Electric shock drowning from stray dock and boat current is a preventable tragedy

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Soundings Trade Only. It can also be found online on the TradeOnlyToday website.

When a transient boat pulls into one of the two Irish Boat Shop locations in Charlevoix and Harbor Springs, Mich., one of the first things that happens is an employee handing the boat owner a piece of paper.

It explains that the marina is going to test the boat for stray electrical current. The employee asks the boat owner to plug in his shore power cord and then turn on the AC (alternating current) circuit breakers. Then the shore power cord is clamped with an amp meter to measure the electrical current.

If stray current is measured, the boat owner is politely informed that he won’t be tying up at an Irish Boat Shop dock that evening.

All marinas should test the AC wires on their decks for stray current.

All marinas should test the AC wires on their decks for stray current.

“What we’re looking for when a boat comes in and plugs into our shore power system is, 10 amps goes out and 10 amps comes back,” says Michael Esposito, president of Irish Boat Shop.

Both locations perform the test to reduce the chances of an electric shock drowning (ESD), which occurs when stray electrical current enters the water. The current can’t be seen or noticed from the land, or from a dock or boat. The only way someone recognizes its presence is when it’s too late. The person jumps into the water, is paralyzed by the electricity and drowns. Because saltwater conducts electricity and basically grounds it, ESD only takes place in fresh or brackish water.

Early last summer at Put-in-Bay, Ohio, 19-year-old Evan Currie of Dublin, Ohio, was near his family’s 33-foot Sea Ray, which was plugged into a shore power outlet at a marina. The family dog fell into the water and struggled. Currie’s father jumped in to help the dog, and had difficulty swimming. The family’s two sons jumped into the water and had the same involuntary reaction.

As reported by the Toledo Blade newspaper, bystanders told the mother, who was on board the boat, to unplug the shore power cord. Doing so stopped the electrical current, and everyone but Evan Currie got out of the water. He was unresponsive and later died.

In April, Shelly Darling, 34, and Elizabeth Whipple, 41, were found dead in Lake Tuscaloosa, Ala. Local media reports say electrocution was the cause of death because a pier where the two had been sunbathing had current running through it. An inspector at the follow-up investigation received a shock from the pier, but was unharmed.

As if ESD being virtually undetectable isn’t challenging enough, the correct response to seeing a person in distress in the water is quite possibly the most difficult thing to do —stay out of the water.

“It’s the rescuers that jump in who can get overcome,” says David Rifkin, president of Quality Marine Services in Jacksonville, Fla., and an expert on ESD. “The worst thing you can do is jump in.”

The first thing to do if you see a person struggling in the water after jumping in is to unplug a boat’s shore power or shut off the closest circuit breaker. If power can’t be shut down, use a wooden (non-conductive) oar or boathook to try to reach the victim, or throw the person a flotation device.

The ideal rescue would be to paddle out in a non-metal-hull boat and pull the person away from the current, then try to haul him or her aboard. If the person can swim, suggest getting as far away from the dock as possible to avoid the current.

A general lack of knowledge about ESD compounds the problem.

electrical-power-illustration-boatus3
electrical-power-illustration-boatus2
electrical-power-illustration-boatus1

“There’s an awareness component that we talk about,” says Casey Grant, executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, a research affiliate of the National Fire Protection Association, which is based in Massachusetts. “We talk about awareness solutions, and we do think public outreach is important.”

Eric Kretsch, legislative and outreach coordinator for the Association of Marina Industries, says the ESD issue requires an ongoing effort to educate marina owners and operators.

“Marinas are required to follow the National Electric Code standard that their state has adopted,” he says. “The industry is also pushing for other safeguards, like on-dock signage (see sidebar) warning of possible electric shock to those who wish to swim. Also, it is a recommended practice at marina facilities to not allow swimming at all.”

Esposito learned of ESD years ago because both of Irish Boat Shop’s facilities are on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the waters of Lake Charlevoix and Lake Michigan are known for cleanliness. Customers routinely swam in the marinas, so Esposito’s boss directed him to find a way to protect the swimmers.

As is often the case when a person first learns about ESD, Esposito had to educate himself. He found a researcher named Jim Schaefer who was spearheading efforts to raise awareness about ESD. The problem was that the more Esposito learned, the more difficult he realized the overall subject is to understand, and how much of a challenge it is to combat.

“Jim would talk me through it, and I could understand the problems,” Esposito says. “I said, ‘Nobody is going to do it because it’s too hard.’”

He meant that no marina owner or manager would try to prevent ESD because most didn’t understand what it was.

Schaefer was injured in an accident and could not continue his work on ESD. Esposito then began working with Rifkin, a retired U.S. Navy captain and marine surveyor. He is also the vice chairman of the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association (www.electricshockdrowning.org).

Not surprisingly, marina owners say the problems are boat-related. Boat manufacturers and the American Boat and Yacht Council point to aging marinas and an even bigger concern: private docks with power.

Eaton makes a ground fault pedestal that contains GFCI breakers and if there is a trip, it illuminates red to indicate a problem.

Eaton makes a ground fault pedestal that contains GFCI breakers and if there is a trip, it illuminates red to indicate a problem.

“We’re more concerned with the boat side of it,” Esposito says.

In addition to testing each boat, Irish Boat Shop installed Marina Guard, a monitoring system with an induction coil at the transformer that monitors AC current flow. It keeps an eye on each feed that goes out to the docks, which have three to six power pedestals apiece.

When it comes to pedestals, the Marina Power and Lighting Division of Eaton Corp. is one of the largest suppliers of marina units. The company makes a ground fault for its Lighthouse and Lighthouse SS pedestals, which integrate GFCI breakers and have visual trip notification.

The Lighthouse pedestal retails for about $800 and is available in 5-milliamp and 30-milliamp models. Eaton also makes ground fault protective circuit breakers that can update existing pedestals, but they are larger than non-ground fault models, so upgrading is not as simple as swapping one for the other.

Eaton product engineer Cory Weeks says the company also has panel and switch boards with ground fault protection at the distribution point — basically ahead of the pedestals in the system.

“There’s benefits to both. If you’re providing ground-fault upstream of each pedestal, it’s going to provide protection,” says Jason Easton, an application engineer at Eaton. “When you have the ground-fault breakers protecting the individual pedestal, it’s much easier to know where the problem is.”

NFPA 70 Article 555, or NEC 70, is the national code that outlines appropriate ground-fault protection for new installations. ABYC Vice President and Education Director Ed Sherman believes such installations could be problematic.

The current National Electrical Code, written in 2011, requires that the main breaker at a marina have ground-fault protection not greater than 100 milliamps. For 2017, a change to 30 milliamps is being considered, but the concern is that lowering the number will lead to false trips when numerous vessels plug into the same circuit at a given marina.

“What has been tried and proven to work globally is 30 milliamps for each boat,” Sherman says. “That will fix the problem.”

Proper ground-fault circuit breakers should be used in all marina pedestals.

Proper ground-fault circuit breakers should be used in all marina pedestals.

For new marina construction or major renovations, the project will more than likely follow National Electrical Code and National Fire Protection Association guidelines for ground fault protection. The same goes for new boats. They are wired with full ground-fault protection, per ABYC standards.

But for every new marina, there are countless older or smaller marinas that aren’t inspected annually. Equally scary is the number of private docks that probably are not inspected or even properly maintained. The Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association estimates that some 25,000 private docks with power are on Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks alone.

“When it comes to being the king of your own castle, regulatory oversight becomes minimal,” Grant says.

“Ongoing maintenance is not addressed by the National Electrical Code,” he adds. “In a marina, the equipment does deteriorate and there are issues of enforcement. It’s especially problematic with a one-boat dock on a lake, so the potential for electricity getting into the water is fairly reasonable in a lot of settings, unfortunately.”

Sherman agrees. “Unless you have a really conscientious marina operator, it’s hit or miss whether there are issues with the dock wiring,” he says. “In my experience it’s a mix of bad wiring at docks and boats with worn-out equipment. The problem is oversight, and the oversight is local in nature.”

Just as there are older marinas, there are older boats to which current ABYC standards don’t apply.

“I have never found a marina in North America where I couldn’t find at least one boat that was leaking potentially lethal electrical current into the water,” Sherman says. “I can almost spot them from the head of the dock.”

He says boats from the 1980s and ’90s are likely suspects for stray current, with the three most common causes of ground faults on boats being electric water heaters, old battery chargers and a neutral-to-ground bond at a point in the boat’s electrical circuitry other than a source of AC power.

In a published ABYC article, Sherman says that linking the neutral and grounding buss bars behind the main power distribution panels on a boat creates a situation in which an AC appliance is turned on, and more current from the appliance than would normally return to its source via the neutral conductor gets dumped into the boat’s grounding system.

Combine that with a bit of suspect dock wiring, and the current enters the water via a through-hull fitting, creating a potentially lethal situation for swimmers near the boat.

Kevin Ritz co-founded the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association seven years ago after his 8-year-old son, Lucas, was fatally electrocuted in 1999. Ritz started the organization with Elise Lutrick, who had lost her 16-year-old son.

Ritz was a senior instructor at the ABYC for eight years, so he was better prepared than most parents would be to understand what had happened to his son. He actually had to persuade the medical examiner to change the cause of death from drowning to electrocution because there was no evidence of water in Lucas’ lungs.

“Lucas was the first documented case of an electrocution in the water while touching nothing,” Ritz says.

In addition to being co-founder of the ESDPA, Ritz conducts electric shock drowning investigations for the U.S. Coast Guard. On its website, the ESDPA lists about 91 reported ESD or electrocution incidents since 1986, with the majority taking place at marinas or private boat docks and the rest occurring in swimming pools.

Slightly more than 90 incidents in 31 years may not sound like much, but it’s enough for Irish Boat Shop to keep testing boats that pull into its marinas.

“It’s a small probability that a boat will come into your marina and someone will get into the water and die,” Esposito says. “The manual testing that we do is not perfect because it doesn’t catch 100 percent of the stuff, but I’m a proponent of the fact that we are doing something.”

Staying safe near the water

To prevent electrocution or electric shock drowning, BoatUS recommends the following:

For marina/dock owners and guests

  • Never swim around docks that use electricity. No one should swim in a marina.
  • Make sure that your marina has ground-fault protection and that the electrical system is inspected and tested annually.
  • Post “no swimming” signs.
  • Have a qualified electrician with experience in dock electrical service inspect your private dock annually.
  • Install ground-fault protection on your boat and private dock.

For swimmers

  • Never swim near a marina, dock or boatyard, or near a boat, especially while it’s running.
  • When in the water, stay at least 150 feet away from boats or docks where electricity is used.
  • Obey “no swimming signs.”

For boat owners

  • Avoid entering the water when launching or loading your boat. Docks or boats can leak electricity into the water, causing water electrification.
  • Each year, and after major storms, have a qualified marine electrician inspect and upgrade the boat’s electrical system so it meets the required codes for your area, including recommendations from the American Boat & Yacht Council.
  • Check with the marina’s owner to be sure its electrical system has been inspected recently to meet required codes, including the National Electrical Code.
  • Know where your main breaker(s) and the shore power source are located on the boat, so you can respond quickly in an emergency.
  • Have ground fault circuit interrupters installed on your boat; use only portable GFCIs or shore power cords (including “Y» adapters) that are UL-Marine listed when using electricity near water. Test GFCIs monthly.

Proper signage

electrocution-hazard-sign

The National Fire Protection Association added a new section to the 2017 National Electrical Code (555.24) requiring warning signs at marinas and boat docks.

The code reads, “Permanent safety signs shall be installed to give notice of electrical shock hazard risks to persons using or swimming near a boat dock or marina and shall comply with all of the following:

  1. The signage shall comply with 110.21(B)(1) and be of sufficient durability to withstand the environment.
  2. The signs shall be clearly visible from all approaches to a marina or boatyard facility.
  3. The signs shall state, “WARNING — POTENTIAL SHOCK HAZARD — ELECTRICAL CURRENTS MAY BE PRESENT IN THE WATER.” 

  

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