A Recurring Question

Twas the day after Christmas, and we were called by an attorney whose client wanted to sue someone for disturbing his otherwise peaceful night’s sleep.   Her client was a rather grumpy fellow and had vaguely described a noisy midnight vehicle collision at his neighbor’s residence.   We asked our client what particular question she wanted answered.   After a long conversation, we concluded we needed to take the team approach.   We assigned an accident reconstructionist, a biomechanist, a chemist, a general contractor, a fire origin and cause expert, a locksmith, a mold expert, an arborist, a meteorologist, a slip and fall expert, a structural engineer, and a veterinarian to the job.   It was a complex case.

Our team met at the site and began their investigation.   They knew this was no ordinary assignment.   We know that each of us have our own preconceptions and biases, but as experienced professionals, none of the assigned experts allowed their personal opinions to influence them one way or the other to form an expert opinion without solid evidence.

The first of many surprising observations came from the meteorologist who observed snow on the roof and on the lawn.   This was unusual because there had been no precipitation in the past month, and the lowest temperature of the past few weeks never fell below 50 degrees F.   Our slip and fall expert observed that although the roof was covered with snow and ice (a combination guaranteed to produce accidents), there was no physical evidence in the snow banks or on the sidewalks surrounding the home to prove that any one had slipped, tripped, or fallen.

The accident reconstructionist read through the neighborhood witness event accounts and descriptions of the vehicle involved and observed that they were contradictory (probably due to poor lighting and excessive alcohol consumption) and were generally not credible.   In any event, the vehicle fled the scene.   It did leave vehicle tracks in the snow on the roof of the residence, but they started and stopped short of the edge of the roof, and there was no continuation of them on the ground.   No tire tread patterns in the snow were observed.   No point of impact nor point of rest was found in the snow on the ground, making an accident reconstruction impossible.

The tracks on the snowy roof included heavy boot prints and several sets of animal tracks.   The veterinarian identified the animal impressions as those belonging to Rangifer tarandus (commonly caribou & reindeer).   Hair samples were retrieved near the hoof prints that confirmed her evaluation.   Reindeer and caribou have unique hairs which trap air, providing them with excellent insulation.   These hairs also help keep them buoyant in water.   The biomechanist recorded the depth, angles, and directions of the impressions of the boot prints in the snow on the roof.   He concluded that a single individual carrying a heavy load over his right shoulder had walked from the vehicle to the chimney and then returned empty-handed to the vehicle before departing.   The arborist noted that although the surrounding mature trees were 20 to 40 feet taller than the house, none suffered any impact damages from the alleged vehicle impact.   The bark on their trunks, their branches, and their root structures were entirely undisturbed.

The fire origin and cause expert carefully examined the accumulated soot patterns inside the chimney.   He observed that something large had gone through, but the largely undisturbed soot deposits inside the chimney were only from wood smoke, indicating that whatever had gone through was not flammable.   Based upon the length and depth of the snow tracks on the roof, the structural engineer calculated the weight that had been added to the roof by the vehicle (a number that far exceed the local building code maximum permissible load), but a careful inspection of the attic by the general contractor disclosed not a single crack in the roof sheathing, nor in the roof joists, attic rafters, or beams.

The locksmith concurrently examined the alarm system, all of the window casings, and the exterior lock sets, and she concluded that none of them had been bypassed or defeated (it must have been an inside job).   Upon entering the living room, our investigators found minute traces of dust and soot on the fireplace hearth and a nearly empty drinking glass containing a white liquid residue placed on the mantle.   Laboratory analysis by our mold expert showed the liquid residue was whole milk, and despite its many hours at room temperature, was devoid of any dangerous fungus, bacterial growths, or molds.   A saucer with a few unidentified brown particles on it sat on the mantle   The chemist transported them back to her office and used a Scanning Electron Microscope to analyze the particles.   She then telephoned the lead expert to say that the particles were ginger snap cookie crumbs.

The last item of evidence noted included a neat stack of empty gift boxes, formerly covered in red and green wrapping paper and brightly colored ribbons.   The homeowner’s small children were quietly playing a game in a corner of the room, oblivious to our scientific investigation.   We are happy to say that after we reported our findings to our client, she was able to successfully negotiate a settlement with all involved parties, the terms of which remain undisclosed.

Featured Expert of the Month

While he is outside our network, and not under contract with GEI, we recommend him only for special situations.   He holds multiple doctorates in sociology, economics, linguistics, meteorology, psychology, manufacturing, business, and ecological studies and lives somewhere north of Alaska.  His resume includes many decades of experience in dealing with small individuals in the area of personal happiness.   His schedule is generally flexible during the year, with the exception of the entire month of December when he is unavailable due to an annual recurring commitment.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


Our 2015 desk calendars are now available.

Call or email our office or your sales representative to reserve a copy.  We have a limited run of 500, and they are soon gone.


Transponders bypassed?

Guest Article: Transponders Bypassed?
by Thomas G. Seroogy,
Certified Forensic Locksmith

A 2005 VW Passat was reported stolen and was soon recovered. The steering column had been attacked, and the wiring on the back of the ignition switch was pulled off. The insured stated that law enforcement had told him the wires were pulled off of the ignition lock and hotwired to start and steal the vehicle. A forensic examination of the ignition lock and immobilizer system proved otherwise, and it was determined that the damaged wiring could not have been used to start the vehicle and was cosmetic in nature.

Every year this author conducts hundreds of forensic examinations on stolen-recovered vehicles that contain transponder-based immobilizer systems. Each of these examinations begs the question, “Was the immobilizer system bypassed and, if so, how?”

Before this question is answered, it must be stated that a transponder system is not impervious to attack and can, in fact, be bypassed.

In theory, the transponder-based immobilizer system is fairly simple. The system is comprised of a transponder key, a transceiver module/antenna, and the security module (usually located in the Engine Control Module, Powertrain Control Module, or Body Control Module).

The registered transponder key is inserted into the ignition and rotated to the ON position. Then the transceiver antenna, usually attached to the front of the lock, sends an inductive pulse to the transponder chip located in the head of the key. This pulse excites the transponder, which in turn sends the key’s unique digital ID back to the transceiver antenna. Upon receiving the key’s ID, the transceiver may confirm whether it is a registered key, or send it to the security module for interrogation. If the key’s ID is recognized, the vehicle is allowed to start and operate. If it is not recognized, the engine will not start.

This is a very simplified explanation of how the transponder system operates. The actual operations and characteristics of a given system are dependent on the year, make, and manufacturer of the vehicle.

There are two main categories of methods for defeating a transponder system: hard bypass methods and soft bypass methods.

Hard bypass methods circumvent the immobilizer by physically altering the system. Relay jumping and module swapping are examples of hard bypass techniques commonly used to steal early Ford, Toyota, Lexus, Acura, and Honda vehicles. In other words, the transponder hardware is physically replaced by the thief.

Soft bypass methods electronically circumvent the immobilizer system. These techniques either turn off the immobilizer system, create unauthorized programmed keys, or introduce information into the system that disarms the immobilizer function.

Due to advancements in immobilizer technology, relay jumping and module swapping are not efficient methods for stealing today’s vehicles. However, where advancements in immobilizer technology have made hard bypass techniques difficult to use, corresponding advancements in electronics have made soft bypass techniques more efficient and effective, even for the car thief.

Currently, there are four basic genres of soft bypass techniques: key programming, key cloning, factory bypass, and code stealing.

Recent research indicates that code stealing is especially effective on keyless entry cars.  This technique uses an antenna to read the signal from the key fob when it is out of the car (say in a pocket while the driver is at a restaurant). The captured signal is then relayed back to the car, just as if the key fob was within disarming distance.  The car is then started and driven away without the key fob.

Factory bypass is a method built into some models by the manufacturers as a way to rescue vehicles stranded by failed transponder systems, or lost keys. A bypass procedure, that includes entering a PIN, is performed to start the car, using just a mechanical key.  As you can imagine, thieves can use various methods to obtain the PINs, and then steal the cars.  Honda, Acura, Mitsubishi, and Ferrari are among those that include PIN bypass procedures.

Cloning a key is the electronic equivalent of duplicating a key. During the process of making a cloned key, both the mechanical cuts and the electronic ID of a working key are transferred to a new key. Being a direct duplicate or clone of the original working key, the cloned key is capable of starting and operating the vehicle without further programming.

Because cloning a key requires possession of a working key, the proper clone key blank, a cloning device, key cutting equipment, and, in some cases, the vehicle, its use to steal a vehicle might be limited. However, using a cloned key to steal vehicles is not unheard of, and should not be ignored or ruled out without cause by the auto theft investigator.

Of the soft bypass techniques available, the one presenting the most potential for quickly stealing an automobile is that of programming a new key into the vehicle using a transponder key programming tool and then either picking, force rotating, or extracting (such as with a slide hammer) the lock cylinder of the ignition assembly.

The most common aftermarket key programming tools sold in North America are Ilco’s TKO and Advanced Diagnostics’ T-Code Pro. More recently, there has been a surge of Asian-produced key programming tools on the market. These tools offer similar capabilities as the TKO and T-Code Pro, but are less expensive (from $300 to $800) and can be purchased over the Internet.

One of the interesting, and dangerous, characteristics of these tools is that they are capable of circumventing the key programming security features of most North American transponder systems. In essence, in the hands of a trained and experienced technician, these tools render the transponder system impotent, allowing the vehicle to be stolen in little more time than it takes to steal a vehicle without an immobilizer. Bypassed vehicles include Acura/Honda, Chrysler, Ford, GM, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan/Infiniti, Subaru, Toyota/Lexus, and VW/Audi.

In light of the potential these tools have in stealing vehicles, it becomes extremely important that the auto theft investigator closely follow immobilizer and transponder key programming tool trends. Whether an investigation is focused on a chop shop, organized crime ring, or an individual, tool identity is an invaluable asset.

Finally, the good news is that despite the ability these tools have in bypassing the immobilizer system, their use is not invisible to a qualified forensic locksmith or security technician. Their use often leaves evidence behind for investigators to detect. In many cases, a properly trained examiner will be able to identify whether such programming tools were used in the theft of a stolen-recovered car.

A disc bulge

Some readers gave us feedback from last month’s Garagram.   Thank you, for this helps us to know what is effective and what is not.

In particular, for some readers, we missed the mark in explaining what really happened.   Accordingly, I’ll try again, from a different direction.

To start out, let me review the scientific method.  As the judge said to Perry Mason, “Where are you going with this?”   I’m laying a foundation for later discussion.   The scientific method starts with a hypothesis, an unproven theory.   The scientist then proposes an experiment to validate the hypothesis. If the theory is correct, then the experiment will have the predicted outcome.

When the scientist conducts his experiment and the results support the hypothesis, he publishes those results.   Other scientists are invited to repeat the experiment to prove the point.   When a large group of scientists have achieved the same result, they generally accept the hypothesis as fact.  It is no longer just a theory, now you have a consensus.

Now if someone later conducts the same experiment and gets a different result, then that disproves the hypothesis.   Note that this scientific method can never absolutely verify a theory, but it can falsify a theory.   As Albert Einstein said, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

In forensic investigations we deal with historical events that cannot be scientifically repeated in exactly the same way they originally occurred.  Historical events have dozens of known variables  (most non-repeatable) and thousands of unknown variables.   Having said that, we have a problem as the insurance and legal industries require an answer as to the mechanism of causation.   Ascribing causation must therefore be made by individuals with training and experience in that field of the particular loss.   This is why we hire experts.

When an expert expresses an opinion about causation, it is based upon his observations of the particular failure and how the characteristics of this particular failure match those of other failures that he has seen in his professional career.  He does not say “This, with absolute certainty, was the mechanism of the failure”.    He does say, “My expert opinion of the failure was …”   He is correct in his opinion, if he was given all the data and he acted in a diligent, unbiased, and truthful manner.

Now let us return to last month’s case.  In this situation, the insured’s vehicle struck the claimant’s vehicle. The claimant filed for permanent disability due to lower back pain.   GEI was retained to review and comment on the claimant’s MRI, which was submitted in support of the permanent disability claim.

Our PhD biomechanist produced a seven page report to the client, which was heavily edited to become the page and a half of the Garagram.

At no point did we say that the claimant was not in pain.   We did not say that he was not permanently disabled.   We did not, in any way, say that he was faking.

What we did say, was that the injuries that were exhibited were not caused by this single auto accident.   So what was that based upon?

This opinion was based upon the review of the MRI, the training and experience of the expert, and a review of applicable studies done by dozens of researchers on disk bulge causation.

Hundreds of theories have been proposed and scientifically tested to answer the question, “How do discs fail?” The scientific literature is rich with studies on this topic.

The consensus is that when you put enough force on a disc, in a single event, to cause it to rupture, you will also discover that the surrounding bones will break before the disc ruptures.  Several of the studies that support this consensus were referenced in the paper.

So what does cause a disc to rupture?   Many scientific studies demonstrate that repetitive overloading will rupture discs, (hence, the many bad backs of people who spent 20 years carrying heavy loads).   We also know that a large percentage of the population have disc bulges with no clear causation mechanism.  Many of them are asymptomatic, which is to say, that even though they have disc bulges, they are pain free and have a full range of motion.

Returning to the case at hand, the biomechanist opinion was that the observed injuries (the disc bulges shown in the MRI) were not the result of the single auto accident.

Did the accident make him feel worse?   Most likely, but that was not the question we were asked. We were asked, “Did this specific auto accident cause the disc bulges?”

The answer was no.

A conflict of interest

Vice-President’s Message: A Conflict of Interest
by Pax Starksen

Occasionally, we receive case assignments where all of the parties to the matter have not been identified.   Later we can receive another case assignment from a different client, which involves the same incident, but with different names.   If this conflict is undiscovered, it can result in your expert becoming disqualified and you being poorly served.

Garrett Engineers has a computerized system that, for each new case, automatically cross-checks the names of the parties, file and claim numbers, and the date of loss against this same data for existing cases.   However, that system depends upon a complete knowledge of all the parties and an accurate description of the location involved.

Of course, all the parties and the exact location may not be known immediately, but both the client and the expert assigned should be vigilant in identifying additional parties, as they become apparent, and informing all interested parties to update their records.

An additional factor is that different clients may be requesting different areas of expertise, and thus the expert(s) may not be aware of the other’s involvement.

As an example, I was involved in a case where a semi-trailer was parked at a warehouse facility.

The landing gear of the trailer was placed upon unusually soft pavement, which caused their wheels to sink into the ground.  The trailer then tipped over onto a parked car next to it.

Our original assignment involved the driver of the truck, the property damage to the trailer and its contents, the trucking company that owned the truck, and the loading dock company where the trailer was parked.   No mention was made of the parked car.   The case was investigated, an opinion formed, the report was written to address the assignment, and then the case was closed.

Our second assignment, received six months later, from a different client, involved the occupants of the parked car, and the owner of the real estate where the incident occurred.   He had a different address (on a different street) than the actual loading dock address.

The assignments called for different experts, and it was only through Garrett Engineers’ vigilance and internal communication that the potential conflict was discovered.

Again, both our clients and experts are urged to keep GEI fully advised with respect to all parties involved.

What Auto Fluids Burn?

The following article was written for the July 2005 Issue of the Fire & Arson Investigator


By Bill Hagerty and Steve Peranteau

Throughout the vehicle repair and fire investigation communities, there had been considerable discussion and disagreement about which under-hood fluids will ignite and under what conditions.  During one such discussion, a service manager of a California Chevrolet dealership stated, “Transmission fluid will not start a fire”.

However, real world experience from well over 750 vehicle fire investigations and attendance at 23 fire schools have shown that nearly all fluids found in engine compartments today will start a fire under the right conditions.  Engine fluids can leak for days, weeks, or months and not ignite.    That’s quite possible.  Garage floors of the world are covered with fluids that have leaked from engines and transmissions and have never caught fire.

On the other hand, there have been thousands of actual automotive fires where an engine compartment fluid was the material first ignited.  Vehicle manufacturers have assisted in documenting some of them.  For example, on July 13, 1998, following numerous reports of their vehicles sustaining engine compartment fires, Land Rover North America issued Safety Recall 98V149 which states in part: “Land Rover has determined that certain under-hood hose and tubing components can fail (primarily coolant hoses).  The unintended release of fluids such as engine coolant, windshield washer fluid, and automatic transmission fluid can, under certain circumstances, lead to conditions which can cause a vehicle fire[1].”

As a result of this recall, Land Rover made a series of “no cost to the vehicle owner” modifications to eliminate such fluid releases.  They essentially replaced all of the coolant hoses in 20,000 Land Rover vehicles.  It stands to reason they would not have issued a recall and installed upgrades at a cost of millions of dollars if coolant fires had not been occurring in large numbers.  So here was a major manufacturer of motor vehicles confirming the flammability of certain fluids found in engine compartments.

Investigators’ analyses and conclusions have often been complicated by a lack of information and total misinformation about the flammability of the various fluids found under the hoods of motor vehicles.  NFPA 921 also introduces some uncertainty regarding this issue by stating that “Flash point is of little or no significance when a fuel is released in spray form.  Ignition on hot external surfaces may require temperatures of 200°C (360°F) above published ignition temperatures [2].”

Training and personal experience have brought about an awareness that nearly all vehicle fluids can cause fires under the right conditions.  Under test conditions described below, we were able to validate this hypothesis.


The tests were conducted using new household-type plastic spray bottles to simulate escaping liquid spraying from the pinholes or small cracks in the fluid systems that are the source of most fluid leaks.  These tests were not specifically designed to precisely replicate a leaking hose or fitting, but to answer the question of whether the fluids found in a typical engine compartment would ignite on a representative hot surface.  The pressures and temperatures of the fluids would be significantly higher under actual engine operating conditions.

The tested fluids included No. 2 diesel fuel, 89 octane unleaded gasoline, automatic transmission fluid, conventional and synthetic motor oils, brake fluid, power steering fluid, standard green and pink long-life ethylene glycol coolants (both full strength and 50/50), and R134a refrigerant, as well as the various compressor lubricating oils used with R134a.  Fire-related properties of representative fluids are provided in the Material Safety Data Sheet.

Because hot exhaust components are the primary heat source in engine compartments, a four-inch diameter piece of steel exhaust tubing was preheated with a welding torch for each fluid tested.  This simulated engine exhaust system operating temperatures, which can be as low as 600-700°F and as high as 1,000-1,200°F for a vehicle that is heavily loaded, climbing a steep grade, or towing a trailer.  Temperatures of the heated pipe were monitored during the tests with a Raytek infrared remote sensor and a Craftsman multimeter with a thermocouple attached to the heated exhaust tubing.  Each fluid was then sprayed onto the preheated tubing.

The 1,000-1,200°F exhaust system temperature was selected after a review of numerous Society of Automotive Engineers papers, including “Catalytic Converter Thermal Environment Measurement under Dynamometer Simulated Roadloads [3],” “Numerical Study on Skin Temperature and Heat Loss of Vehicle Exhaust Systems [4],”and “Heat Insulation Methods for Manifold Mounted Converters [5].” Although there is some variation in the temperatures measured by the authors of those reference papers, thermocouples attached to the exhaust system/catalytic converter measured temperatures ranging from a low of 689°F under no load and no throttle to 1,533°F under 100% throttle on a 4% simulated road grade.

This scientific research was consistent with the authors’ personal experience using a Raytek Raynger.


The first fluid tested was brake fluid, specifically DOT 3, used in both ABS and non-ABS systems.  Spraying the brake fluid on the tubing heated to 1,000°F caused instant flame.

For our next test, the most controversial “burn-or-not-burn” fluid, coolant-specifically ethylene glycol-was used.  The standard green variant is found in many engine cooling systems, but since 1996 General Motors has installed a long-life pink coolant.  The primary component of the pink colored coolant is also ethylene glycol.

Other manufacturers have also transitioned to long-life coolants of different colors, generally orange and yellow.  The different colors usually signify the use of different corrosion inhibiting additives, however the primary component continues to be ethylene glycol. Several “environmentally-friendly” coolants, notably Prestone LowTox and Old World Industries’ Sierra, are also available, but market data indicate their use is not widespread.  These products utilize propylene glycol as the primary component in place of ethylene glycol due to its reduced toxicity to animals.  The properties of propylene glycol suggest that it is more easily ignited than ethylene glycol.  (See Material Safety Data Sheet) Therefore this fluid was not tested.

When sprayed onto the steel tubing heated to 1,000°F (a temperature that can occur quite readily in an engine compartment), both the green and pink coolant flashed into flame.  This occurred not only at full strength, but also when mixed 50/50 with water, the ratio specified for most vehicle cooling systems.  The diluted coolant burns because water evaporates faster than ethylene glycol.  Once the water has evaporated, the remaining ethylene glycol ignites.

Next tested was automatic transmission fluid.  In the early 1990s General Motors experienced numerous fires in its full-sized trucks.  Fires usually did not occur in normal usage, but under heavy loads, such as pulling trailers up hills, some transmissions expelled their fluid out onto hot exhaust components and caused fires.  As a result, General Motors mailed new dipsticks to owners of these trucks.  The new dipsticks had a plastic locking device designed to prevent the internal transmission fluid pressure from ejecting fluid up the dipstick tube and onto the right hand exhaust manifold directly below.  Flammability of automatic transmission fluid was demonstrated in the tests by spraying transmission fluid onto the steel tubing, heated to approximately 1,000°F.  The transmission fluid immediately flashed.

The fourth fluid flammability test was conducted using power steering fluid.  A power steering pump can generate internal pressures that exceed 300 psi, creating tremendous potential for a vaporized spray.  If a comparatively very low pressure spray of fluid from our test bottle caused a fire, fluid from a leaking power steering hose can also start a fire.  Power steering fluid sprayed onto the hot exhaust tubing preheated to 1,000°F flashed immediately.

Motor oil was the next test fluid.  Conventional and synthetic oils were individually tested.  Both oils ignited easily on the 1,000°F tubing.  The synthetic engine oil appeared to create a bigger flame than the same volume of petroleum-based oil.

R134a air conditioning refrigerant, which replaced R12 (a Freon-based fluid) in the early 1990s, was tested next.  It was determined that undiluted R134a (both in gaseous form and liquid form) would not ignite on the test surface heated to 1,100°F.

All vehicle manufacturers require the addition of compressor lubricating oil to R134a refrigerant in order to lubricate the air conditioning compressor bearings.  There are four common viscosities of compressor lubricant oil.  Domestic manufactures generally specify higher viscosity oils while foreign manufacturers usually specify a lower viscosity.  The least viscous, PAG 46 (PAG = polyalkylene glycol) ignited at 800°F, while PAG 100 and 150 both ignited at about 900°F.  Ester oil, which is used in the conversion of older R12 systems to R134a (due to its compatibility with the mineral oil in that refrigerant), did not flash until approximately 1,100°F.

Finally, two engine fuels were tested: No 2 diesel fuel and 89 octane unleaded California gasoline.  The diesel fuel ignited on the heated tubing at a temperature between 950 and 1,000°F.

We have left the controversial subject of gasoline igniting on a hot surface for last.  The 2004 edition of NFPA 921(paragraph sates: “Typically, gasoline will not be ignited by a hot surface, but requires an arc, spark or open flame for ignition.”  However, the same paragraph continues: “While ignition of gasoline vapor on a hot surface is difficult to reproduce, such ignition should not be dismissed out of hand.”

Lee Cole’s Investigation of Motor Vehicle Fires [6] and Kirk’s Fire investigation [7] also discuss the issue of gasoline igniting on a hot surface.

There are Material Safety Data Sheets available on unleaded gasolines that give various auto-ignition temperatures from 495°F to 830°F.  The tests that we performed repetitively confirmed that unleaded 89 octane fuel will flash on a heated surface with a temperature of approximately 1,100°F.

The only common under hood fluid not tested was windshield washer fluid.  This fluid typically consists of 33-45 percent methanol and 55-67 percent water.  The evaporation rate of methanol is approximately 16 times that of water.  As a result, the methanol in leaking windshield washer fluid is likely to evaporate before the water does, leaving no methanol to ignite.  Because methanol burns with a colorless flame, the practical difficulty in determining whether the methanol ignited was also a factor in omitting this fluid from the test.

One final note: These test fluids were conducted at an ambient temperature between 75 and 80°F.  In a real under-hood environment all of these fluids exist at temperatures of at least 200°F.  Thus any leaking fluid in effect has a “head start” because of the much higher operating temperature.

Perhaps the most important consideration in reaching a decision as to what was the first fuel ignited in a vehicle fire is found in the balance of paragraph in the 2004 edition of NFPA 921. It states: “the ignition of liquids by hot surfaces is influenced and determined by many factors, not just ignition temperature.  These factors include ventilation, liquid flash point, liquid boiling point, liquid vapor pressure, liquid vaporization rate, misting of liquid, hot surface roughness, and residence time of the liquid on the surface”.

Hopefully, the attached photographs of each of the vehicle fluids flashing on a heated piece of exhaust tubing will be helpful to those in the fire investigation community.  It should also help to convince others who still harbor doubts that all the fluids described above can ignite on a hot surface under the right conditions.

About the authors-

William (Bill) Hagerty has investigated more that 2,150 vehicle product liability cases, including more than 750 vehicle fires.  He is Daubert court-qualified to testify in both state and U.S. federal courts as to the cause and origin of fires and has been retained numerous times as an expert witness in vehicle cases. Mr. Hagerty is a NAFI Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator, a Certified Vehicle Fire Investigator, and a Licensed Private Investigator in the State of California (required in the California to determine the cause of fires).

After retiring as a U.S. Navy Commander, Bill owned and operated a successful retail auto repair facility in Southern California.  He began investigating vehicle fires under the direct training of Lee Cole.  Bill actively assists in teaching courses in vehicle fires for Lee Cole and Associates.  He also has acquired vehicle knowledge as an amateur race car road racer competing in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) races since 1977.

G.S. (Steve) Peranteau left his 19-year position with the Naval Air Systems Command to join Bill in the fire investigation area.  During his tenure with the Navy, Steve was the in-service reliability and maintainability engineering division head, overseeing F/A-18 Hornet and E-3 Hawkeye maintenance programs.  He also holds a Federal Aviation Administration Airframe & Powerplant mechanic license.

Steve has already assisted with over 225 product liability investigations, including 120 vehicle fires, and is a NAFI Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator.  He also assisted in conducting the vehicle fluid flammability tests described above.  Steve is presently acquiring vehicle fire training and experience that will lead to his certification as a CVFI.

[1]  Land Rover North America, Safety Recall 98V149

[2] NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, 2004 Edition

[3]  Catalytic Converter Thermal Environment Measurement under Dynamometer simulated Roadloads, SAE Paper 2000-01-216

[4]  Numerical Study on Skin Temperature and Heat Loss of Vehicle Exhaust System, SAE Paper 2005-01-1622

[5]  Heat Insulation Methods for manifold Mounted Converters, SAE Paper 2000-01-215

[6]  Cole, Lee S., Investigation of Motor Vehicle Fires, Fourth Edition, Lee Books, San Anselmo, California, 2001

[7]  DeHaan, John D., Kirk’s Fire Investigation, Fourth Edition, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2002



MOTOR OIL (conventional) EXXON MOBILE 428°F
see note 3
MOTOR OIL (synthetic) EXXON MOBILE 428°F
see note 3
see note 4
COOLANT-DexCool (ethylene glycol) TEXACO 260°F
COOLANT (propylene glycol) see note 5 SHAMROCK CHICAGO (PRESTONE) 230°F
1. Refers to the laboratory test method used to determine the flash point.
2. Flammability limits are related to the initial temperature of the fuel, higher temperatures result in wider flammability limits.
3. NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, 2004 Edition.
4. Kirk’s Fire Investigation, 5th Edition 2002.
5. NOT TESTED. Data provided for comparison purposes.