Chemical Fire Engines

Updated: Jun 25

Chemical fire engines once were an important part of the American fire service. From the 1880s until the 1930s, fire engines equipped with soda-acid “chemical” tanks served in communities of all sizes. Chemical fire engines came in many different types and sizes and were built as hand- and horse-drawn. Later, they would be built in a variety of motorized configurations.

Soda-acid chemical systems for firefighting were developed in the 1860s and 1870s. These systems relied upon a chemical reaction to create pressure that would force water out of a tank and through a hose. These systems typically consisted of a copper tank in which there was a mixture of soda water. This was water to which sodium bicarbonate, better known as baking soda, was added. Within the tank, a powerful acid, like sulfuric acid, was held in a glass jar.

When it was time to use the chemical system, a lever was used to break the glass jar. This would release the acid into the soda water. This would initiate a chemical reaction that would release carbon dioxide gas. This reaction would create pressure, which in turn would force water out of the tank.