apparatus technology and its many positive features.

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