Every harvest — and especially in recent years — grain dryers across Alberta are put into action.
But the busy season doesn’t leave time for the care and maintenance to reduce the risk of fire when these units are working flat out.
Although it’s impossible to completely eliminate fire risk with anything that creates heat, experts say a few simple, time-efficient preventive measures can reduce the risk considerably. Perhaps the best philosophy is to assume your grain dryer will catch fire eventually and then maintain, monitor and plan accordingly.
“Somebody told me once that there is no one specific grain dryer that is more prone or less prone to catching on fire and that it’s not a matter of if your grain dryer catches on fire — it’s a matter of when,” said Richard Hoppins, fire chief for the central Alberta community of Trochu and a producer himself.
Of course, more use means more risk, and farmers have been buying and using grain dryers more than ever because of wet weather during the last few harvests.
Dustin Krzywy, a Ponoka-based electrician whose company, East Country Electric, sells and services grain dryers, said he’s been selling dryers in record numbers in recent years.
“Over the last five years we have increased our dryer sales quite a bit,” he said in a May interview. “We literally can’t even inventory enough because you can’t predict what every year is going to be like. I know literally hundreds (of producers) who were drying well into January and February and still in March. I’ve got guys drying right now from last fall.”
Krzywy and Hoppins say there are a number of maintenance and operational steps that producers can take to reduce the risk of fire.
Grain dryers are virtual magnets for debris. Leftover grain, chaff and even birds’ nests are among the combustible materials that get routinely caught up in the corners, screens and columns of dryers.
“Canola is really bad for its pods and even barley for its beards,” said Krzywy. “If it doesn’t come off perfectly clean off the combine — which it never does — all of that stuff finds little gaps in between metal and starts to stockpile. Eventually that catches on fire.”
Dryers should be cleaned of combustible material at least once a year before harvest, typically with a pressure washer or air compressor. Hoppins cleans out his dryer before and after harvest and between commodities.
“Clean the unit out at the end of the season and remove all of the chaff and spilled grain in and around the dryer,” he said. “Don’t give any spark the opportunity to ignite anything.”
Pay special attention to dryer screens.
“The dryer needs to be able to breathe,” said Hoppins. “The more it struggles with dirty screens, the less fuel efficient it’s going to be and the less capacity the dryer is going to have.
“The dryer is going to struggle to do its job and that presents another chance that something may ignite.”
Krzywy suggested producers take an air compressor to their dryers every day they’re in use. If that’s not an option, they should at least be checking them on a daily basis.
“If you spend 15 minutes with an air compressor blowing them down that would be all you need, and that’s if it was fairly dirty,” he said.
Columns are vulnerable to fire risk from stuck grain, particularly when it’s moist, said Krzywy. “When you get years like the last three years where producers have had to put such moist products through their columns, (the grain) will hang up in certain spots — usually in corners,” he said.
“I have literally cleaned out corners where it’s grown again in the fall or throughout the summer from the previous fall. That’s where all your grain starts to build on top of what’s already growing and then it plugs up the columns.”
The fire risk compounds from there if action isn’t taken, he said.
“By 20 batches it’s, one, overcooked and, two, it’s on fire because it hasn’t moved and it hasn’t cooled.”
Maintain electrical and mechanical components
A pre-season dryer run is key to identifying any potential issues on the electrical and mechanical side, said Hoppins.
“Make sure that the burner is clean, any holes are free of debris and all electrical and gas components are working correctly. Re-grease bearings. Check all the wiring and ground connections for tightness and corrosion.”
A good rule of thumb is to do your pre-season run three weeks to a month before you think you’re going to start harvesting, he said. That doesn’t always happen in real life, however.
“Quite often we see guys fill their wet bins and fire up the burner without doing any maintenance and they assume that just because the dryer worked when they shut it off six months ago that it’s going to work now,” said Hoppins. “But it’s during lack of use that stuff starts to deteriorate and fail. The first time you start it up for the start of the season is usually when we see something fail.”
Watch your heat
It may seem obvious that running grain dryers at excessive temperatures can present a fire risk. However, producers often do just that during the hectic days of harvesting, Krzywy said. This is particularly dangerous when drying an oilseed like canola, which tends to dry hot. He advises his clients to dry oilseeds no higher than 160 F.
“(Producers) get in a hurry,” he said. “They’ve got too much to dry and they’ve got too much on the go so instead of drying canola at 160 F, they put it to 240 F and leave it in there for too long and it starts on fire.
“It’s an oilseed — it will only take so much.”
The province has recommendations for maximum drying temperatures for wheat, barley, flax, oats, canola and peas at www.alberta.ca (search for ‘grain drying’).
Don’t turn your back
Eyes should be kept on running grain dryers for as long as possible, said Hoppins.
“When we bought our grain dryer the salesman told us to never leave it unattended, never walk away from it or leave it,” he said.
“It’s fine if you have to go grab a tool or grab a quick snack or whatever, but 15 to 20 minutes is the maximum that you want to leave it unattended because that’s usually when fires start.”
Reach out to your fire department
A good thing about most rural fire departments is that most of their firefighters have some knowledge of how to fight fires arising from farm equipment — but they’re not all knowing, said Hoppins.
Having your local fire department learn a few things about your specific dryer setup may shave precious seconds off the firefighting process, he said. He suggests inviting the department to your farm to acquaint it with your grain dryer and all other potential fire risks on your property.
“It’s good to have your local department do a tour around your grain dryer so we know where the gas inlet is and where to shut it off, whether you run on propane or natural gas, where the power comes in: Is it a generator or a genset or a power line? We need to know those things so that if something does occur we can quickly access them without having to scramble.
“Also, there is always the chance that we as firefighters might see a hazard that the producer might not.”
They can also have some good tips.
“(On our farm) we have a little plan in case something does go wrong that includes having several fire extinguishers mounted on or around the dryer,” said Hoppins.
“We mounted three: two on the platform of the dryer and one off to the side so that if you can’t access one fire extinguisher you can hopefully access the other two depending on wherever the flames or smoke might be. That way when something does go wrong you have that fire extinguisher handy.”