Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Getting Safer with Smarter Cord Connections: Why We Chose Smart Plug

This is, literally and figuratively, *not* cool.
I'll never forget the boat fire that happened on our dock back in Chicago just before we left in 2010. We arrived at the marina to do some work in preparation for our departure just as we did every other day that summer, but this time things were different. Walking down the dock there was a distinct smell of burnt plastic, and as we made our way to our boat, we saw the carnage of the blaze that happened the night before. The ordeal was over and the crowds dispersed, but what was left was a power boat half submerged (thanks to floats that were keeping it from the bottom) - a total loss- and about four other neighboring boats seriously damaged by it's fiery wrath. Apparently a candle had been left burning and a gust of wind blew some canvas on top of it. Within minutes, we were told, the entire boat was aflame. Thankfully, the two people aboard escaped out of the front hatch and no one was hurt, but Scott and I walked away from that experience with two lessons seared into our brains: 1) candles have no place on a boat and 2) fiberglass boats burn hard and fast

Yes, we'd do everything we could to prevent a fire on our boat

Fast forward to five years and over ten thousand nautical miles later, we are living on the dock in beautiful Tortola, BVI. Ever since permanently relocating here (and being permanently plugged into shore power to run our boat's AC systems like refrigerator, freezer and air conditioning) I've been markedly more worried about the prospect of fire. That's a lot of load on a single cord and AC power freaks me out. Voltage irregularities, moisture intrusion, aging systems, shoddy wiring, and a damaged cord are all things that - in the perfect-storm scenario - can combine to cause a fire. One week I had such strong premonitions about our boat burning down and the fear weighed so heavily on my mind that I started Googling "how to prevent a boat fire at the dock" in earnest. Three days after this rather baseless (yet very driven) search we unplugged our shore power cord to find it charred and burnt. The connection to the boat was also deep-fried. Not cool. 
After talking to my seasoned marina-dwelling friends and professional boat workers about our issue, I learned that a) chord charring is not as dire as it seemed (most likely it would just fry the cord and that'd be the end of it) and b) fried and burnt shore power cords are far more common than I thought. "We replace our cords at least once a year" one fellow live-aboard friend told me, with several others agreeing. Even armed with this  knowledge, however, I felt uneasy. We have very precious cargo in the form of three adorably squishy little bodies on our boat and I want to ensure they are as safe as can be.


According to Boat US data about 17% of boat fires are due to the AC system and many of those are due to cord damage. Seaworthy Magazine has an exceptional article on the intricacies of shore power and cord care in "When Your Shore Power Looses it's Cool" and this article does a far better job at explaining the issues than I ever could. Long story short: cord damage happens, it's dangerous, and it's up to you to be diligent and monitor it. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

After some research and a whole bunch of suggestions from friends who have converted, I decided we'd upgrade to the SmartPlug*. I purchased two SmartPlug 30-Amp Inlet Connector Combo Kits to retrofit our two 30-Amp connection ports. This conversion is not cheap (at the time we spend $175 on each) but, to us, anything that will keep our family safe and (possibly) save our boat and all our worldly possessions, is worth it.

Why SmartPlug? Well, first and foremost it's simply a huge improvement on the old-style cords. The Smart Plug's design prevents overheating and provides "greater protection against loose connections and corrosion - the leading cause of shore power failure and fires." How do they do this?
  • Spring loaded multi-point push lock (much stronger connection to boat)
  • Weatherproof sealing (much better at keeping moisture out than older style cords)
  • Straight blades that offer much more surface contact (better connection which protects from overheating and arching)
  • Ease of installation and use (uses existing holes, easy conversion and no awkward "did it really connect?" twisting involved once in)

We converted two outlets and cords because we also figured that perhaps the reason for our charring might be that our single 30-Amp cord was overburdened by our systems and we decided (since we had the real-estate) to put our refrigerator and freezer on one cord, and our air conditioning on another. These measures, plus our new SmartPlugs mean we sleep a little better at the dock.

*We have no affiliation with SmartPlug


SailFarLiveFree said...

This is a great reminder to at the very least check your shorepower connections, if not upgrade them. I've seen far too many burned out plugs and shorepower cords strung together without a proper weatherproof seal. And how many boaters unplug and leave the dock without first shutting of the shorepower breaker? Far too many where I'm from.

Doug Treff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug Treff said...

Here's another great article about Smart Plugs and WHY they are so much better than NEMA L5-30 plugs, in case you need more convincing...

Maine Sail's Smart Plug article on Sailnet

Robert Salnick said...

Rest easy - your shorepower plug problem was not due to overloading. If it had been, BOTH of the power-carrying pins would have been cooked.

Instead, this failure was due to a poor connection at the burnt pin. I have blogged about this before - it is a surprisingly common problem.

s/v Eolian

Matt said...

I also upgraded to a smartplug - don't regret it at all.

Regina said...

That's scary looking!! We had electrical issues where we're at too. The dockmaster had to come down and switch around wires. To make matters worse, the electrical box was NAILED SHUT! He ended up doing it hot, with one of us holding a broom handle to knock him off should he get hit...


Ronnie Ricca said...

That was one of the first things I changed on Redemption when I got her. We have 50a/125v but don't really need it(no a/c or other large draws) but it's what was there so we went with it. I have a short cord to connect the 59/125 (which is a super rare dock outlet) to 30a and will make one for the bigger 50a plug without the extra leg. I just love how much easier it is to plug in compared to the old style, like plugging in a big lamp! (:

Also, I was flipping through a Yachting magazine (June 2016) and saw the article about you guys!

s/v Redemption

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John Daniels said...

First and foremost, safety should not be taken for granted that is why what you did was really good for your family and your motor boat.

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