Boating Safety Is For Life

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Boating Safety News; Fires

Well, it's  spring and it's time again for people to start preparing their boats for the season. So here is a reprint of my annual rant on boat fires.  Do not fall into the trap of thinking that modern boats with more sophisticated fuel and electrical systems are immune to this.  Care and proper maintenance must be taken before using your boat.

My Annual Spring Rant About Boat Fires:
This is the season for spring fitting out. People are anxious to get out on the water and have fun. But it is also the season for boat fires and explosions. In fact it's already started to happen.  The reason is simple. Lack of adequately preparing your boat for the season ahead, and being a little too hasty when fueling your boat. Here is a post I made about this in 2008. It still applies.
In some cases it is self explanatory, especially for those occurring in the Spring when boats are being brought out of storage, or fires that occur just after fueling. Most fires are electrical in origin, but if you have a gasoline powered boat the danger of a catastrophic explosion is very real.  Fortunately there are few deaths, but they do happen, and the injuries are usually horrific. The destruction is usually total.

The key to all of this is following proper maintenance of fuel and electrical systems, and fueling procedures. I cannot stress maintenance enough. Every spring, check your fuel system. Replace any hoses or fittings that are questionable. Have the tank and fuel system pressure tested for leaks. Check the clamps that keep the hoses in place. If they have started to corrode, replace them. Make sure the clamps you replace them with are 316L stainless steel, including the screw that tightens the clamp. Often the band is stainless but the screw is not. Fuel systems are not the place to try to save a few bucks. Make sure the hoses are USCG Type A hoses. Look for the label on the hose. Automotive fuel hose is not the same thing.  Again, don’t try to save a few bucks here.  Do not use automotive parts, either as hose or electrical parts on the engine. Do not replace starters, alternators and carburetors with automotive parts. They may look the same, but they are not the same. Electrical equipment needs to be marine UL listed, and ignition protected.  If your boat is an outboard, replace the fuel hoses with Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) hoses. They are designed to be UV resistant and must meet marine industry standards.

Every time you use the boat, check the engine compartment first. Take a look at the fuel system and fittings. Sniff for fumes. Adequately ventilate before attempting to start the boat. Run the blower for at least four minutes.  If the engine doesn’t start don’t keep cranking.  It isn’t good for the starter, and it could overheat the wires to the starter.  Wait a minute, and try again. If after a few tries it still won’t start, stop trying and find out why it isn’t starting.  Fix the problem before trying again.

Fueling is one procedure you need to be very careful about. There is a very specific way to fuel a boat.

1. Tie up your boat securely and have everyone get off the boat.  Shut off all the power on the boat. Turn off the battery switches.  If you have a propane system with any automatic pilot lights, shut them off. Obviously, NO SMOKING.

2. Close up the boat tight. Make sure all the hatches, doors, ports and vents are closed.
 NOTE: some people make the mistake of running the bilge blower while fueling.  DO NOT DO THIS. You are actually sucking fumes into the boat.  Wait until after fueling to run the blower, see step 6.

3. Fuel the boat yourself.  Make sure the nozzle is in the right opening.  You would be surprised at how many people have tried to fuel through a fish pole holder or filled the water tank with gas. Make sure the nozzle stays in metal to metal contact with the fuel fill.  Your tank and fuel system are grounded and electrically connected to the fuel fill so any static will be harmlessly discharged.  However, if you don't make initial contact with the fill a spark could jump from the fueling hose to the boat.

4. Make every attempt not to spill fuel or over fill the tank.  Know how much your tank holds and keep track of how much you use.  Know how much you need to pump. Clean up any drips or spills on the boat.  Dispose of the rags properly. Do not spill overboard. This not only pollutes the environment, it can get you a hefty fine.

5. Now, open the boat up completely. Open the doors, windows, hatches, ports and the engine room.  Check the engine room and bilge for fuel by both looking and sniffing.  The best gas detector is your nose. Thoroughly ventilate the boat, especially the engine room.

6. Turn the battery switch on and start the engine room blower. Let it run for at least five minutes.

7. Start the engines. Close up the engine room hatch and other doors and hatches you don't want open.  Get everyone back on board.  Turn on any other power switches and appliances that need to be on.

8. Get underway

What about electrical fires? One very common scenario is leaving the boat hooked up to shore power during the winter, using a space heater, and not checking on the boat. The shore power plug can become a real hot spot. Most electrical fires are a result of high resistance in a plug or other electrical device, creating enough heat to catch fire. High resistance occurs most often at connections. The shore power plug is just one of those connections. The others are connections between wires and electrical devices, connections in the panel box to a buss or to circuit breakers and fuses.

Corrosion is the main culprit. The damp environment leads to rapid corrosion. Corrosion does not conduct electricity very well. This can even occur in fuse holders.  Fuse holders are usually copper. Copper corrodes rapidly in a marine environment, especially if it’s saltwater. Keep wiring out of the bilges. If your boat should flood during the winter, you may have to replace all the wiring and electrical equipment. Get it inspected by a certified MARINE electrician. All electrical systems need to be inspected annually, at the least.  If you don’t use your boat very often, you should check each time you use the boat.  Plugs and connectors should be kept clean and shiny.  Check fuse blocks for corrosion and clean the contacts. Check circuit breakers for proper operation. Check electrical equipment for proper operation.  If something keeps tripping the circuit breaker or blowing a fuse, find out why. Do not ignore it or jump the breaker or fuse. Fix the problem. Not doing so could mean a fire.

If you have shore power, pull the plug on both ends and inspect the cord and both ends for corrosion. Do a resistance test.  If it’s any more than 0 ohms, or at most 1 ohm, find out why.  If the cord is getting old, cracking, getting soft, or frayed, replace it. Check the shore power socket on the boat. Is it clean and free from corrosion? Check the cap over the socket to make sure it is keeping moisture out of the socket.  All of these things will help prevent fires on your boat.

Stay safe, be safe.
Peter Eikenberry,

As an additional safety measure, here is a sign you can post on a fuel pump or near the fuel fills on your boat.

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