A devastating fire that ripped through Eastern Golf Club’s treasured clubhouse has raised serious safety concerns about charging lithium-ion batteries used in golf carts and walk-behinds. Australian Golf Digest examined the dangers.
At 1:43pm on Monday, 16 October, a fire broke out in the clubhouse of Eastern Golf Club at Yering in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, 38 kilometres north-east of Melbourne’s CBD. Once renowned for a 27-hole course designed by Greg Norman, the club garnered worldwide attention for the blaze that destroyed the 180sqm building. Firefighters determined the fire had been sparked in a room charging lithium-ion batteries, which are the power source of electric golf carts and ‘walk-behind’ motorised buggies.
It was the third fire to occur at an Australian golf course within the past two years. In November 2021 at The Links Shell Cove, south of Wollongong, an early-morning blaze in a garage containing golf carts was quickly extinguished. (The fire was later found to be caused by wiring to the room.) In April 2022 at The Lakes Golf Club in Sydney, a fire in a storage shed destroyed an estimated 300 sets of golf clubs and damaged many more. (The investigation examined whether the cause was due to a power supply port used to charge lithium-ion batteries.)
Meanwhile, several hundred fires at Australian homes and apartments have been linked to lithium-ion batteries that are used to charge mobile phones, watches, electric vehicles, e-bikes and e-scooters as well as power tools and toys. But it’s the latest incident at Eastern Golf Club that poses questions for the golf industry about how to safely store electric golf carts and ‘walk-behind’ motorised buggies.
A SHORT HISTORY OF GOLF CARTS
Club Car, E-Z-Go and Yamaha are the three major manufacturers of golf carts today. The scale of the golf-cart business is huge. In 2021, Centroid Investment Partners signed a definitive agreement to purchase equipment maker TaylorMade from KPS for $US1.7 billion. That same year Platinum Equity acquired Club Car in an all-cash transaction for $US1.68 billion.
The manufacturing of golf carts had its origins in America post-WWII. By the late 1940s a consumer boom had seen the birth of the ‘supermarket’ where women could travel to the shopping mall in electric carts. That technology migrated to golf when the first motorised cart was released by E-Z-Go in 1954. Club Car entered the market in 1958 with the launch of its own three-wheeled cart. Yamaha produced its first vehicle in 1979.
The advent of the petrol (gasoline) golf cart eventuated in the 1970s. They became popular at golf facilities that didn’t have the capacity to adequately charge golf carts and/or wanted vehicles to achieve greater mileage (kilometres) between charges.
Currently, there are three power trains in golf carts: petrol and electric, which has two strands. The first is the 48-volt DC/AC flooded lead-acid power plant that has been the backbone of the golf cart industry for six decades.
The quantum leap in golf cart and motorised buggy innovation came with lithium-ion powered batteries during the past decade. Depending on usage, lithium-ion batteries last a relatively long time with an average life cycle of almost 10 years before replacement. Whereas lead-acid batteries degrade quicker over time, lithium-ion batteries also hold their charge better and require little maintenance – little more than a brush with a piece of cloth for cleaning.
A SAFETY-FIRST RESPONSE
Eastern Golf Club did have insurance and expects sufficient cover to rebuild its destroyed clubhouse. But with barely time for the ashes to settle, the golf industry reacted swiftly with a safety-first approach towards charging lithium-ion batteries. The potential rising cost of insurance premiums is a clear concern.
Peninsula Kingswood Country Golf Club at Frankston, south of Melbourne, recently informed members they wouldn’t be able to store their own electric batteries at its on-site storage facility. Peninsula Kingswood chief executive Heath Wilson spoke with the club’s insurers before cancelling the battery-charging service for its members. “We understand that this will cause some inconvenience to members. However, the risk is now too real to ignore following the Eastern Golf Club incident which destroyed their clubhouse,” Wilson wrote.
Australian Golf Digest sought industry comment as to the actual dangers of lithium-ion batteries. Kevin Gates – Club Car’s regional vice-president (Oceania) and an Asia-Pacific delegate for the golf cart industry association – was at pains to reassure clubs.
“To my knowledge there hasn’t been a lithium-ion golf cart fire in Australia at a golf club caused by a fleet cart in storage,” says Gates, who is in constant contact with club administrators about storage danger.
“There’s very little risk in parking any fleet of Club Car, E-Z-Go or Yamaha golf carts fitted with the manufacturer’s supplied battery in a storage shed on a golf course. The manufacturers haven’t changed anything in their manuals around storing lithium-ion vehicles any differently to what normal storage requirements have always been.”
With regard to the Eastern Golf Club blaze, the suspicion is the fire was caused by a faulty battery pack associated with an electric-powered walk-behind buggy. However, the forensic fire investigators haven’t conclusively determined the cause. The club will await the investigators’ report and official findings to be presented to the insurers.
Unapproved and inexpensive battery packs from after-market online suppliers when fitted to golf carts/walk behinds increase risk, according to Gates. In a worrying trend, brands of batteries he’s never even heard of before are now turning up at Australian golf courses.
“The question that I’m increasingly hearing is: ‘I’ve got members putting non-OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) batteries into golf carts, converting them from lead-acid to lithium and then parking them in my shed. Is that a problem?’ And the answer to that is: ‘Yes. It could be a problem.’
“The central issue for golf clubs in Australia is not so much buying a fleet of golf carts that is lithium powered. All manufacturers take steps to design a vehicle that’s fit for purpose and a power plant that is equally fit for purpose – and safe.
“The risk here in Australia is for those clubs that allow members to store their own carts and have no direct control over what battery packs are installed in those carts.”
STICK WITH THE ORIGINAL MANUFACTURER’S BATTERY
With regard to safety, a lithium-ion battery must have an effective Battery Management System (BMS). The big three golf cart manufacturers all have a management system that controls the behaviour of batteries while charging and during operation. However by purchasing a cheap lithium-ion battery pack and dropping it into a Club Car, E-Z-Go or an early-model Yamaha, there’s no guarantee the wiring harnesses are completely compatible.
“The basic mantra is to: always use Original Equipment Manufacturer power supplies,” Gates says. “If you’re re-powering one of our vehicles, use our battery. If you’re re-powering an E-Z-Go, use the E-Z-Go supplied battery. Same if you’re using a Yamaha, use the supplied battery. And if you do buy a used golf cart either from a Club Car, an E-Z-Go or a Yamaha supplier, or off the internet, or from someone selling it online, just stick with the Original Equipment Manufacturer product from an authorised dealer.”
Earlier this year in Jacksonville, Florida, an E-Town home was gutted by a fire started by lithium batteries in a golf cart parked in the garage. The local fire chief made a strong comment about the dangers of lithium-ion batteries as a fire hazard.
Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department chief Keith Powers explained why lithium-ion batteries are so flammable, telling News4JAX: “These batteries can go into what they call ‘thermal runway’, and that thermal runaway can happen if these batteries are exposed to temperatures up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit (65 degrees Celsius). And when they go into thermal runaway, they release toxic gases that rapidly ignite a burn.
“What I practise at my own home is I charge my lithium-ion batteries while I’m awake. But as soon as we get ready to go to bed, I unplug it and don’t let it charge. Or leaving the house, I do not let it charge.
“Do not buy after-market batteries. Buy the original OEM battery for that device. They cost more and that’s why people buy the after-market batteries because they’re trying to save a little bit of money.”
Australian safety regulators are seeking ways to counter the increase in fires caused by faulty and incompatible battery chargers. The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission is concerned about lithium-ion batteries overheating and/or exploding, especially incompatible devices left running after being fully charged.
Meanwhile, the golf industry will continue to innovate. QOD Golf is a Sydney-based manufacturer of electric push buggies and remote-controlled walk-behinds (qodgolf.com). Its batteries are compliant and certified to Australian, European and American safety standards. Managing director Collin Hiss says QOD is taking safety a step further with a new product designed by Australian engineers that is set to be released in early 2024.
“We are going to actually have multiple batteries that are smaller that connect to give you a safer position,” Hiss says. “The container that the battery goes into, we’re looking to make sure it is a fireproof container… It fits all my models – all quad trolleys it will be able to fit.”
Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the first electric golf cart. Despite the objections by a minority of traditionalists, golf carts and walk-behind motorised buggies have changed the game for the better. Golfers with physical limitations are able to continue playing 18 holes. Golf can be enjoyed on courses with inhospitable terrain where walking is not an option.
For all the negative coverage surrounding lithium-ion batteries, it stands to reason golf will play a role in finding a solution to the dangers and safety concerns.
WHAT THE INDUSTRY SAYS
“You should never charge a battery that has been submerged in water or is visibly damaged. Golf clubs should act on external advice on best practices for charging batteries in their storage facilities – as the storage environment differs from club to club. Measures that golf clubs should consider include never charging batteries on multiple power boards and ensuring all charging components are tested and tagged on a regular basis.” Carrie Edwards-Britt, chief executive officer, MGI (Australian-owned manufacturer of motorised buggies and ride-on carts)
“The lithium-ion category covers a broad range of lithium based batteries, however they are not all the same. There’s a duty of care to the owner of the cart, as well as the golf club, to understand and make sure they’re using quality Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries as energy storage batteries in a golf cart if they want to use lithium.” Tim Lennon, product & technical manager, R&J Batteries (largest family-owned battery business in Australia)