July 2012 saw some horrific fatal accidents near boats and boat docks. A 26-year-old woman was swimming with family in the Lake of the Ozarks and was electrocuted when she touched an energized dock ladder. Also at Lake of the Ozarks, a 13-year-old girl and her 8-year-old brother received fatal electrical shocks while swimming near a private dock; officials cited an improperly grounded circuit as the cause. In Tennessee, two boys ages 10 and 11, lost their lives as they were shocked while swimming between houseboats on Cherokee Lake, a result of on-board generator current apparently entering the water through frayed wires beneath the boat.
An important step in helping prevent such tragedies is to ensure proper installation and maintenance of electrical equipment on docks and boats. Take time before the boating season starts to inspect all of the electrical systems on or near the water. You wouldn’t put your boat in the lake with a leak in it, so make sure all other aspects of the boat and its operations are safe.
Safe Electricity in conjunction with the American Boat and Yacht Council and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers/National Electrical Contractors Association recommend taking these steps before boating season begins:
• At a minimum, all electrical installations should comply with articles 553 (residential docks) and 555 (commercial docks) of the 2011 National Electrical Code which mandate a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) on all dock receptacles. A GFCI measures the current in a circuit. An imbalance of that current, such as a discharge into the water, will trip the GFCI and cut off power.
• The GFCI should be tested at least once a month or per the manufacturer’s specifications. The GFCI should be located somewhere along the ramp to the dock so it can be easily found and tested by local fire departments as needed.
• The metal frame of docks should have “bonding jumpers” on them to connect all metal parts to a ground rod on the shore. That will ensure any part of the metal dock that becomes energized because of electrical malfunction will trip the GFCI or the circuit breaker.
• Even if your dock’s electrical system has been installed by a licensed electrical contractor and inspected, neighboring docks can still present a shock hazard. Be sure your neighbor’s dockside electrical system complies with the National Electrical Code and has been inspected.
• All electrical installations should be performed by a professional electrical contractor.
• Because docks are exposed to the elements, their electrical systems should be inspected at least once a year.
Safe Electricity reminds all swimmers that if they feel a tingle, avoid metal ladders and objects, and get out of the water as soon as possible—the best and quickest way you can. When boating or fishing, be aware of your surroundings and potential electrical hazards. “Always check the location of nearby power lines before boating or fishing,” advises Hall. “Contact between your boat and a power line could be devastating.” Maintain a distance of at least 10 feet between your boat and nearby power lines. Always lower masts of sail boats before using boat ramps to exit the water.
When it comes to your boat’s electrical system, particularly those with onboard generators, keep these tips in mind:
• If you are unsure about how to install something, do not call your neighbor/electrician friend. Call an ABYC Electrical Certified Tech. There are some big differences between your house and your boat.
• Household wire is not suitable for use on boats as houses are motionless and generally dry. Even marine-rated wire that is not supported along its length will break with constant motion stress.
• Do NOT use wire nuts or splice connectors! Wire nuts are for solid conductor wire, which should never be on a boat, and splice connectors cut wire strands.
• Fuses are rated to protect the wire, not the stereo. If a fuse blows continuously, it should NOT be replaced with a larger one just to keep it from blowing again—something else is wrong.
• Have your boat’s electrical system checked at least once a year. Boats should also be checked when something is added to or removed from their systems.