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Preventing a Boat Fire

How to protect your boat from fire.

July 1, 2001

Ask any boater who goes offshore what his or her worst nightmare is. The most likely answer is fire. In 1998, 201 boat fires were reported to the Coast Guard. These resulted in 250 injuries, 4 fatalities, and nearly $4 million in property damage. Keep in mind that there are no breakdown lanes offshore where you can park and run from a burning vehicle. Boat fires are also especially hazardous because fiberglass burns vigorously and emits toxic fumes. Factor in fuel tanks exploding and your inability to escape the water, and you discover what the nightmare is all about. But never fear. For as little as $25-or even $3-you can do a lot to protect your boat from fire. Here’s how.

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1. Fuel-related fires happen most frequently-outnumbering other causes by two to one. Yet these are also the most avoidable, and using proven prevention techniques is free. When fueling your boat, follow the Coast Guard-recommended procedures.

  • -Close all hatches and other opening before fueling.
  • -Extinguish all smoking materials.
  • -Turn off engines, electrical equipment, radios, stoves, and other appliances.
  • -Remove all passengers.
  • -Keep the fill nozzle in contact with the tank and wipe up any spilled fuel.
  • -Open all ports, hatches, and doors to ventilate when finished.
  • -Run the blower for at least four minutes.
  • -Check the bilges for fuel vapors before starting the engine.

Your nose is the best vapor detector. After fueling and running your blowers, open the engine hatch (inboard or I/O) or other bilge access. If you smell any fuel, don’t start your engine. Continue to run your blowers and open all possible bilge access ports until there is no trace of fumes. Also, check your blower intake hose. The end of the hose should be in the bottom of your bilge. Fuel vapors are heavier than air and will accumulate there.

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2. Electrical problems are the second leading cause of boat fires. Many result from do-it-yourself installations of equipment and wiring. Electrical tape has no place on a boat. Instead, use Ancor waterproof butt connectors ($3 for three) or Star brite’s Liquid Electrical tape ($6), which you can find at your local marine store. 3M also makes waterproof heat-shrink tubing. All connections should be made via a single wire of the proper gauge, without splices. Regularly check your electrical system and wiring for corrosion and signs of wear-look for cracked, brittle, or discolored insulation. Corrosion at the connections can be scrubbed with a pencil eraser or emery board. But corrosion can also indicate a poor connection or excessive heat, meaning the wiring at that point should be reworked. New wiring is time consuming to install and expensive, but it’s also cheap insurance.

3. Maintenance lapses often lead to both fuel and electrical fires. Check your fuel system regularly, especially the fuel lines. Replace any lines that show wear-small cracks, discoloration, softness, and so on-at a cost of about $3 per foot. Stainless-steel hose clamps ($3 per clamp) should keep the hoses secure and leak-free, but they shouldn’t be so tight that they cut into the hose. If you have an metal fuel tank, look it over each season for signs of corrosion and make sure it’s secured in place. With plastic tanks, look for swelling, bulging, or any area of discoloration.

4. Other preventative tips: Double the number and size of the fire extinguishers that the Coast Guard requires for your size vessel and learn how to use them (inspect them once a month). Install an extinguishing system in your engine box. Kidde, Fireboy-Xintex, and Metalcraft make systems that are heat activated and flood the engine compartment with FM200 or FE241-gases that replaced Halon-to the point where combustion can no longer be supported. For liability reasons, have the installation done by a pro. You can also buy some time in the event of a fire by applying fire retardant to all upholstery. Try Fire and Flame Guard by Kelly ($17 for a 16-ounce bottle, www.thekellyco.com). Finally, stow all flammable materials in an area with good circulation and away from the engine compartment and any electrical connections.

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