Seabrook Island family warns of golf cart chargers following fire

An effort to help strangers charge up their LSV cart led to a home in flames
Published: Sep. 19, 2019 at 8:09 PM EDT
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SEABROOK ISLAND, S.C. (WCSC) - A Seabrook Island family is raising the alarm after a rental golf cart ignited in their driveway, catching their home on fire.

Specifically, the vehicle was an eco-friendly Low Speed Vehicle; an LSV cart runs on electric battery power.

Anne and Daniel Arnold have visited Seabrook Island for 15 years.

“It means everything to us. We love how natural it is, all the wildlife, the beach isn’t crowded,” Anne said. “It’s just a beautiful, special place and we feel very blessed being able to spend time here.”

The family lives in Maryland but bought a house on Seabrook to use for vacation and rental income.

In July, it was one of their rental guests who called in a panic.

“She sounded extremely alarmed and upset. She said, ‘Anne! Your house is on fire! Your house is on fire!’ And I said, ‘What?!’”

Thankfully, Daniel was in town and visiting friends just down the road. He rushed over.

“The entire end of the house appeared to be completely on fire. The St. John’s Fire District was already here and had put the fire out by the time I arrived.”

Everyone got out safely, but in those few moments there was more than $50,000 worth of damage to the Arnolds’ home and another $6,000 in damage to the renter’s van that was parked in the driveway.

The focus of the investigation quickly turned to the charred remains of an LSV parked next to the garage.

Anne explained, “Earlier in the evening, a couple had been driving past the house. They had rented a Lightning Bugz LSV cart, and it ran out of charge. So they asked the rental guests if they could charge it here at our house, go to dinner, come back, pick it up later. Our rental guests thought they were being kind when they said, ‘Absolutely, sure.’”

The plug they used was apparently an extension cord, and pictures show it had no third prong grounding the electricity.

“It was basically modified 50-foot extension cord spliced onto the cart,” Daniel said. “Not the cord that was designed for that cart. It was not the manufacturer’s cord.”

The damage was so bad, the St. John’s fire Department says they can’t nail down an exact cause of the fire.

But they did determine the origin was the LSV cart.

Seabrook’s town Council met last month to hear an update on the fire. The investigation revealed the fire was “related to the charging process.”

Shortly after the fire, the Arnolds took a picture of another cart charging with an extension cord at the Seabrook amenity office.

“We were all blissfully ignorant of the risk. But now we’re not,” Anne said. “Will we get through this fire? Yeah. Nobody was hurt. We’ll get our house fixed. But we are really concerned about our neighbors, our community, and the Charleston community as a whole. Because these carts are all over the metro.”

The cart was from a company called Lightning Bugz, which rents LSV carts and golf carts at all of our local beaches.

The owner of Lightning Bugz, Mark Thorn, tells us they’ve been business nine years and have more than 5,000 weekly rentals.

Thorn said the company has never had another incident like this and that it was “definitely isolated.”

We asked if the company was making any safety changes.

Thorn said investigators probably won't have a definitive answer on the cause of the fire, but that they have been taking “preventive measures on components that make sense.”

“The biggest thing we have done has been replacing batteries to AGM which apparently do not give off any flammable fumes,” Thorn said. “We have also been checking power cords, battery cables and any other cable in between chargers and batteries. There are so many different variables when it comes to anything with electricity, but we are taking it very seriously and doing everything we can to prevent any future incidences as well!”

The Arnolds told us they are very concerned the Seabrook Island Property Owners Association rules and regulations recommend such carts are charged in garages or under buildings.

Page 18-19 of the handbook states, “Whenever possible, Neighborhood Electric Vehicles must be parked in a garage, carport or under a condo or villa during charging.”

Anne strongly disagrees. “I feel that in light of what we all know now, that could be potentially catastrophic. If that cart had been charging in our garage overnight, and the fire had started when everyone was asleep, that could have been a catastrophic loss of life, let alone property.”

They are also disappointed because they say SIPOA has not yet sent a notice or warning to property owners about the fire and how it could be prevented.

“If we found out somebody had an incident more serious than ours, if we had not spoken up we’d have to live with that,” Anne said.

St. John’s Fire District Chief Colleen Walz said it is her understanding that the manufacturer of this specific model of LSV is no longer in business.

“Battery chargers are not universal. So double check the manufacturers recommendations, there is no exception to this,” she told us. “Electric carts should only be charged outdoors, or in a very well-ventilated area. Companies that rent LSV’s should be sure and review safety measures for the safe operation of the cart…to include charging.”

The Town of Seabrook addressed the fire and posted the following list of suggestions online for safe charging:

  • Do not charge batteries without adequate ventilation. Hydrogen gas is formed when charging batteries. Failure to provide adequate ventilation while charging batteries can result in an explosion.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for setting the LSV into a charging mode.
  • Always connect the charging cord to the vehicle’s charge receptacle first, and then plug the cord into a wall receptacle.
  • Always disconnect the charging cord from the wall receptacle first, and then disconnect the cord from the vehicle.
  • Three-prong (grounded) charging cords should only be connected to outlets providing a connection for the grounding pin.
  • Do not use an adapter to plug the charger that uses a three-prong plug into a two-prong outlet.
  • Never use a damaged extension cord. Never connect a damaged charger cord.
  • Follow the vehicle manufacturer’s instructions concerning the use of extension cords for charging.

Chief Walz added, “Often, new cart owners are not aware that their LSV or Electric cart may have lead acid batteries and the water-electrolyte level must be monitored. When these type batteries become dry, they can explode.”

Newer model chargers may have a “cut off” safety feature, she said, but you can not rely on that for every LSV cart.

Lastly, the Arnolds have concerns about how much insurance that companies, like the golf cart business, are required to have on Seabrook.

They said it’s not enough to cover the full cost of their home’s damage.

Their insurance companies are working out that issue. The Arnolds say they brought that concern to the Mayor’s attention.

The number one piece of advice: You should only ever use the manufacturer’s charging cord that comes with a golf cart or any electric vehicle.

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