If you talk to practically any race car driver, they will tell you almost universally that their
worst fear is getting caught in a car fire. A lot of safety equipment--like your firesuit and fire extinguisher--is designed to protect you in the event of a fire, but your fuel cell is one of the few pieces of equipment designed expressly to prevent a fire in the first place.
Because of that, it is also one of the most critical pieces of safety equipment you can own. But in order for it to do its job, a fuel cell has to be in good condition and operating properly. There's a little bit more to it than just dropping it in the trunk and hooking up a fuel line. To find out more, we called up Dave Dack with ATL Fuel Cells. For years ATL has led the way in developing better technologies when it comes to building a better cell. We hit him with the questions we most often hear when it comes to fuel cells, and here's what he had for us:
If it has never been damaged in a wreck, how long can I safely run my fuel cell? Does it wear out? And are there certification dates I need to watch out for?
Most reputable racing sanctioning bodies place a 5-year limit on the use of a bladder. The reason for this is that the fuel cell fabric can be adversely affected by long-term exposure to ozone, aromatics (a type of chemical compound commonly found in fuel), ethanol in the fuel and just general wear and tear. Five years is a conservative lifespan. Though we don't recommend it, we have seen some of our bladders used successfully for more than 10 years.
Are all bladders the same? Do different manufacturers use different materials for the bladder? What works best?
Sure, different fuel cell manufacturers use different materials and technologies to produce their bladders. Naturally, after producing fuel cells for 42 years we have a pretty good understanding of what works and what doesn't. Because of ATL's involvement with bladders for critical marine and defense markets, we are able to do a lot of testing and, as a result, have developed quite a few unique fabrics. For example, we offer extremely thin, ultra-lightweight Kevlar reinforced bladder materials that offer not only a weight advantage, but also a capacity advantage. We also recently developed a "FluoroCell" line of bladders that may be used with all fuels; gasoline, gas/ethanol blends and even 100-percent ethanol or methanol. This double-duty bladder is very unique in the marketplace and allows racers running multiple fuels to purchase one bladder instead of one for gas and one for ethanol.
Everybody has their own marketing speak that makes what they are selling sound like the best thing ever. What types of things should I look for when trying to determine the quality of a manufacturer's fuel cell?
Here’s the reason investing...
Here’s the reason investing in a high quality fuel cell is so important. This car took an extra big lick—hard enough to mangle the rear end and split open the sheet metal outer skin of this ATL fuel cell—but the bladder still managed to contain the fuel so a potential fire was averted.
Not all bladders are the same....
Not all bladders are the same. Different materials have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to not degrading when in the presence of different fuels. Make sure the fuel cell you are using has a bladder constructed from a material that’s appropriate for the fuel you are using.
Make sure your fuel cell is...
Make sure your fuel cell is properly protected inside of its own “rollcage.” Fuel cell manufacturers can be a good resource for information when it comes to how to properly mount a fuel cell in different types of race cars, but you should also check with your track or sanctioning body to make sure your method for mounting is legit by the rule book.
Look for a fuel cell that carries an approval from a reputable sanctioning body or organization such as NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) or the FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile). All of ATL's fuel cells are qualified to NASCAR and/or FIA specifications. Other things you might want to consider when purchasing a fuel cell include the type of hardware used, whether or not the fill plate is affixed to an internal nut-ring (so it can't be easily ripped out in a wreck), whether or not the fuel cell is equipped with check valves for the filler and vent (so it won't spill fuel if the car gets turned upside-down), and more. A lot can be told by the fit and finish of the components and the quality of the hardware used.
Can you describe the best way to mount a fuel cell in my race car?
Although ATL does include basic mounting instructions with all fuel cells, we encourage our customers to refer to the applicable sanctioning body's rule book so they may be assured that their installation will be compliant with the rule book.
I've been in a wreck and the sheetmetal casing is dented (or torn), but the fuel cell isn't leaking. How do I determine if I can still use the cell?
Carefully remove the bladder from the can and closely examine the bladder for any subtle signs of damage. These may include abrasions, nicks, burns, and any other sign of damage. If all looks good, it's a good idea to take the next step and disassemble the bladder so that you can inspect the inside. Sometimes the safety foam shifts on impact. Also, fuel lines can be pulled loose or kinked. If it all looks good and the bladder is within date, it can likely be reused after minor wrecks. If the wreck was serious or you discovered damage to the bladder, then it should be returned to the factory for inspection and repair if necessary.
I've been in a wreck and the fuel cell is leaking. Can it be repaired or is it trash?
Provided the bladder is within the date requirement (less than 5 years old), most bladders can be repaired by ATL. Do not attempt a "home repair." Sometimes home remedies applied in the field make a permanent factory repair impossible.
You have several different levels of fuel cells in your catalog. How do I determine which is the best fit for my needs?
We understand that the fuel cell selection process can be confusing because of our many offerings. Because of this, our new catalog has a full page entitled "What's the Difference?" that explains all of the different types of cells that we offer and what each one is appropriate for. If racers are still unsure, they are welcome to call our dealers or us directly for technical assistance.
Lately, there have been a lot of easy-to-install fuel injection systems coming on the market. Since the Cup Series is going to fuel injection I've talked to my local track about trying one out. Can a conventional stock car racing fuel cell be made to work on a fuel injected motor? For example, is there an easy way to handle the fuel return line? Does a cell for fuel injection need a sump area for the pickup?
Although ATL is busy building Cup bladders for the new fuel injection program, we have actually been involved with in-tank pumps for EFI systems for more than a decade. ATL was supplying pump equipped cells for EFI equipped ASA cars back in 1999!
Due to the critical need to supply uninterrupted fuel flow in EFI systems, ATL has developed a number of tricks to accomplish this. In most cases a built-in collector reservoir is installed within the fuel bladder, but ATL also offers a loose collector system that may be retro-fitted to convert a conventional bladder to support an EFI system. ATL's fuel cell systems are offered with or without internal fuel pumps while a selection of hardware provides for electrical and return line pass-through fittings.
If you're in the process of building up a new car for the '12 or you just need to upgrade your fuel cell, keep these simple tips handy as they will help ensure that you choose the right fuel cell, keeping you safe every time you strap into the car.
Next to your helmet, a good fuel cell is one of the most critical safety components you can own. Here's how to make sure it takes care of you.
If you have been in a tough...
If you have been in a tough wreck, it’s always a good idea to check the internals of your fuel cell. Even if the cell isn’t leaking, the foam and pickup may have shifted which can keep you from being able to use your entire fuel load.
Now this is a high-tech bag!...
Now this is a high-tech bag! You are looking at a Kevlar reinforced fuel cell bladder from ATL. The Kevlar allows the bladder to be thinner than practically anything else out there without sacrificing safety. The result is the bladder not only weighs less, but the thinness means you can squeeze a little bit more capacity compared to your standard fuel cell size.
When choosing a fuel cell,...
When choosing a fuel cell, make sure all the openings are fitted with check valves so that fuel can’t pour out if, for some reason, your race car ends up upside down. Also make sure the fill plate isn’t just bolted directly to the sheetmetal casing. Instead, there should be a backing plate (also called a “nut ring”) to provide extra strength.