Many fires and carbon monoxide incidents happen as a result of human error, poor installation of equipment/appliances and – on occasion – dangerous practices by boaters.
Many people do not appreciate the risks associated with boats and their domestic equipment and installations. Even a moderate sized boat can carry hundreds of litres of diesel, tens of kilograms of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and 20-50 litres of petrol. These fuels are combined with readily combustible materials such as wood and fibre/glass-reinforced-plastic and they are all placed in close proximity to sources of heat and ignition such as engines or appliances, 12 or 24V DC and 240V AC electrics and solid fuel stoves.
Due to the fuels, boat construction and the nature of moorings, fire can easily spread to, and damage, neighbouring crafts, adjacent jetties and nearby properties.
This is a wide subject but, according to Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) records, electrical problems have been in the top three causes of boat fires in the past five years.
Flawed installations, poor maintenance, inappropriate appliances or incorrect use are the root of many incidents – especially in an environment with vibrations, flexing, humidity, high and low temperatures, cramped spaces, water and, in many cases, salt exposure – electrical systems and installations face a lot of stress compared with the same sort of electrical needs in buildings. Boat owners need to keep their eyes, ears and noses alert and deal with any problems immediately.
The key potential electrical hazard points include loose connections; worn, chaffed or cracked insulation on wires; exposed battery terminals; low levels of fluid in batteries, combined with inappropriate battery charging; unsuitable or badly maintained appliances; poor fusing and defective breakers; inverters/generators; and damaged shore line cables, plugs and sockets.
The BSS urges owners to keep their boats well maintained and to keep alert to possible leaks, poor running engines and the strong smell of petrol. They advise that escaping vapour will sink to the lowest level of its surroundings; it builds-up at low level in places such as cabin floors, lockers, bilges and other ‘still-air’ spaces.
Even if the concentration of vapour is too rich to ignite immediately, it will dilute, creating the potential for a serious fire and/or an explosion, even though, given enough ventilation, it may dissipate to a safe level eventually.
These are ten petrol safety essentials that will help keep you and your crew safe:
- Before starting out, use all senses to check the fuel system and engine for petrol leaks or any signs of damage or deterioration. Have any problems sorted out first.
- Do not switch on the electrical supply or turn the ignition key if there’s a strong smell of petrol. Stop immediately if there’s a strong smell of petrol after you start.
- Keep vapour out of the boat! Before refuelling, close all windows, hatches, doors and awnings; also turn off all cooking appliances and any other ignition sources.
- Double check before you start pouring, that you are using the correct filling point.
- Afterwards, clean up any spills straight away. Be sure to re-secure the filler cap.
- Avoid decanting petrol from containers, but if you must, use anti-spill containers, spouts or nozzles to allow, clean and easy, no-spill refuelling.
- Don’t carry spare fuel, unless it is needed and then it must be in cans specifically designed for petrol. Always keep within the legal capacity limits.
- Containers should never be filled completely and must be stowed securely upright, away from intense heat and out of direct sunlight to prevent pressurisation.
- Refuel any portable engine or tank ashore and safely away from any sources of ignition. Always follow marina / mooring rules on petrol refuelling and handling.
- Never use any bowl, bucket or other open container to carry or transfer petrol or mix in 2-stroke oil.
For more detail go to www.boatsafetyscheme.org/petrolsafety
Solid fuel stoves
Solid fuel stoves continue to be a significant cause of fire on inland waterway boats. These heaters are very popular on narrowboats, coastal barges and on some classic and vintage yachts or ex-fishing boats.
There were at least two dozen boaters hurt and five killed in using solid fuel stoves in the first decade of the 21st century. There have many other incidents where no one was hurt but the boat and belongings aboard suffered a lot of damage.
From the incident data, the BSS have highlighted six risks that must be avoided or managed, if boaters and crews are to keep safe with solid fuel stoves:
- A lack of crew appreciation or vigilance, combined with poor appliance air inlet control, leading to ‘over-firing’ of the stove causing a boat fire.
- Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning due to the escape of stove flue gases into the cabin.
- Items and materials being too close and getting too hot for too long.
- Running stoves with doors open (forgetfulness, naivety, broken catches, falling asleep).
- Poor maintenance and misuse of the stove leading to a chimney fire.
- Poor stowage of hot/cooling ash and embers, either in the cabin or in unprotected areas of risk on decks (near flammable objects, near cabin ventilators, on combustible surfaces, etc).
Good information explaining how to avoid these risks is available at www.boatsafetyscheme.org/stay-safe/solid-fuel-stoves
Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)
Fixed gas systems must be installed to accepted boat installation standards and in accordance with the appliance manufacturer’s instructions. Gas appliances and flues should be routinely serviced and maintained.
The BSS encourages owners to always use a competent person to carry out work on LPG systems. Ask a local boatyard or contact the Gas Safe Register for details. In addition:
- Make sure gas canisters, bottles or cylinders are stored upright and where any leaking gas will flow overboard and not into the interior of the craft. Preferably, this will be in a suitable, vapour-tight, self-draining locker.
- Check flexible hoses for damage or deterioration. If you’re in any doubt about their good condition, get them professionally checked and renewed.
- Check your LPG system for leakage by routine observation of a bubble tester installed in the cylinder locker, or by testing all joints with leak detection fluid.
Portable ‘camping style’ equipment
Owners of boats without proper galley facilities are recommended to consider using a flask for hot drinks when aboard as portable camping equipment is not suitable.
Following explosions, fires and CO incidents in boats, caravans and other enclosed spaces, boaters should heed any instructions for portable gas equipment that states it should only be used outdoors.
Unless any portable gas equipment is specifically designed for boat use, then it should only be used ashore. And whatever else happens, fuel canisters should always be changed away from the boat and away from ignition sources. Equipment and canisters should be stowed in a self-draining gas locker, or on open deck where any escaping gas can flow overboard.