You might’ve heard about people who have been victims of electric-shock drowning (ESD). Unfortunately, this has happened in both of our local lakes, Allatoona and Lanier. Electric-shock drowning occurs when electrical current leaks into surrounding water, causing a swimmer to become incapacitated. The current causes muscular paralysis and impairs your ability to swim or stay afloat, which leads to drowning.
Each year, numerous accidents happen in the water around boats and docks where alternating current (AC) electrical power is used. ESD is far more likely to occur in freshwater than saltwater. In freshwater, the body is a better conductor of electricity than the water (the opposite is true in saltwater).
The cause of electrical currents leaking into the water often is the result of faulty wiring and equipment on boats or docks, sometimes created unknowingly when a boat owner attempts to repair or upgrade a vessel’s electrical systems. Household wiring and boat wiring are different, so if you’re not 100% certain of what you’re doing with shore-power repairs, hire a professional. And you should test your boat periodically for electrical leakage into the water.
You should never swim near any dock or boat where AC power is used. To reduce the risk, individuals and pets should never enter the water within 150 feet of any electrical equipment or wiring, which eliminates swimming in a marina. Most marinas prohibit it anyway.
In 2011, the National Electric Code introduced new requirements for ground-fault protection in shore-power applications in marinas and boatyards. The 2017 version expands the protection area to docks at private residences. The new requirements are not retroactive, but dock owners would be wise to upgrade their facilities, which can be as simple as installing a ground-fault circuit interrupter at the dock pedestal. This device will trip if dangerous current escapes the dock. Ask your marina to install ground-fault protection and have the electrical system inspected and tested annually. And owners also should have their private docks inspected each year by a qualified marine electrician.
New requirements include warning signage on all docks — including residential — using electricity. The American Boat & Yacht Council also requires whole-boat ground-fault protection, and an equipment leakage current interrupter now is installed on new boats. Owners of older boats should consider upgrading their shore-power systems. The upgrade equipment normally is installed at the power panel, and a professional can install it in as little as two hours.
– Greg Fonzeno is the public education officer and commander of the local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Unit (Flotilla 22) at Allatoona Lake.