As with any electric vehicle, there is much skepticism around the performance of electric fire apparatus in cold climates. In a mission-critical vehicle like a fire apparatus, performance can’t be risked.
Government Fleet asked the makers of three electric fire apparatus available in the U.S. how their vehicles perform in winter weather, to address some of these concerns.
All three trucks, the Pierce Volterra electric pumper, the Rosenbauer RTX electric fire truck, and the REV Fire Group Vector, are fully-electric vehicles with the capability to respond, pump, and operate on lithium-ion batteries.
The trucks all also have diesel-powered backups designed to kick in once the battery reaches a certain state of charge.
Housing Fire Trucks and Putting Thermal Management Systems to Work
One differentiating factor between fire apparatus and personal EVs is that fire apparatus always have a home when not in use.
In cold weather climates, fire station bays are constructed to maintain a consistently warm environment for vehicles and equipment, Pierce Manufacturing Business Unit Director Eric Linsmeier said.
All three vehicles are equipped with thermal management systems to counteract the adverse effects of low temperatures on the battery. We’ve broken down how each of them work:
Pierce Volterra Electric Pumper — This system includes a coolant loop which circulates around the battery area, and a small electric heater. During cold weather months, the coolant is heated to prevent the battery from falling below a certain temperature threshold to ensure optimal performance functionality.
The vehicle also constantly monitors the warming process, records the battery's temperature, and adjusts the heating system as needed. This careful management of the coolant circulation ensures the battery remains within the optimal temperature range.
In the summer, the system operates inversely. The coolant is run through a radiator, similar to a conventional car, to prevent the battery from overheating. If temperatures rise excessively, the cooling system is employed to cool the batteries to maintain a consistent battery temperature.
REV Fire Group Vector — This system heats or cools the batteries to keep them at a temperature that ensures good performance and long life — between 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Additionally, the operator can select the Winter or Summer setting depending on the climate. In the Winter setting, the system provides extra heating whenever the truck is plugged into the charger at the station.
The batteries are warmed above the normal setting so that they rest at the warmer end of their optimum temperature scale. This means that when they leave the station and venture into the cold, the battery packs are already on the warm side of their comfort zone. The battery packs have a high thermal mass, so they will stay warm on their own for quite a while.
They also generate their own heat when they are under load, “so it is quite likely that even in extremely cold weather the [battery thermal management system] will not even need to run until the truck is back in the station. This not only keeps the batteries happy; it maximizes the range during the response since the energy draw from the [system] is minimized,” REV Fire Group Senior Director of Product Development Roger Lackore, said.
The Summer mode operates in the opposite fashion, pre-cooling the batteries in a hot climate. The Normal mode is for temperate climates or seasons; it targets the middle of the optimum temperature range.
Rosenbauer RTX — This system adapts by either heating or cooling the batteries based on prevailing conditions, ensuring efficient performance even in cold weather.
The batteries aboard electric fire apparatus are also physically larger compared to typical vehicles, Rosenbauer RTX Sales and Marketing Manager Todd McBride said.
Testing data indicates it would take a minimum of 72 hours of the vehicle sitting idle in sub-zero temperatures with the vehicle turned completely off before the batteries' core temperature would fall outside the nominal operating range.
If that did happen, all three of the fire apparatus are equipped with those diesel-powered backups so the vehicles can continue to operate while on a call.
Maximizing Performance in Cold Weather
The Vector takes care of keeping the batteries at their optimum temperature without any input from the operators, Lackore said. The battery thermal management system runs anytime the power switch is on. The company trains the operators to keep the power switch on all the time, even when the truck is plugged in at the station.
Another factor to consider includes preventive maintenance, Linsmeier explained. Regular preventive maintenance can help any vehicle perform better.
Testing Electric Fire Apparatus in Cold Climates
All three manufacturers have done extensive testing on their vehicles, including in cold climates.
Rosenbauer carried out testing on the RTX in Norway and Sweden together with Volvo Penta, the supplier of all the traction voltage components for the RTX.
“Such testing provides valuable data to help Rosenbauer optimize the performance of the RTX is cold climates,” McBride explained.
Rosenbauer RTX trucks will be placed into service in Brampton, Ontario; Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Boulder, Colorado. These placements will provide Rosenbauer with additional data that may “further enhance the operational efficiency of the RTX in these climates,” McBride added.
The city of Madison, Wisconsin, has operated a Pierce Volterra electric pumper over several winter seasons, “proving its reliability and capability in cold, harsh environmental conditions,” Linsmeier said. Recent placements in Portland, Oregon, and Gilbert, Arizona, will also serve as a way for Pierce to learn more about the truck’s performance in varying geographical locations.
The REV Fire Group Vector demo truck made its way through parts of Canada in December 2023. The truck went through Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.
“Our drivers reported that the [battery thermal management system] functioned flawlessly, with battery temperatures in their optimum temperature all the time,” Lackore said.
Addressing Concerns About Cold-Weather Performance
While these manufacturers believe their vehicles can perform well in cold weather, the reports of EVs that are useless in these climates are not without merit, Lackore acknowledged.
“When lithium batteries get cold enough, they cease to function. Even common lead acid battery capacity drops drastically as they drop in temperature. If you leave your EV outside (and turned off) in extreme cold, it is likely that it will not operate,” Lackore explained.
But the advantage of electric fire apparatus, as noted previously, is that they are kept in a heated station. And with the thermal management systems, the battery will always stay warm, even if the rest of the truck is cold.
Linsmeier noted that the Volterra electric pumper leverages a significant number of standardized components and equipment from traditional fire apparatus, ensuring “the same standards and expectations are met for cold weather operation and reliability.”
In all three electric fire apparatus, the thermal battery management systems monitor and maintain optimal settings when not in use.
The Bottom Line
As more fire departments in various climates purchase and receive electric fire apparatus, there will be more use cases to draw from. This will shape public perception, and will allow fleet managers to see examples of the vehicles at work in extreme climates.
So far, in both testing and harsh environments, the thermal battery management systems have proven invaluable across all three electric fire apparatus.