Saturday, May 11, 2013

What Do the Initials B O A T Stand For?

Some friends at Jekyll Island that we cruised up from Jacksonville with.
David and Diane of Boot Scootin
Sarah and Brooks of Our Time
Ok boaters! All together now, “Bring Out Another Thousand,” Yes it is true that maintaining a boat costs moolah and all of a sudden our boat is no exception.

Up to now Why Knot has been fairly reliable. There were of course repairs along the way. We’ve replaced all of the batteries. The generator has needed work. The head was rebuilt. The oil cooler housing needed to be burnished in spots and the gasket replaced. The fresh water pump needed to be replaced. But even with those things, including some normal maintenance issues such as impellers and the like, it hasn’t been too bad. But as we started up the Florida coast it seems that problems have been cropping up at almost every port. The heat exchanger on the generator needed replacing in Vero Beach, the engine starter had to be rebuilt in Titusville and now at Jekyll Island, Georgia we have our largest repair, and very likely the largest payout. To put it without sounding alarmist, we apparently had an electrical fire and didn’t even know it.

Our boat’s electrical system has always had some odd characteristics. Namely that the AC power circuit panel would still have current running to the circuits and the devices hooked into them even when that panel’s ON/OFF switch was turned off. This was bewildering to us but it did not seem to cause any problems and, quite frankly, we didn’t know any better. When we pulled into Jekyll Harbor Marina at Jekyll Island and tried to hook up the shore power the main ON/OFF switch for the AC panel which is also a breaker, would keep flipping and turning the circuit off completely. The DC was fine and even another AC circuit panel that was dedicated to HVAC needs was ok. But the panel for outlets, the refrigerator and the like would not work. We also found that the ends of the shore power cords that bring power onto the boat and the plugs on the boat that they get plugged into were badly scorched. This is not a good sign. We were able to keep AC power on with the generator so we were able to stay on the boat that night. (It should be noted that I sleep with a CPAP device so AC power is a must.)

The next morning (Saturday) a very able and clever man name Sonny Reeves boarded out boat. He is not a marine technician per se but was fully qualified to get into it. He is a master technician that trains trainers that trains ASE certified vehicle technicians. He was also very highly recommended by others at the marina so we felt confident that he was a good choice. He dug into it. His first objective was to replace the burned cords and wall plugs for shore power. Upon opening the access panel he immediately saw something the he and we found very disturbing. The insides of the panel box and the outlet plugs were burned. The wires on the plugs were melted and the raw copper filaments were exposed and arcing. Most alarming was that the wood of the inside of the panel box was burned. He told us that we very likely had a fire recently in the box and that we were fortunate that it did not escalate into something much more terrible. Having replaced the outlet and the cords he then set about finding the cause. (Remember – A leak never gets smaller. There had to be a cause.)  As he poked around the circuit panel wiring he found several more wires and connectors that were scorched or melted. He replaced those. He then came across something that was puzzling. The individual AC circuit breakers were still putting out power even when they were turned off. Using his electrical meter and a lot of patience he discovered that the neutral ground was in fact carrying a charge to the circuits also. In other words the breakers were for all intents and purposes always on. And it has been that way for a long, long time. This created a back-looping of electricity throughout the AC panel and circuits. This in turn conflicted with the inverter/charger, which in turn has been gradually wearing out. The inverter circuitry has been experiencing a slow death to the point that hooking it up to the shore power at the marina, and we guess with some kind of little power surge, sent the entire system into a tizzy and the inverter could no longer handle the load and it died. In fact when he was able to remove the power coming through the neutral ground the inverter was no longer functional. The inverter/charger is kaput and needs to be replaced. More importantly the entire wiring of the boat on the AC side of things needs to be examined to find and solve the neutral back-looping thing. Another way of looking at it would be to say that the AC panel was in a constant state of being short circuited which caused power fluctuations that burnt the outlet, the cords and caused the fire.
the shore power cord with brand new scorching

The inside of the shore power outlet
Sonny was great and we are very grateful that he was so easily available and eager to help. But he told us that he did not feel comfortable with going any further with the work. This is because while he was ok with replacing the charger/inverter he did not have confidence in dealing with the grounding issue without detailed schematics, which of course do not exist. (His fix before was temporary for investigation.) He said that we need a professional marine electrician for that. He did recommend a guy back down in Jacksonville named Phil Jones. Sonny and us attempted to contact him but so far he has not called either of us back. Hopefully Mr. Jones will come to us. If not we are told the boat is ok to travel so we might have to go back to Jacksonville. We’ll see.

So right now we are at a hotel on Jekyll Island. The boat is secure we are comfortable. We’re not sure how long we will be here but this is work that obviously needs to be done. It’s by far the biggest repair that has had to be done on Why Knot to date and we are anxious to get it completed so we can continue up north.


Joy Holzworth said...

Praise God! You two are OK. I loved Jekyll Island I think it would be a good place to live except for the occasional hurricanes.
Bill says, "check out Chuck on Trawler Beach house blog for more resources if you want to". Chuck did his own electrical system and changed the box himself, SO he must know folks and more resources, and He is a Looper. Have fun while waiting hope all repairs are speady but done right. Bill and Joy on Proud Lady

Craig A said...

As a "land based" electrician for 33 years I've seen how quickly panel fires turn to disaster. I'm very happy you are both safe. Generally speaking there should be a protection relay built into the system so that two sources of power (onboard power and shore power) should never meet. The relay would "flip flop" protecting each other from interacting and providing a continuous flow to your load. When the relay fails power from the shore is getting all the way back to your power source on the boat, and back-feeding your circuits. Have that relay checked thoroughly. There should be two sets of contacts (normally open and normally closed) that should protect the individual phases as they enter the panel, and be able to flip flop into normally open held closed and to normally closed held open to protect the system in dual voltage detection.
Compared to home, many people loose power in storms and hook up temporary generators to get their lights on. The problem arises when the main power comes back on (without a relay) and now you have two sources of power (out of phase) trying to compete for your house circuits. That almost always equals disaster for the generator and your house wiring. Bottom line.. Im glad you guys are both OK

Cathryn said...

Yikes this was a SCARY post to read! We're SO glad neither Why Knot nor you two were injured in the process of this electrical fire and aftermath. That is so frightening! We hope your insurance will cover some or all of the costs, and we wonder whether the person who did your pre-purchase Survey followed appropriate steps in evaluating the boat!? We hope repairs are made fairly quickly and you're able to get on with your summer cruising. We're so sympathetic and sad you're facing this, as we know just how it feels to be stuck in port with B.O.A.T problems!!!! Hang in there, Cathryn and Bob