Getting Cozy: Charting a Risky Course

Nicely warm and cozy! That's how every owner wants it on board his vessel. It's not only comfortable that way, but it also keeps the boat dry. However, caution is warranted when using heaters and fans, since these are a source of danger that, time and time again, have led anywhere from damage to total loss.

"In general, the type of diesel or propane heaters that you often find on sailboats and motorised yachts aren't a problem," says Holger Flindt, head of the Claims Department at the yacht insurance specialist Pantaenius.  "Of course, this assumes that these devices are correctly operated and were properly installed, but unfortunately that's not always the case," he adds.

Claims adjusters regularly have to deal with insurance claims for damages caused by heating equipment. For instance, lubricants or sail bags inadvertently tossed in front of vents can cause melt damage. Not infrequently, a kink in the ventilator line leads to a hot-air blockage which poses a threat of fire, since ventilation lines are usually made of nothing more than aluminium-covered cardboard. Today, forced ventilation to prevent possible air blockage is more or less standard. But, Flindt has often seen how heaters come equipped with closable vents, such that blocked air can't make its way out when all vents are closed. "You definitely need to make sure that the forced ventilation system is working," he advises.

Getting Cozy: Charting a Risky Course

In his view, an even greater danger is posed by the exhaust line, since this gets particularly hot. "Who hasn't heard of, or personally experienced, the flag at the stern being blackened or singed because it was hanging in front of the exhaust?", says Flindt. But experience shows that on board the vessel itself is where the gas line poses the greatest danger, despite it being insulated. For instance, cable ties located near the heat source melt, the cables fall on a partially uninsulated exhaust line, scorch, and cause a short circuit. Flindt: "And as we all know, that can lead to a fire."

For this reason, when installing heating equipment , it's very important that the heating and exhaust lines be laid correctly and away from sensitive components. That's why retrofitting should be done only by a professional, or at least with competent technical assistance.

Also not to be overlooked are electrical heating devices, such as oil-filled radiators. In this case, it's important to be sure that they're specifically designed for damp areas and come equipped with GFCI switches to prevent short circuits. In any event, you should avoid keeping such electric heating devices in constant operation when unsupervised, for example, in winter storage.

But in Flindt's opinion, the greatest danger continues to be fan heaters. The open coils and filaments have caused many fires. "All you need is one feather from the down sleeping bag that gets sucked in by the fan heater and then blown back out as a spark," reports the Pantaenius damage expert. Fan heaters are commonly used in winter storage to keep the vessel from becoming damp. "We've seen cases where four or five fan heaters in constant operation were all connected to one outlet. It's hardly a surprise when the electrical circuit gets overloaded and a cable catches fire. "For this reason, fan heaters should be used only for short periods. When working on the boat in winter storage, you should also take care that no gases are emitted -- for instance, during painting – since they can ignite if they come into contact with the coils. As an alternative, many specialized dealers recommend so-called ceramic heaters, which offer increased operational safety because the heating element isn't glowing hot.

In any case, you should seek the advice of an expert prior to purchasing and installing heating and ventilating equipment, because if installed incorrectly, you may, in a worst-case scenario, lose insurance coverage in the event of damage.

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