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Florida marina lights the way on electrical leaks

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The American Boat and Yacht Council has recognized a Florida yacht club marina for its comprehensive effort to modernize its electrical system and help boat owners address the dangers of electricity in the marine environment.

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"As part of their inspection, not only did they identify faults on the dock, but they also identified faults with many of their members' boats," says Ed Sherman, ABYC curriculum design/senior technical instructor. "Many of these issues go unnoticed until someone gets electrocuted or there is a fire. And they're very insidious types of problems, because they can just float along unnoticed for years."

The Sarasota Yacht Club's annual galvanic electrical survey of its marina snowballed into a full assault on potentially unsafe electrical wiring, connections and currents, according to Pete Kujawski, the marina committee member who managed the project.

"The first thing we did was hire a contractor to go through every pedestal, every light fixture, the dockmaster's house, the fuel pump facilities, the lights along the sea wall to make sure they were all up to code," says Kujawski. "When we were sure the marina was right, then we started to address the individual boats."

Of the 104 boats at the marina, 41 failed tests administered by marine surveyor Stanley G. Konz. Of those, 29 were found to have AC current leakage, which can lead to shock and fire hazards. Those boat owners were notified and instructed to hire a marine electrician to troubleshoot and fix the problem.

"Stray current, AC or DC, can show up on any wire, so I tested every wire on the pedestal, shore power and on the boats," says Konz, who used an AC voltage meter and custom-made shore-power adapters to flag stray currents. "The adapters allow me to test the individual line setups and pinpoint any leakage." He tested both 30-amp (120V) and 50-amp (240V) shore-power systems.

The hazards of AC leakage depend on the type of water. Fresh water is a very poor conductor of electricity, "therefore the charge, if it's leaking, builds up around the boat," says Konz. "If a swimmer is too close to that boat, the charge will paralyze the person and cause drowning. In salt water, the danger is a shock hazard. If you're on the boat or close to the boat and touch any of the metal where the AC leakage is, you'll feel the shock." And if the shock is strong enough - 30 milliamps or more - it can cause the heart to defibrillate.

The project also involved testing "hull potential," which measures corrosion protection and seeks out stray current. The work at the marina comes just months before a new ABYC standard goes into effect, according to Sherman. To be considered ABYC-compliant, boatbuilders must outfit their vessels with electrical leakage circuit     interrupters.

"The short and dirty is it's going to shut the boat off if there is any fault current leakage emanating on the boat, which is really common," says Sherman. If the boats with electrical faults at the Sarasota Yacht Club had ELCIs, their electrical systems would have shut down automatically, he says.

"North America is the only place in the world that is as lax as it is with shore-power-related systems," says Sherman, adding that devices that do the same job as an ELCI have been required on boats in Europe and Asia for many years. "We're the last holdout. If you go to Australia, New Zealand or anywhere in Europe it is actually required by local codes."

The ELCI standard becomes effective July 31, 2010, and will only apply to new boats, says Sherman. But he's hoping awareness of the dangers of electrical-related boating accidents will prompt owners to retrofit their electrical systems and install the interrupter. The device is installed in the shore power inlet on the boat. "Typically they will be in the line that goes from the inlet to the boat to the panel board," says Sherman. "In some cases they may actually be installed on the panel board."

For marina operators, electrical problems are potential liability issues, says Sherman. "The solution is not to put a Band-Aid on or wear blinders," he says. "You have got to deal with this."

The electrical testing and upgrades at the yacht club marina cost just under $20,000, with Konz's fee coming in at about $14,000, says Kujawski. However, the work took longer and cost more because the yacht club is in the middle of a major restoration. An electrical survey like this typically would cost a marina $10,000 to $12,000. The entire project will be outlined in a two-part article co-authored by Konz and Kujawski that is expected to appear in ABYC's quarterly publication, Reference Point.

Contacts: ABYC, (410) 990-4460, www.abycinc.org; Stanley Konz, marine surveyor, (941) 351-6311, www.boatquotes.com.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.

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