Nasty Boat Fire

A concern I have had for some time is about relates to my shore power connectors on the bow of Pendana and whether or not all that lurks beneath is really ok!

Old style Marinco system on Pendana

Speaking with Don Stabbert the other day, owner of MV Starr we got talking and thankfully he introduced me to a much better system of connecting one’s boat to shore power than the Marinco system which is called Smart Plug.

The Smart Plug by Seattle based company

The Smart Plug is a revolutionary shore power system designed to replace the outdated and problematic twist-type design in use, by most, today. It’s intuitive to use and provides greater protection against loose connections and corrosion which I might add, is one of the leading causes of shore power failure and fires on boats today.

Not what anyone wants

Not what anyone needs

The thing one needs to appreciate is that Pendana, when in rough seas can, and has, buried her bow into oncoming seas with the net result being about 2ft of water on her foredeck washing around all over the place and no doubt getting into places it shouldn’t. As such, our shore power connectors have always been a source of concern. Any wiring issues regarding shore power connectors often does result in a very nasty fire, which have the potential to be catastrophic!

Boatus recently reported the top causes of fires on boats.

AC and DC wiring/appliance – 55%
DC shorts/wiring – 30%
DC engine voltage regulator – 12%
AC appliance/heater 4% shore power – 4%
AC wiring/panel – 2%
DC battery charger – 2%
AC power surge – 1%

With Don agreeing to help me install the Smart Plug and also being kind enough to pick up two 50amp 125/250V for me when he was recently in Seattle, we went about removing the old shore power system and installing the new, you beaut, Smart Plugs. What were we to find lurking beneath as we pulled off Pendana’s old connectors? Well, as it turns out one of the connectors had in fact burnt into place which is no doubt the result of a short or something else – NOT GOOD!. In fact, not only was the one connector welded to the plug fixture but the black housing surrounding it was starting to melt! Ouch!

You can see in this photo above what I am talking about

I guess, like most owners, one simply doesn’t check these connectors often enough. Don mentioned that on another Nordhavn where he helped install the Smart Plug they found that one of the wires was totally loose and it just simply fell out. Lucky escape!

Don going about removing the old Marinco plug

Don removing the male connector from Pendana’s foredeck

New Smart Plug all wired up

Set in place

Time to test!

With the two new Smart Plugs installed I am happy to report that these plugs just felt better all round. The connection to the power outlet on the boat is firm and it feels solid. Real solid! Thanks to Don I can rest a little easier knowing that fire is something that won’t happen aboard Pendana due to a shore power connection problem. The two images below will give you a good idea about the differences between the old twist and turn system compared with the new Smart Plug system.

The old system

the comparison with the new Smart Plug system

I now know which system won’t lead to this!

All installed and the crew on Pendana can now rest easy!

I now feel very confident that all is 100%. The Smart Plug is as important to Pendana’s safety as is her main engine. I guess for all of us (most of us) who own boats I believe very little attention is given to the connection between shore power and the boat and if you are like me, then may I suggest at the very least you check your fittings and wiring before the inevitable occurs. If you want to feel totally confident in the connection between shore power and your boat then then I would seriously take a look at the much talked about Smart Plug.

A little about the back story to Smart Plug may help appreciate the need and opening in the market for a better system, the Smart Plug system. The story begins with a guy named Ken Smith, founder of SmartPlug Systems. The last eight of his forty years in the marine industry included rebuilding yachts that had been damaged due to fire. In many cases, the fire originated from the shore power system. Beginning with a pencil sketch, he began to design a smarter plug – incorporating every safety feature he could think of – and finally address the problems with corrosion and fire in shore power systems today.

In less than 14 months, SmartPlug took its base design from conception to patent then to market. In March of 2009, the company introduced the first of its marine shore power product line – the 30 Amp Inlet and Connector – to the U.S. market. This initial product offering has met the performance requirements of UL and UL Marine tests as certified by IMANNA Laboratory Inc. and was certified ABYC E-11 standards and US Coast Guard compliant. The basis for the fully adaptable and scalable SmartPlug design has resulted in several patents (insured) with new patents being filed as derivative products are developed.

The bottom line is the Smart Plug is the future for safer boating. From Cruising World, Panbo, pBase and even our very own Steve D’Antonio who all have good things to say about the Smart Plug as do many,many others. While I appreciate I may seem a little over the top in relation to the Smart Plug the simple fact is, I have seen with my own eyes what a fire on a boat can do, as such, I am very pleased to be the owner of a couple of new Smart Plugs on Pendana!

A special thanks to Don Stabbert who without his help and knowledge I would not have known about this revolutionary product and would have still to this day, had my doubts about what lurks beneath! Thank you Don.

Stay safe


5 thoughts on “F-I-R-E”

  1. James — When I first heard about these, I was excited, but then realized they were only one piece in a much larger puzzle, and that I couldn’t use them at all on my boat.

    One end of my shorepower cord is inside the boat, within a fancy shorepower retractor system. At the other end of the cord is the shorepower adapter. For me, it is the DANGEROUS end. I can’t use the Smart Plug at that end of the cable, because I am at the mercy of whatever pedestal is at the marina. I am very careful with my shorepower adapter and regularly inspect it, but it is definitely something to watch closely. The good news about that end of the cable, is that any fire would occur while the boat is sitting at the dock, and the fire would be on the dock, not on the boat.The fire might spread to the boat, but I “should” have time to get off the boat, and swim to shore.

    The fire risk I worry about most is: “The battery bank.” There are plenty of ways a battery bank can start a fire, including loose or corroded connectors, as well as the risk of uneven battery lives. If one battery dies before the others, the other batteries can try to charge the dead battery and bad things can happen. I don’t know the stats, but have to believe that batteries are the leading cause of fire after shorepower.

    And… the list of potential fire risk doesn’t stop there. I’ve had halogen lights overheat, even explode, and burn surrounding cabinetry. (I swapped all my lighting to LED as a result). Speaking of LEDs, I’ve had LED digital gauges ignite inside the electric panel (not fun.)

    The bottom line: There are lots of fire risks on a boat. And.. realistically, once a fire starts, unless it is very small, you had better hope you are a good swimmer. I’m not sure this posting has a point, in that I don’t know the magical solution to this issue. All I can say is that one must always be focused on the possibility of fire, and how to ensure that there isn’t a fire. Forget firefighting. Having a big fire extinguisher is a good thing, but .. prevention is better. The best way to fight a fire is to avoid having a fire.

    I’ve done things like:

    – I used to have a 50 gallon tank of gasoline on the boat (for the tender). But, now that I understand how explosive gasoline can be, I decommissioned the tank.

    – I have an IR gun with a little heat screen (a live picture showing heat). I regularly scan the back of electric panels

    – I had my batteries moved from where they initially were, in order to have better access to the terminals, so that I can use the heat gun to check temperatures on the terminals and tops of batteries.

    – As I mentioned, I swapped all lighting to LED

    – When my shorepower cables need rewired, I usually try to do it myself. It depends on how confident I feel in the marina staff. Some give you an electrician, but many will send a high school kid on summer vacation to wire up your shorepower plug. Mistakes can cause fires. The other reason for doing it myself is that it puts me in direct contact with the wires and I can inspect them for corrosion, and make sure everything is tight.

    – We designed the boat to have NO propane inside the boat. We prefer cooking with gas, but went with electric. Anything with heat is a potential hazard, but I felt better with an electric stove.

    And — I read James’ blog for great articles like this one!

    >>>> I like you also do not have propane aboard!!

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  3. Callum Mohawk McCormick

    Hi James, I’m really you re-posted this. It may save some lives – and some boats. Cheers fella. Take care. Callum.

  4. Capt Craig Brent-White

    Hi James, well done in your search to get to the bottom of any problem you identify along the way in your journey around the world and the long road to understanding your vessel. Unfortunately most recreational boat owners don’t have the time to get right into the myriad of complex problems like you do that can blind side them enroute to anywhere or alongside a berth at anytime. Boat owners need to get their head around electrical, structural, hydraulic, mechanical and electronic components of their boat, not to the ultimate understanding but a sound understanding that means you can troubleshoot to some extent and make a comprehensive refit list annually. Lots of boat owners don’t think they have to do a refit annually, this doesn’t mean you pull the shaft every year etc but it does mean you do what is necessary. This means among other items on the refit list, should be a check of electrical connections as one task. Vibration takes it’s toll not just water ingress or cathodic erosion. I would encourage every boat owner to comprehensively check every connection first up when you purchase a boat, then annually inspect them to get an understanding how vibration and pounding in weather affect their vessel. When I purchased “ATLAS” my N62 and conducted a total inspection of terminals,I found a particularly suspect terminal that was blackened and melting in the main electrical panel, a sure fire hazard in the making, it was also loose.
    One innocent mistake that could be made by a new owner can be to introduce more electronics and additional loads on the balance of their electrical system. If this is not done without a professional approval, the resulting overload can overheat converters and create an unnecessary fire risk. An ice maker is a case in point, great idea but can your system handle the load. Spend the money and avoid single person error, seek professional advice before upgrading or additions. If making a refit list is difficult for someone, enlist the services of an independent marine engineering surveyor and preferably not the company who will do the work, but you know, relationships all depend on how much trust exists between you and who you seek help from.
    I only own one boat now, it’s on a trailer and an annual refit is definitely still part of the process.

  5. Excellent post, James! The SmartPlug is a worthy addition to any Nordhavn.

    Get Don to tell you about the wonderful yellow and blue screwdriver (with non-rusting stainless steel bits!) in one of your pictures. He gave me one a few years ago, and it was such a great addition to my toolbag I now have one each aboard both my boats, in my car, and at home. And a spare for the inevitable time when I lose one. Best screwdriver ever.

    Milt Baker, N4732 Buewater

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