I wish I didn’t have to write this, but I want to make sure nobody gets hurt. After doing a lot of investigation I’m going to point out what, in all likelihood was the most probable reason for the total Fire loss of my 2012 Toyota FJ cruiser. First the disclaimer: I am not certain about ANY of these things, it’s only reasoned speculation given the facts that I do know. I am not able to pin fault on anyone, any company, or any part. What follows is a narrative based on countless discussions I’ve had with Toyota, State Farm, professional installers, electric brake controller companies and brake wiring companies. Once again, they are a guess.
Because I’m not 100% certain, I will not “out” the “professional installation” company.
I’m going to start out with the bottom line for those of you who really don’t need the justification or technical details. Then if you’re interested read on after that. If you disagree with my conclusion please tell me and I’ll consider adding or modifying this report – above all we want the facts. I actually do want you to give me your informed input, let’s get this right. But, please don’t ask questions unless you’ve read this entire report, just so that you have all the correct context.
Here is the relevant conclusion:
If you are about to install a hitch on your vehicle there is more than one way to get it done. If your vehicle already has a factory installed drop hitch (receiver hitch) with a flat 4 conductor brake and signal light connector then you are in luck (actually in the case of Toyota FJ it’s not factory installed exactly, but installed at the receiving shipping port, presumably by Toyoto folks, or contractors).
In that scenario then the flat connector is already there for trailer lights. However if you’re needing to install an electric break controller for your RV or pop-up camper in all likely-hood the round, 7 pin connector will utilize the existing flat connector as far as obtaining the source of the signal and brake lights. I’ll get into this later. So in this instance just verify they’ve used that pre-wire, and while you’re at it, go ahead and make VERY sure that the power lead for the brakes on the trailer involves TWO circuit breakers located in the hood.
Now, the second scenario is what applied to my 2012 FJ Cruiser, and it’s in this instance that a perfect storm of problems came together. There was no factory (or shipping port) installed receiver hitch, however there is a cable with a connector available to use. That cable is only wire installed from the factory. This wire runs up to the front, but in order to use it you would need to install switches and fuses. Soooo… that’s why if you don’t do this yourself there’s a possibility that the installer will want the easier way, he’ll want to charge you for a kit to “pig-tail” into the existing signal lights.
Bottom line in this case, DON’T do it, or don’t let him do it!! Use the pre-wired cable/port and install the switches and fuses necessary. Be sure to have the mechanic SHOW you the switches and fuses. In addition, look under your vehicle and visually confirm that the wiring harness is indeed connected to the prewire. You can tell if it doesn’t because if it doesn’t then it will route up into the FJ fender/rear light area. If you decide to not take this advice, then be absolutely certain that the power lead (Red lead stubbing out of the black box that routes to the battery) absolutely has a 10 amp fuse in the circuit!
So, that’s the end of the summary – now for the details:
At the time I really had not given much thought to the technical details of a trailer hitch. After all, I really never thought that miss wiring (from a professional) could be so bad that your vehicle would burn up! But it's possible that it did, and since I really didn’t want to see the FJ take the blame, I would not be able to buy a replacement FJ unless I totally immersed myself in the details. I was going to have to “own” the issue, the cause as best I could, to disarm the enemy by understanding it. You know the old saying: “fool me once – shame on you, fool me twice – shame on me”. I now believe I’m comfortable with the notion that it’s unlikely the FJ had any blame, given the following facts.
I had been trailering my pop-up camper for almost two years and using the 7 pin round connector. I had never had the opportunity to use the 4 pin flat connector until that fateful day when I rented a small 8 foot utility trailer from Home Depot, which had no electric brakes. So this would be the first time I used the flat connector. So for a long time I thought the flat connector and wiring MUST be different, and whatever was involved in the difference is what caused the fire. But, not so fast! Although I can’t prove it, I’ve also always felt the utility trailer must have had a ground fault, and since that was the first time I had pulled anything but the camper then it’s possible that the same result could have happened if the camper had ever had a ground fault.
When I rented the small utility trailer I checked the brake lights at the time, they were working. It’s still possible to have a ground fault and the trailer lights still work. So my assumption is the trailer had a ground fault of some type. Then my next assumption is that my trailer harness wiring was not fused correctly, or not at all, or there was a perfect storm of some other wiring problem.
But let me get to the meat of this. This is the product that my professional installer had me purchase for them to install:
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this means they were pushing me into the “easier” way – that is, bridge into the tail light harnesses with adapters, instead of using the pre-wired cable furnished with the vehicle, which would have required more work with switches and fuses.
Anyway, notice on the installation there is a red lead that stubs out of the harness box – this lead is supposed to connect to the battery via the 10 amp yellow fuse lead. So now I’m going to make the leap assumption that possibly (again, not proven) that the fuse was not used, or was incorrectly oversized. Possibly the “easy” route was to wire the red wire directly to the black wire that routes to the battery.
So, if that’s what happened, and in the case of the trailer ground fault, then an unlimited amount of current (something like 600 amps or so) could have been on that red wire, which caught on fire, and caught the other leads on fire.
Now, briefly to the fire. It was another motorist that signaled to the back of the FJ as I was traveling west bound on Interstate 30 in Dallas, just before the Sylvan Exit. I pulled over with my empty Home Depot trailer – at this point I only had the trailer hooked up about 20 minutes. I exited to the service road, which as folks around here know is pretty much another 3 lane highway at high speed!! I stepped out and saw smoke coming out of the bottom, rear, both sides and all across. The smoke was pretty much just outside. I opened the door and could see just a little bit of smoke coming in near the fender areas. Within seconds the smoke got very heavy and my FJ was powered down. I thought it was on fire, but I saw no flame, and figured the flames were underneath the rear fenders. I had no fire extinguisher (this will change) – but even if I would have there was no ready access to the wiring harness, which to me was pretty much the obvious spot. I panicked, thinking (but not correctly) that the fuel tank was positioned directly under the fire, so I dialed 911 and called the Dallas Fire Department. DFD was there very quickly, maybe 5-7 minutes. They were all over the FJ, inside and outside. Eventually the smoke was gone and nothing was found, no source of fire. In fact the DFD used a couple of infrared detectors ALL OVER the vehicle – no source of heat found at that time.
This is important because you’ll be asking why they left. They left because the fire was out, smoke was gone, and the situation seemed under control. The DFD had me pull into the main Dallas post office parking lot (2 blocks) and call a wrecker. They watched me shut down the FJ and I waved to them that I was fine. I turned off the vehicle and called a wrecker, then I called my wife (so she could grab a rental truck), and made a few other calls. I had moved the trailer away from the FJ and had most of my belongings in the FJ moved to the trailer, in advance of the wrecker arriving. I even went into the Post Office to see if I could borrow their facilities (no, of course not... but I digress). It was about an hour since the DFD left and I was back in the FJ (no key in ignition) and making more calls. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but I saw smoke again, just while I was sitting there! Then I’m thinking “this is electrical, I better pull every fuse I can find” – so just after I opened the hood someone yelled “hey, your car’s on fire!”, I looked to the rear and it was well engulfed in flames – too late, so quick. DFD dispatched for a second time – and although I do not fault them they were visibly embarrassed. I mean what should they have done, my vehicle seemed fine and they were not about to take an axe to the fenders.
My theory is that the first burn shorted the circuitry and the new ground faults were still conducting. But an hour is a long time – very odd. At this point the “Postal Police” are telling me to “get back, get away, it’s gonna blow!” Another young man ran up with a fire extinguisher and asked me if I wanted it, but it was too late and nobody was getting hurt, and I wanted it to stay that way. Ironically, this young man was a defense attorney for Toyota in a case – I think he said it was the brake case but not sure. This has no bearing to my story other than how weird this day turned out to be on so many different fronts. What are the odds?
You’ll notice in the video a few small explosions – after talking with the fire department, they tell me from the car fires they routinely get involved with, that these explosions are normal, caused by pressurized mags or even the air bag system. I’m not sure what he meant by the mags other than something to do with the wheels/brakes/hydrolics? Somebody else know?
So here is a list of summarized recommendations for the FJ Cruiser membership, feel free to add on:
Never use the bridged T – (T-Tap) connectors if you have the option to use the prewire.
Meaning, there is a cable on the FJs and most SUVs that is prewired from the engine area to the back of the vehicle – make them use that. So what if it costs more?
If you do “tap in” to the existing lights, be sure of these points:
Ensure the 10 amp fuse is installed in between the wiring harness and the battery.
Ensure you look at ALL the handy work of the wiring – no nicked wires, no loose wires, use of external sheathing around the insulated wires.
You MUST watch the mechanic / installer TEST the wiring with his high dollar “current measurement” tool, not just a cheapie continuity tester.
The most danger, in my opinion, can happen when you are having someone install a drop hitch and brake controller at the same time – because that means there isn’t an existing factory/port installed flat connector – so, # 1 and # 2 apply in that situation. If the factory/port already installed the hitch then it’s very SIMPLE to use that flat connector with the electric brake 7 pin connector.
BE SURE TO CONFIRM that the electric brake controller installer installed the two circuit breakers next to the battery. These are used to protect the power going to the trailer brakes themselves.
That’s about it – I realize it’s long winded but the FJ Cruiser crowd WANTS the details, this I know. Feel free to ask any question or make comments.
I am not trying to say I am an expert, I just want to help others avoid this situation, this could easily have taken my life, but God was there with me, and he was there with the Lady who cared enough to point and warn me about the smoke. Had she not done that and the fire had broke through the inside fender then the oxygen would have rushed in and fueled the fire - the headliner would have caught me on fire in seconds. I thank God, and I thank Jesus for sparing me from a horrible outcome.
Yes, I am comfortable that the FJ was not at fault, given the analysis, and YES, I now have a brand new, Cement 2014 FJ Cruiser!
-Patrick, Dallas, TX
ALL OEM .. even the oil filter..
MINT 2007 4x4 FJ Cruiser STICK SHIFT - Rear Diff Lock, A-Trac, subwoofer, OEM roof lights and bumper fin fog lights from Dubai, inner/outer door sils from the Far East
81k miles of nothing but pure adventure around North America. All scratches come out immediately. Must remain in showroom condition forever !
First; it boils my mind to think that the USPS wouldn't let you use their facilities... it's a federal building and it's YOUR PROPERTY.
Second; were the breakers that came with the kit the "auto-reset" type? If they were, that was the fuel to the catalyst, which would be a shorted wire (or as you called it, a "ground-fault". The short to ground was still a problem when the FD left, and the breaker reset sometime after they left. The battery should have been disconnected immediately; I'm surprised (dumbfounded) that nobody (especially the FD) did not do this.
I posted earlier this week on another thread (all apologies; I cannot recall the thread, but I believe it had to do with fusing the circuitry for a winch installation) about those "auto-reset" breakers. I was an electrical engineer developing systems for mobile applications for many years (fire apparatus i.e. trucks and rescue vehicles, ambulance, and luxury super-coaches), and I've seen those breakers cause fires where lives were nearly lost, specifically (ironically) when used to protect trailer wiring.
My advice to ALL... DO NOT USE AUTO-RESET BREAKERS. I can't stress my point enough; I'm also surprised that NTSB still allows them to be manufactured. My point has been proven again...
So very sorry for your experience, but nobody was hurt (thank The Man) and you now have a new FJ.
Fire extinguishers will suppress an electrical fire, but not extinguish it. They are made for saving lives until other arrangements can be made. The best thing to do is install an emergency disconnect in a strategic location on the exterior of the vehicle, such as within a fenderwell.