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  #1  
Old 01-24-2011
LarryandSusanMacDonald's Avatar
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Boat fires

A few weeks ago, we had a boat fire in our marina. No one was hurt, and the fire was contained to just one boat because the fire department arrived in just a few minutes, so it could have been much worse. The interior of the boat was pretty much destroyed.

The fire marshal, upon investigating, discovered that it started where the battery charger was plugged into an outlet in the engine compartment. This was on a trawler so the fire started deep within the boat and was well underway before it was discovered. Apparently, insulation in the wiring had degraded and caused arcing, which caused the fire. (I've never been able to imagine how someone could determine something like this when the evidence must have been almost completely obliterated.)

However, this incident has prompted several conversations over rum on the dock between myself, who knows a little bit about boat wiring and my friend Mike who knows a great deal about boat wiring.

We decided that beyond Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI), which may have prevented the problem would be a Heat Sensing Circuit Interrupter, for those times when a plug is loose in a socket, or a wire has come loose from a lug, enough to cause resistance but not enough to cause arcing.

Of course, because rum was involved, we convinced ourselves that we could invent such a device and become overnight gazillionaires. Once sobriety reared its ugly head, the research began. I looked first to the US Patent Office - they have patent research tools on line - and could find nothing on a scale small enough to suit our purposes. So I looked into the retail end and was, of course, crushed to find that our device has already been invented and is on the market (and patented though I hadn't found it).

Is this getting too long? Sorry.

But they didn't have anything for the Marine Market. So I e-mailed them and asked about that and the CEO promptly wrote back and indicated that they were planning on addressing the marine market.

Many boat fires have been started at the shore power inlet on a boat. And many on unattended boats with electric heaters plugged in.

Often, electrical receptacles (that's fun to say) on the interior of boats are bought at the local hardware store and are not "Marine Quality" (Which often means the same product with the price tripled.)

As a live-aboard who has a couple of electric heaters plugged in 24/7 this time of year, I am considering ordering a couple of these and installing them to protect us from fires caused by our electric heaters.

I am writing this to pass on this information to others who may have the same concerns. I have no relationship with this company - but here is the link if you wish to check it out:
Preventing Electrical Fires | Fire Prevention Outlet | BSafe Electrix

I would welcome any discussion from boat electricians, live-aboards, surveyors or anyone else for that matter.
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Old 01-24-2011
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Arc fault breakers are currently the best new thing BUT there still working there way into the code on land

On of the bigger issues to still be adressed is all this stuff weres OUT
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Old 01-24-2011
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However, this really isn't a solution. The problem was in the wiring, not at the outlet, and this would have done nothing to prevent the fire in the OP.

The real key is proper maintenance and regular inspection.

The one location where the thermal circuit protection really makes sense is the main shorepower inlet socket...since that is the most exposed and generally receives a lot of wear and tear. Smartplug has a new shorepower inlet that is thermally protected and the pin design is much better than the old 30 amp twist-lock connectors that are the current standard.

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Old 01-24-2011
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Quote:
owever, this really isn't a solution. The problem was in the wiring, not at the outlet, and this would have done nothing to prevent the fire in the OP.
I guess I didn't make it clear - the problem was in the wiring IN the receptacle.

Also, I've seen those SmartPlugs - great idea - but as I recall pretty pricey. Though I would have to agree, not as pricey as a boat fire.

I wonder if insurance companies could be persuaded to reduce premiums for boats which have installed such devices? It certainly would reduce their risk and encourage boaters in the lower income categories to install them.
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Old 01-24-2011
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Always good to hear no one was hurt. Smoke alarms can be fitted almost anywere and give an early warning as most fires of this nature begin with some smoke before combustion takes place. Some of the more expensive types can shut down fuel and electric supplys reducing the risk significantly when fires start in remote areas or when no one is aboard.
Safe sailing.
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Old 01-24-2011
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Larry—

This is one reason I have separate outlets and circuits, so I can minimize the number of live outlets when the boat is unattended. Proper wiring, inspection and maintenance goes a long way to preventing these types of fires.
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Old 01-24-2011
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Quote:
Originally Posted by LarryandSusanMacDonald View Post
I guess I didn't make it clear - the problem was in the wiring IN the receptacle.

Also, I've seen those SmartPlugs - great idea - but as I recall pretty pricey. Though I would have to agree, not as pricey as a boat fire.

I wonder if insurance companies could be persuaded to reduce premiums for boats which have installed such devices? It certainly would reduce their risk and encourage boaters in the lower income categories to install them.
if the problem was in the receptacle, and it wasnt overly old/tinkered with/modified etc, may not some liability lie with the manufacturer?
while im not a fire investigator, i believe the trace back to causality has to do with the various amount of 'melting' that occurs at different points in the chain... ie, where the the fire began the 'melting' should be greater than where it 'fizzled out'
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Old 01-24-2011
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Quote:
if the problem was in the receptacle, and it wasnt overly old/tinkered with/modified etc, may not some liability lie with the manufacturer?
It was an older boat - probably 3 or 4 decades - so probably an older receptacle. It was, as SailingDog indicates, probably a problem with lack of maintenance.

Quote:
while im not a fire investigator, i believe the trace back to causality has to do with the various amount of 'melting' that occurs at different points in the chain... ie, where the the fire began the 'melting' should be greater than where it 'fizzled out'
That makes good sense. You're probably right, though I wouldn't be surprised if they had other tricks of the trade, too.
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Old 01-24-2011
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Proper marine electrical systems and wiring are absolutely essential IMO

The Smart Plug is on our list (It includes a built in surge protector) but it costs $200 at West Marine and does not include the cord - another $80 (Retail)

Our current set up is the standard Marinco unit.

What amazes me is how many boaters will use an adapter and a cheap extension cord instead of proper wiring. Yes, it costs a few hundred $ to do it right. How much does it cost after the fire?

Another issue: In this case, what kind of charger was being used? Any boat with inboard engine(s) should have a built in marine charging system and proper shore power wiring.

A good friend of mine in Hawaii lost his boat to a fire caused by an automotive battery charger left unattended. Going cheap on this sort of thing is foolish economy IMO.
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Old 01-24-2011
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Coincidentally same thing happened to a newly upgraded and painted Tartan 37 at our marina. The fire as determined by the local Fire Department started inside the on board receptacle. Smoke damage inside the boat doomed it to parting out and scrap.
Another finding was that the voltage was a low 90v.

Dick
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