Protecting Your Assets – Understanding Thermal Runaway Mitigation Strategies

July 20, 2020 |

As the power industry increases utilization of renewable resources, the demand for large-scale battery storage systems to support utility-power distribution will also increase. With relatively high energy densities, voltage capacities, and charge cycles, lithium-ion batteries are the leading technology for battery energy storage systems. However, if not installed and maintained correctly, lithium-ion systems could be hazardous and costly. A worst-case scenario is a thermal runaway event, which can be described as a situation where overheating, physical damage or defect causes uncontrollable heat generation that can lead to off-gassing, fire or explosion. To address this and other battery storage risks, Kiewit is partnering with owners to define innovate solutions before issues occur.


Thermal runaway is uncommon, but engaging the right architects and engineers early in the site development process will reduce risk even further. The right team members will understand and communicate the codes that are still under development. For example, the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) released a standard just this year: NFPA 855 with future updates scheduled to be released in 2023. The 2018 version of the International Fire Code also added an entire chapter dedicated to Energy Storage Systems. When choosing a battery storage facility location, especially an existing building, engage these experts to evaluate for potential costly modifications and available storage capacity based on the latest codes and standards.


  • Start with the end in mind. The right site is key to a successful project. Determine where you want to build and gather relevant data, such as facility size and information on all adjacent properties. Compile contact information for the local jurisdictions (e.g., local fire marshal or code official) as it will come in handy.
  • Know the details. Request data from your battery manufacturer, specifically 9540a test results and battery data sheets, and provide to an outside engineer for a peer review, especially if required by your local jurisdiction. Battery technologies change frequently, so it’s important to have a partner who is knowledgeable on current codes and standards. There is no one-size-fits-all battery because facility size, battery chemistry and battery testing data are key factors to consider when selecting the right battery for the project.
  • Know who’s who in the process. Identify parties involved in the building process, including the fire department, fire marshal and insurance provider. These groups may not be familiar with large-scale energy storage facilities or how to respond should a fire event occur. For example, during a fire most electrical hazards can be neutralized by de-energizing the equipment, but an entirely different process must be used in the case of a battery storage facility fire. Discuss the standard response procedures and collectively determine, with your local authorities, the most effective strategy for your facility.
  • Be prepared with details. Provide data and details, including the type of facility, 9540a test reports and battery data tests, to a trusted fire protection engineer/architect so the team can select the best suppression system for the facility. You will want to develop a design that optimizes proper airflow, building layout, and smoke and fire detection. Be ready to make decisions around the following topics:
    • Detection – Early detection allows for prompt response at early stages where fire mitigation measures are typically more effective; options include:
      • Spot-type smoke detection
      • Spot-type heat detection
      • Air sampling smoke detection
      • Linear-type heat detection
      • Gas detection
    • Fire suppression – The primary goal of a fire suppression system in the energy storage facility is to contain the fire and to minimize thermal runaway to as small an area as possible. Consider the following when choosing a suppression system:
      • Sprinklers
      • Clean-agent suppression
      • Aerosol
      • Water mist
      • Carbon dioxide (CO2)
    • Other safety and hazard mitigation measures – Lithium-ion batteries are not traditional hazards, so other measures may be required to provide adequate safety during normal operations, a fire event or a post-fire event, such as:
      • Compartmentalization/special separation
      • Ventilation
      • Post-event planning


No matter where you are in the battery storage facility process, a knowledgeable fire protection engineer can help with many things, including selection of a project site, discussions with the local fire marshal and discussions with battery manufacturers.

Properly evaluating your options, while remaining proactive, is the first step to ensure your facility has proper life safety systems and adequate asset protection.

About the Author: Jeff Dunkel, P.E., Fire Protection Engineer

Jeff has more than 11 years of experience in the field of fire protection and loss prevention. He has extensive experience in designing different fire suppression systems — sprinklers, alarms, smoke protection, clean agent systems, high extension foam systems and gas detection — and in researching and understanding code requirements. Jeff graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology. He is a voting member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).


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