Spring is right around the corner and after the winter that many of us have experienced, especially in the northern regions of this country, I know I’m not alone when I say that it can’t come soon enough! The snow will melt, the grass will grow, trees will bud, and people will flock to the water. But there is a hidden danger - electricity - in marinas and boatyards that many of us may not be aware of. So whether you own the marina or you're a contractor who services one, there are key safety steps that must be considered and acted upon.
As many of us know, electricity finds its way into the water through a myriad of ways and often can be deadly before an issue is noticed. However, many of the problems that can exist in and around docks and marinas can be prevented or mitigated. Actions can be taken to ensure that the equipment designed to keep us safe remains functional. Regular inspections, testing, and maintenance help to find deficiencies in the system and lifesaving equipment such as ground-fault circuit interrupters. When docks and marinas open up in the springtime they need to be ready to operate safely.
So what does this entail? Taking a deeper dive into the integrity of the electrical system before the boats arrive. What exactly should a marina owner be looking for? Where should they be looking and what should they be doing to make sure that the summer doesn’t start off in tragedy? The following are three considerations you must keep in mind:
1. Test, test, and test some more!
Devices like GFCI receptacles and ground-fault protection circuit breakers always come with a recommendation from the manufacturer to test their functionality on a regular basis. Each device needs to be tested to ensure that it will work when it needs to work. Every manufacturer has their own process, but the basics are the same. Activate the test function, often a button with the word “TEST” on it, and verify that the circuit has indeed been interrupted. This can usually be accomplished without the need for fancy testing equipment, often a simple plug-in circuit tester is sufficient to show power is on and off after the “TEST” function of the receptacle or circuit breaker has been activated. It should be noted that it is important to use the provided test button and not one on a “tester” as the manufacturer put it there for a reason. Many manufacturers require the provided test button be used to verify operation of the unit, but you should check with your specific equipment as to what is allowed.
2. Check the physical condition of the wiring system
The shoreline of a body of water can be an unforgiving place and is brutally hard on electrical systems that are installed in and around the water. Raceways can come apart at fittings from movement due to waves, collisions with boats can damage wiring methods or shake loose connections, and moisture can wreak havoc on anything metal. And if your marina is close to the ocean, all of these issues can be far more exaggerated. So where to look? Wiring around expansion joints or where a dock or pier connects to a solid structure tend to be exposed to movement that is likely to separate conduits whether they are glued or mechanically connected. Another point in the system that is prone to damage is where conduits or other types of raceways connect to fixed equipment. For this reason, keep an eye out for raceways that have pulled loose from boxes and terminations around equipment like shore power outlets or lamp posts. Also, make sure that raceways are still adequately supported. Often the corrosive environments around water can lead to screws and fasteners rusting and falling apart. This can then put a strain on the raceway terminations and ultimately the conductors themselves.
3. Obtain a leakage current measurement device
A leakage current measurement device is a tool that every marina owner should have. In fact, per the 2020 National Electrical Code® these devices are required where there are more than three receptacles that supply shore power to boats. This allows the boats themselves to be tested to see how much current is leaking into the water from the boat. However, they will only work to prevent hazards from the boats if marina owners have them and use them.
So remember, inspecting electrical systems is the first line of defense against this silent killer that can turn fun into tragedy without warning. Testing the lifesaving devices like GFCI receptacles and GFP circuit breakers can ensure they operate when we need them the most. And having the right tools to determine where the problem is coming from can also help prevent problem boats from connecting to the electrical system and putting a hazard on your shores.
For additional, related information, please visit NFPA’s NEC webpage.