It may be the last thing on your mind and an unlikely scenario, but fires in a greenhouse can and do happen. The most likely start to fires are electrical in origin— which is why having electrical fire and safety compliance rules in a greenhouse is of utmost importance and safety to your business.
While official greenhouse standards for safety compliance rules are far more detailed, this article contains an overview of compliance rules put out by the National Greenhouse Manufacturers Association (NGMA) and a good starting point for keeping you and your growing horticultural enterprise safe and responsible.
Have a fire or smoke alarm system, and fire extinguishers
Installing fire or smoke alarms is the most obvious first line of defense. Though they can’t prevent electrical fires from starting of course, combined with other compliance rules and plans, they reduce the magnitude of damage greatly (by around 50% according to research cited by the NGMA).
Having fire extinguishers in place does these systems one better. Have these positioned in areas near electrical appliances that could start fires, ideally between the appliance and a door or other fire escape route where they are easily accessible.
Check and maintain all heating systems regularly
Though all electrical appliances can pose risks with short circuiting and overload (and thus possible electrical fire), obviously heating appliances— whether run by gas, oil, wood, or electricity— should be checked and maintained the most frequently for fire prevention. CO2 generators are highly suspect too, as they can be sources of combustion and start fires.
To do this, have a checklist: examine fuel-type heaters for leaks, for example. More importantly, make sure these appliances were safely and properly installed in the first place! If you can, keep them clean of debris, dust, and other combustible build-up (this goes for greenhouse vents, fans, ducts, and other motors too).
Have fire doors and a fire escape plan
Typically, greenhouses have end wall doors that provide adequate escape from an electrical fire within a greenhouse— that is, if you’re not too far inside. What if a fire starts deep within the greenhouse, far from the end doors, and there are employees or other personnel well within the greenhouse structure too (and far from end wall doors)?
Purely for the purpose of fire safety, it’s highly recommended to have side doors or hatches installed in greenhouse sides; that way, no one is trapped from escaping. Design and print out a general fire safety route for employees so they are aware of escape routes. Keep them posted and visible around the structure.
Have water access (especially a fire hydrant) nearby
One big problem with greenhouses and electrical fires: most greenhouses tend to be in rural areas. Because of this, water sources and fire hydrants may not be available like in urban areas. It may also take some time for a fire department to arrive.
Investing in a hydrant nearby, and one usable by a fire department, can be included as an upfront expense to boost safety and prevent damage and losses from fires. For smaller and more manageable fires, having immediate access to water (outside of greenhouse irrigation) can also be a recommended complement to in-house fire extinguishers.
Equip appliances with thermal overload settings
Any appliance installed in your greenhouse with a motor (such as electrical heater, C02 generator, AC, or other) should be accompanied by a thermal overload relay. This may require a professional electrician to implement while some appliances come with them pre-installed automatically.
Motors function by channeling electricity and heat to power the whole appliance. With a thermal overload relay, when certain heat thresholds are reached the relay will stop electricity from reaching the mower to prevent overheating. This is a great compliance rule for cutting down the risk of electrical fires.
Have standards for debris and equipment maintenance and clean up
Plant detritus and even some greenhouse materials can be highly flammable. They should always be cleaned up, maintained, and placed away from greenhouse appliances and heaters (18 inches from the sides and back, and six inches from the top).
Not only does this extend to plant matter: materials like shade cloth, row cover, plastics, packaging materials, plant containers, agricultural chemicals, fertilizers, and even some soil media (such as peat moss) can easily catch flame; or, if scraps or pieces are left scattered or not cleaned up, increase risk of catching and spreading a fire more once it starts.
Protocols for regular cleanup and organization should be in place for your staff and anyone else who directly works in your structure. Absolutely no materials should block entrances or fire exits!
Invest in fire retardant growing equipment
Inversely, many greenhouse materials for running your production operation can be made fire retardant. This creates an excellent line of defense against possible electrical fires. Greenhouse poly coverings, plastic mulches, shade cloths, packaging materials, and plant containers are great examples with flame retardant options.
Though fire retardant does not mean “fireproof,” this can slow down the development of a fire from something small and manageable to something big, dangerous, and out of hand— giving you time to handle it with a fire extinguisher or a water source before it grows out of control, and causing irreversible damage.
Build structures to code and with flame retardant materials
Flame retardant materials can also apply to the construction of your greenhouse, too. As mentioned, poly coverings can be quite flammable— flame retardant versions, however, will save you time.
Standards set out by the NGMA for fire safety compliance also encourage greenhouses to be built to code and with wood framing and steel doors. Though it may seem counterintuitive, steel framing is more vulnerable to extremely high temperatures, and is liable to more rapid collapse compared to a wood-framed structure (even though wood is more flammable).
For best practice, also make sure your entire greenhouse building is up to electrical codes. This can be achieved with the inspection of a certified electrician in your area.
In concert with these electrical fire and safety compliance rules in a greenhouse, you can’t overestimate the importance of greenhouse insurance policies. Though you can invest up front in everything to meet these safety standards, your chances of risk of electrical fire and possible loss to your business are never zero.
More than any of these compliance rules, greenhouse insurance will give you the best peace of mind— as well as 100% recovery in the face of any electrical fire or other disaster.