Ask any marine surveyor, one of the items they always check is a vessel’s fire extinguishers. Unfortunately, more often than not, they find equipment that is old and in poor condition. Keeping this equipment in working order is vital to the safety of a boat and its occupants. Still, few owners pay much attention to the fire systems onboard. To be honest, these are not very exciting pieces of equipment, and hopefully you will never have to use them. However, in the event of an emergency, it is vital that they are operational. Checking your system is not difficult, but it does require some time and possibly some expense. The first step is to understand your fire extinguishers, what types are available and what is required by law.
Types & Sizes of Fire Extinguishers:
While there are many types and sizes of fire extinguishers available, we’ll stick to the most commonly found onboard your average pleasure boat in the 20-60’ range. The types or classes of fire extinguishers are based on letter designations for the type of fuel a fire is burning and are designated by the National Fire Protection Agency as follows:
Type A: Common combustible solids such as wood, paper, cloth, canvas, cushions, and many plastics. Dry chemicals and water work well on these fires.
Type B: Fires involving oils, greases, paints, solvents and gases. These would most commonly be engine, galley, and stored liquid chemical fires. Dry chemical and clean agents work well. Never use water.
Type C: Electrical fires. Dry chemical and clean agents work well. Liquid agents should not be used as they present a shock hazard.
What’s Inside the Fire Extinguisher:
These are the agents you are most likely to find on your average pleasure boat:
Dry chemicals: Can be used on B,C and A,B,C fires. The label will indicate which. They are the most common type for small portable fire extinguishers found on most boats. All have a B,C rating which is the minimum required by the USCG. Some are rated for A,B,C and this is preferred for marine use, but not required. Dry chemicals work by cooling and smothering the fire with heavy smoke. The powder can be caustic and if discharged, be sure to completely clean anything the power has come in contact with.
Clean agents: Called clean agents because they leave little or no residue after being discharged. The most common of these are CO2, Halon and now Halon substitutes. The Environmental Protection Agency has banned the use of Halon due to its Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. Halon is now being replaced with FE 241, FE200, HFC-227 and Halotron 1. Clean agents are not as common in small portable extinguishers as is dry chemical but you can find some units that use it. They work by displacing oxygen in the air thereby smothering the fire. The advantage is that they do not leave any residue. The disadvantage is that because they displace the oxygen, they are a suffocation hazard when used in confined spaces such as the cabin of a boat.
Sizes of Extinguishers:
Sizes for portable fire extinguishers are set by the US Coast Guard and use Roman numerals, I being the smallest and V being the largest. It’s rare to see anything bigger than a size II on the average sized pleasure boat.
Size I is 4-5 pounds clean agent and 2-3 pounds dry chemical. Commonly, this size is not serviceable, meaning it cannot be recharged should it be used or lose its charge. Check the label to see if it can be serviced or not. These are by far the most common size found on the average boat.
Size II is 15 pounds clean agent and 10 pounds dry chemical. As these units are larger and more expensive most (but not all) are serviceable. Once again, check your label. Serviceable units can be recharged by a certified fire extinguisher service center if they lose charge or are used.
The US Coast Guard by law requires all pleasure boats with engine compartments, and or with permanently installed fuel tanks to carry fire extinguishers. The minimum number and type are as follows:
16-26’: One B-I
26-40’: One B-II or Two B-I
40-65’: One B-II and One B-I, or Three B-I units
The “B-I” and “B-II” are USCG designations for fire extinguisher types and sizes. The “B” is based on a complicated system set up by the USCG and the “I” and “II” are for the size. Suffice to say, always check the label to make sure it is USCG approved. At minimum it should be for B, C fires with A, B, C preferred.
All extinguishers should be professionally inspected and tagged at least once a year and a quick visual inspection done monthly. However, for pleasure boats this is a recommendation and not a requirement. Unfortunately, most boaters rarely do either of these. The USCG requires you have onboard “approved” fire extinguishers; this leaves it up to the boat owner to maintain their equipment in good working order. If you are boarded by the USCG or local waterway officers and you have fire extinguishers that are not fully charged, or are old and in poor condition you are likely to get a citation. It is not cost effective to have a service company come down to your boat once a year for only 3-4 small hand held extinguishers. It would be more efficient to take them to an approved service facility to have them checked. The average cost for this is $35-$75 per extinguisher depending on size and type. For the small disposable units, this might not be cost effective and it might be more realistic to just replace them on a regular basis. Most companies provide a 6-year warranty and a 12-year shelf life. After 12 years, they should be disposed of. We recommend replacing after no more than 6 years. You can tell the age of your unit by looking on the bottom, where you will find a 2-digit date number indicating its manufacture date. It is a good idea to look at this when you purchase a new unit, as you want to make sure you are not getting one that has been in stock for 2-3 years. Whether you take your units in for professional inspections or not, you should know how to inspect them yourself so that you can be sure you have safe working units. How should you inspect them? Here’s a handy step-by-step guide:
- Remove the extinguishers from their bracket and check the gauge. If the needle is in the red, or even very close to it, you should replace it.
- Visually inspect the canister and nozzle. Check for rust, corrosion, and dents. Look into the nozzle to be sure it is not blocked by anything. Make sure the safety pin is intact and that the handle is not bent or broken.
- Check the bracket to make sure it is in good condition. Too often, units are tossed into a locker or cabinet, unsecured. Check the label to verify it is USCG approved; this is often in very small print.
- For dry chemical units, turn the fire extinguisher upside down and tap the cylinder with a rubber mallet. You should feel or hear the powder move inside. This is important as the powder tends to get packed down at the bottom.
- For clean agent units you should weigh the extinguisher to verify it is within manufactures specifications. The minimum and maximum weights will be on the label, make sure it falls within that range. Even with these self- inspections, it is still important to have professionals look at all units at least once a year.
- Lastly, consider the number and location of your fire extinguishers. Just because the USCG has set a minimum number to be onboard doesn’t mean this is all you should have. When installing fire extinguishers, think about likely places a fire could start. The galley, the engine compartment, battery compartments and electrical panels are all places fires commonly start. Place fire extinguishers near these areas and near all exits from the cabin. You want to make sure if there is a fire you are not trapped inside so have units placed so that you can use them to clear your exit. Also, it is a good idea to have units in all sleeping spaces so that if a fire should break out at night, you will not be trapped. Lockers containing fire extinguishers should have a red label on the outside reading “Fire Extinguisher Inside.” As skipper, it’s your duty to make sure your guests know where all safety equipment is kept as well.
Remember, keeping your boat’s fire extinguisher in working order is vital to the safety of your boat and its occupants. Key points to be aware of are:
- Purchase only USCG approved fire extinguishers. The minimal rating for your extinguisher is B,C. A rating of A,B,C is recommended.
- It is recommended to professionally inspect and tag your extinguisher yearly.
- This can be accomplished by taking the extinguisher to an approved service company.
- A more expensive option is to have a service company come to your boat each year.
- Finally, for small disposal units, the most cost effective way might be to replace them each year.
- In addition to the yearly professional inspection, extinguishers should be visually inspected monthly.
The most important thing to consider is, when you need your extinguisher, you want it to work! If you have any questions about the fire extinguishers you have onboard, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Service Department!