The recent release of the Fire Protection Research Foundation’s second project on electrical hazards in the marina and boatyard environment, Marina Risk Reduction, provides a comprehensive approach to identifying the potential hazards and developing strategies to eliminate the hazard or reduce the risk associated with the hazard. As a member of the Project Technical Panel, I think I echo the sentiments of the entire team in saying that the project authors, Dr. Brian Meacham and Woojung Park of Worcester Polytechnic Institute did an outstanding piece of work on this extremely important topic. If you've got a minute, listen to Casey Grant, executive director of the Research Foundation, who provides a great overview of the report in this short video below. The old adage that water and electricity don’t mix are certainly words to live by, however, we cannot always avoid the mixing of the two, and let’s face it, their interface is necessary. Whether it is a water pump, a boat hoist, a shore power connection to watercraft or an underwater power cable, the fact is water and electricity are co-mingling every day. So the challenge becomes how to accomplish this interface safely and avoid ESD tragedies. Certainly requirements in documents such as NFPA 70: National Electrical Code, NFPA 303: Fire Protection Standard for Marinas and Boatyards and NFPA 302: Fire Protection Standard for Pleasure and Commercial Motor Craft. are great benchmarks for safe installations of electrical equipment on shore and in water craft. Article 555 on marinas and boatyards of the NEC has received a lot of attention over the last three revision cycles and requirements have been added to raise the level of safety in those environments. The 2017 NEC now extends the requirements of Article 555 to private boat docks and piers at one-, two- and multi-family dwellings. The electrons do not know whether they are at a one-family dwelling or a large commercial marina!
Another member of the FPRF Project Technical Panel, Donny Cook, the chief electrical inspector for Shelby County Alabama and a member of NFPA’s Board of Directors, invited me to accompany him along with representatives from Alabama Power, Schneider Electric and the Shelby County Sheriff’s department (to run interference for us) on an information-gathering trip on the Coosa River in Shelby County. Two recent electric shock drowning incidents on Lake Tuscaloosa in a nearby county have led to a heightened awareness of this problem with many of the involved stakeholders. The water level of the Coosa River is controlled by Alabama Power and it is a huge reservoir dotted with hundreds of private homes and camps, the majority of which have a dock or pier.
The day in the hot Alabama sun (tough on a northern guy) was spent checking for the presence of voltage in the water adjacent to docks. From our vantage point in boats it was evident that most of the docks and piers were supplied by some level of electric power.
The wiring was in various states of repair. Some of it appeared to have been professionally installed and there was some that I will call “camp wiring.” Such wiring is generally not installed by a professional, is done without permits and inspection, and is typically not NEC compliant. Although the Alabama Power representatives did not find any locations where the voltage in the water raised their level of concern, the fact remains that there is electrical infrastructure near and in that body of water, and the condition of that infrastructure was alarming in some cases. (See picture below.)
The other observation that resonates with me and I think a huge piece of this puzzle is, maintenance or the lack thereof. A perfectly code-compliant installation is never safer than the day it is installed, particularly in an environment that subjects the equipment to harsh conditions. Accidents, of course, are never planned; they are a confluence of conditions that under the right timing and circumstances manifest into the hazard. I observed several “accidents waiting to happen” during our day on the water that could be mitigated with a little bit of maintenance (See picture below).
The Marina Risk Reduction report sheds a much needed light on this issue. We are already talking about how it can be used by various stakeholder groups from enforcers to contractors to the property owners themselves to mitigate hazards and reduce the risk of exposure to potentially lethal levels of electric current where they recreate.
Additional information about ESD, the NEC and related codes can be found on NFPA's website.