Heavy use of air conditioners in spring can cause smoke, sometimes fires

Monday, May 21, 2012

Jackson firefighters responding to a smoke alarm at a business late Wednesday morning found a restaurant with a dining room filled with a light smoke.

"I knew right away it was the air conditioner," said Jackson Fire Department assistant chief Randy Davis. "Smoke was blowing out the air conditioner ducts. The air conditioner was seizing up and the smoke was blowing down into the building."

The business, Burger King, 2235 E. Jackson Blvd., was one of several to recently experience issues with air conditioning systems that caused rooms to fill with smoke, setting off smoke alarms and scrambling firefighters.

Cape Girardeau Fire Department battalion chief Mark Starnes said the situation is something firefighters face twice a year, when air conditioners are put under a heavy load for the first time each spring and when furnaces kick on for the first time in the autumn.

"A lot of times, what we get is a fan motor that locks up and a belt just burns up," Starnes said. "It sucks that smoke back down into the inside of the building. They get that smell. It smells like a light ballast going out."

While the recent incidents were smoky, they did not create fires, Starnes said.

As the dining room in the Burger King filled with smoke, management evacuated the building, sending employees and customers out to the curb, said restaurant manager Dolores Lowe.

A bearing in the restaurant's air conditioner failed, causing smoke to enter the structure, she said.

Cape Girardeau firefighters responded to a similar call about 9 a.m. Tuesday, when Physicians Alliance Surgery Center, 3421 Percy Drive, had to be evacuated because of light smoke.

When firefighters suspect the call is air conditioner-related, they typically send two firefighters into the structure and one onto its roof with a thermal-imaging camera (similar to an infrared camera), Starnes said.

"Sometimes you can't find the source of the smoke. We'll use our thermal-imaging camera on the air conditioning unit," he said. "If we find the source is in the unit, we'll advise them to get a hold of the heating and air conditioning people they use."

Burger King has maintenance personnel on staff who responded from Cape Girardeau to the restaurant.

Regular maintenance can help prevent incidents like those experienced by Jackson and Cape Girardeau firefighters last week, but aren't guarantees they won't occur, Starnes said.

If air conditioners checked, technicians might be able to detect a bearing going bad, he said.

Chris Janet, divisional sales manager for Dutch Enterprises, a heating and cooling service company in Cape Girardeau, said Dutch Enterprises has hundreds of customers for whom it conducts regular maintenance.

Spring maintenance is more than just cleaning systems and getting them ready for the summer, Janet said. Technicians check to see if compressors are working at their specified loads. If they are working too hard, it is a sign that valves or windings might be failing.

He said it is important that coils are kept free of obstruction within the air conditioners.

"Improper airflow across those coils makes the unit work harder," Janet said. "That causes the unit to use more electricity. Maintenance makes your system run more efficiently."

Starnes said there's an annual influx of calls in the autumn also.

"Usually in the fall, the furnace has been setting for a while," Starnes said. "People will get that burning smell, that dust burning. Sometimes it is just that the units haven't been serviced properly and sometimes it's just mechanical failure."

jgamm@semissourian.com

573-388-3635

Pertinent address:

2235 E. Jackson Blvd, Jackson, Mo.

3421 Percy Drive, Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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