Over the weekend, tragedy struck again at Gruber Motors in Arizona. An electrical failure started a fire in their main service building, and managed to ignite a car’s lithium batteries before the fire department could arrive and put the blaze out, making it very difficult to save anything in the building. Sadly, there were at least 25 original Tesla Roadsters in the building, and they were totally destroyed.
“Each of the owners affected by our fire last night have been contacted. I personally reached out to each of you affected by a lost Roadster, rather than have you find out through the media,” the company said in a statement posted to social media.
“Talking to each of you, I am again reminded how cherished these cars are, how much they meant to you, and what a special place they carve out in automotive history. You all have my sincerest apologies and I feel your pain, having lost three in this mishap as well. I wish it was otherwise.”
The company has three buildings it uses for the repair of older EVs, usually original Tesla Roadsters or early Model S sedans. The main work-in-progress building was the one to suffer what appears to be an electrical panel failure, per fire investigators, but the investigation is still ongoing. Further information about the cause of the initial fire will likely be found.
As with a previous fire the company suffered in 2017, the fire consumed the entire building. A fire at most other facilities could be put out easier, but once lithium batteries catch fire, they’re incredibly difficult to extinguish. This created a situation that was very difficult for the fire department to solve, and it appears that basically everything in the building was destroyed.
Not All Vehicles Were Destroyed
Fortunately, many other Tesla Roadsters were not inside the building at the time of the fire. Some were known to be outside and weren’t harmed by the fire, while others may have been in the company’s other buildings.
One fortunate owner posted his experience to the Tesla Motors Club forums:
“I was scheduled to pick up my car there today after it had been in for service. I received an email message from Gruber early in the morning that unfortunately they had had a fire at their shop and that while my car was OK because it was parked outside, my key has been destroyed in the fire. They wanted to make sure I had a spare key in order to pick up the car. I assumed it must’ve been a relatively small fire given that they were taking the time to confirm that I was still coming to pick up the car today and had the spare key. When I went to pick up the car this afternoon, though, I was shocked to see what had happened at the Gruber facility. Sadly, it looks as if much of the building’s interior and workshop has been destroyed. The roof seemed to be entirely gone, and there was a large team of people doing hazardous materials cleanup (I assume because of the batteries and other electrical components that had burned in the fire.)”
The owner also indicated that he’s still very impressed with Gruber service, despite seeing something that would frighten any owner.
“I don’t know much else at this time, although I did have a brief conversation with Peter Gruber by phone today in order to coordinate my car pick up. He sounded understandably exhausted but was still as customer-focused as ever. He told me that they had not determined the cause of the fire yet. While my car was covered in a light coating of ash when I picked it up today, it was otherwise undamaged and all the issues I had asked them to fix had been addressed – for a fraction of what the local Tesla SC had quoted for the repairs, as usual.”
Why Were There So Many Roadsters In One Place?
If you’re unfamiliar with Gruber Motors, you might wonder why there were so many original Tesla Roadsters in one place. The answer is that they’re one of the few facilities that can work on them. Yes, you can still get some limited work done at a Tesla service center, but if a major component fails, you’re in for replacing the entire component (like a battery pack). This can make a relatively minor problem cost tens of thousands of dollars to resolve, but Gruber’s team can break down something like a battery pack and repair it for a fraction of what Tesla would charge.
For some components, replacement modules simply don’t exist and haven’t been made for over a decade. In those cases, even Tesla can’t help the owner out. This is where Gruber Motors really shines, as it can repair and refurbish expensive components, making a repair possible at all.
As Teslas age, more and more of them end up at Gruber Motors for repair. You can learn more about the problems owners face with aging electric vehicles and the process of repairing them in this video:
With all of this in mind, it makes sense that so many original Roadsters and other aging EVs would be in one place. Their owners love them, and aren’t going to just throw them in the dump when other options are available!
What Can Be Done To Prevent These Widespread Losses?
This isn’t the first time Gruber Motors has had a fire. The first time, in 2017, was caused by a battery pack in a Tesla Roadster that “went nuclear” during a repair. At that time, the Phoenix Fire Department had no idea how to put a lithium fire out, and had to sit and watch it burn down. In the process, a rare tZero electric car (the predecessor to all Tesla vehicles) was burnt to the frame.
Given that this is the second time a fire has destroyed customer cars at Gruber Motors, some readers are probably wondering if there are ways to prevent this problem in the future. The answer to this question is “yes,” and Gruber’s team is already working to prevent future losses.
One of the new buildings that the company is expanding into is already going to be fully equipped with sprinklers. While fire sprinklers probably wouldn’t provide the volume needed to put a lithium fire out, it could keep fire from other sources (like the fires the company has experienced) from spreading to a car’s battery pack and destroying everything.
It’s possible that a car could still be damaged by a sprinkler system if it isn’t reassembled or covered in some way to prevent it from getting water in it, but that’s something the Gruber team could easily address in a variety of ways. Critical components could be covered with a tarp or drop cloth at night if they’re left open, or placed in a safe container. Fancier options include Halon fire suppression systems, as are commonly used in buildings with servers or other sensitive electronics.
Because Gruber Motors is already taking measures to mitigate the risk of another catastrophic fire, and options are available to prevent water damage, we are very unlikely to see this kind of big loss again.
Future EV Shops Need To Learn From This
It’s important to note that Gruber Motors is a real pioneer in keeping aging EVs going. It’s blazing new trails that many other independent EV shops are sure to follow in the coming decades. But, like pioneers in the old days, the first people to do something suffer the biggest hardships as they climb that learning curve. The people who come after don’t have to go through the School of Hard Knocks.
So, it’s very important that future EV repair facilities learn from things like this and start out with a great fire safety situation. Gruber Motors learned the hard way, so there’s no excuse for future shops to not learn from this as they plan their new ventures.
Featured image: Screenshot from Gruber Motor Company’s YouTube video showing the aftermath of the fire.
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