By Scott Smith
For many boat owners, “boat care” is about washing the boat when it needs it, checking the fluids regularly, cleaning the bottom, winter and summarizing, and so forth. But one very important facet is overlooked occasionally: regular maintenance of safety gear and equipment. Ask yourself when you last thought about the condition of your fire extinguisher; for that matter, when you made sure one is still mounted where you last saw it. Boating safety needn’t be intimidating either. Boating in general, for those committed to truly enjoying and living the lifestyle, does take commitment, preparation and some work. And the great thing about the “work” part is that if you have the means, you can hire that done! Being sure that you have prepared for the safest boating possible can be handled in a very reasonable amount of time. That’s what makes it satisfying.
This edition of Formula Boat Care focuses on what you need to do so that Formula’s factory-installed safety equipment is ready to go when you need it. You will find four main items on every Formula built today: The handheld fire extinguisher, the automatic fire extinguisher, the gas fume detector and the carbon monoxide fume detector. It’s not a coincidence that all of these items deal with fire (that is, combustion), either through suppression or detection. After all, in a boat, you can’t just step outside to avoid fire as you could on land without other consequences!
Certainly, the most basic and familiar piece of safety equipment is the old-fashioned handheld fire extinguisher. Everyone’s seen one used in the media, and using it is as easy as pointing and squeezing a handle, right? But, those instructions really aren’t complete enough for effectively fighting all fires. Read all directions for use. Understand them. Ensure that everyone aboard understands them. If you, as captain, become incapacitated, it is left to the remaining crew to respond. It is necessary to pull a pin before the handle can be squeezed, and the powder must be aimed at the base of the fire in a sweeping pattern to work its best. Ensure that yours is a marine model with a nylon or otherwise non-corrosive handle, so it will not jam or freeze up.
You also need to take care of the extinguisher. There is a pressure gauge on your fire extinguisher to visually check every time you take the boat for a spin or overnight or cook aboard. At the least, make it a part of your maintenance routine every one or two weeks. Before the boating season (for those of us in temperate climes) or twice a year, say, take the canister off and weigh it. Your canister should list its appropriate weight when full. The extinguisher should be discarded and replaced when it either reads or weighs less than full, or after a certain number of years as designated by the manufacturer. Locate and communicate the location of all extinguishers on the boat. Care and feeding of this item are simple, straightforward, and could save the day.
The automatic fire extinguisher is a bit different in that it is intended to be a first line of defense in case of an engine or bilge fire, although it is still contingent upon the captain and passengers to continue the fight with handheld extinguishers if necessary. Always use all due caution to prevent such occurrences or potential for them, using common sense and proper procedures.
Checking the fire suppression system for proper operation can be done several ways. For quick reference, such as in your pre-departure check, look for the indicator light at the helm. It is labeled, easy to spot, and is meant to ensure the continuity of the system. Secondly, there is a gauge on the gas canister itself. The canister is located in the engine compartment, usually near the top, and typically mounted to the forward bulkhead.
Check the gauge frequently for proper weight and look at the actuator to be sure it is ready. Physically remove and weigh the canister at least twice a year.
Should this system ever activate, shut off the engines and/or generator, and do not open the engine hatch for 15 minutes. This allows the chemical to saturate the compartment and the surfaces to cool down, thus preventing flashback when new oxygen hits the compartment. Of course, replacing the tank should be on your short list at that point!
Another piece of equipment that can actually save your day is the GASOLINE FUME DETECTOR. This system basically consists of two components: the display module, or “head unit,’ and the gasoline sensor, or “sniffer.” Typically, false alarms with this system are due to the sensor being ruined, by oily bilge water or by heat. That is remedied by mounting it high enough so it won’t get sloshed and far enough away from manifolds or exhaust lines so it won’t get fried. Formula installs it properly, and you should do the same if you ever replace it or add new equipment that may affect it.
The detector senses gasoline fumes and is very efficient; an alarm should never be muted without checking the bilge. Use your own nose-it is very difficult not to smell gasoline fumes if they are present. If you feel that the detector is sounding without good reason, unplug it and install a new one. The sensor will also detect unburnt hydrocarbons from faulty exhaust systems and hydrogen vapors from a battery. If the alarm is still sounding and you’re sure you don’t have a faulty sensor or some sort of fume present, check the wiring, as a broken wire or loose connection can cause the alarm to sound.
Another test is to remove the striker wheel (to prevent accidental sparking) from a butane lighter. Put the lighter next to the sensor and hold down the lever. The warning light on the display should come on in a few seconds and the alarm should within ten.
As for routine maintenance, manufacturers suggest that the sensor be replaced at least every three years. Simply follow proper procedures for refueling and starting your engines (running your blowers and ventilating the cabin before starting, always check for fumes yourself and don’t abuse the sensor).
Another vital safety feature is the CARBON MONOXIDE FUME DETECTOR. This unit is very important and is pretty much maintenance-free. The way to keep the CO detector effective is to keep it powered up. Make sure the unit is turned on and operating properly when anyone is aboard the boat, particularly if they will be on it for some time. Don’t turn it on only if your boat’s generator or motors are running; a boat docked next to you can fill your cabin or cockpit with CO gas. CO is invisible, tasteless and odorless, and exposure can cause various symptoms, depending on the concentration and overall time one is exposed to the gas, ranging from a slight headache to nausea and death. The time of death can range from a few hours to only two or three minutes. Carbon monoxide displaces the oxygen needed in your bloodstream so it can make you confused, disoriented and can render you unconscious.
This serious issue is not one confined to boating alone. CO poisoning can occur in your home, your car, or anywhere combustion or burning occurs. You must be aware of it every time you’re on your boat. Always check to make sure someone hasn’t overridden this measure! Routinely push the test button on the detector and observe any flashing lights or beeps. Refer to your owner’s manual for the meaning of these signals. Do not spray solvents or oils on the unit. And if the unit sounds, treat the alarm as a CO endangered condition; remove yourself from and ventilate the affected area!
These four systems are vital to your safety and your passengers. Take the time to keep them functional and ready to protect you! It’s really worth the small amount of trouble. Have a great winter- and a safe one- and we’ll be back in the spring with more boat care suggestions for you!