Where There’s Smoke . . .

Inexpensive detectors are good insurance when it comes to fire safety on your sailboat.

Onboard Fire


A smoke detector’s value is self-evident: Smoke nearly always precedes fire, and aboard a boat, fire—along with flooding—is definitely among the worst of worst-case scenarios. In both cases, early detection is the key to helping you avoid disaster; however, the consequences are certainly more dire with smoke and fire.

If your vessel goes down, you can don a life jacket and, one hopes, crawl into a life raft. Few vessels, however, are equipped with fire-retardant suits or breathing apparatuses. A smoke detector, therefore, becomes the first and possibly most important line of defense in dealing with the dangers of flame as well as the toxic smoke it’s almost certain to cause when modern boatbuilding materials burn. The device is also likely to be the least-expensive piece of equipment you’ll need to guard against fire. Once a fire takes hold, fire extinguishers, both portable and fixed, become the next option, one that you’ll want to avoid exercising at all costs. Virtually every fire extinguisher, even the smallest economy models, cost more than most smoke detectors, and if you need them, it means you’ll almost certainly sustain at least some costly damage. You get the point: Smoke detectors are cheap insurance.

The U.S. Coast Guard, relying on guidelines published in Title 46: Shipping of the Code of Federal Regulations, has required for several years that smoke alarms be installed in the sleeping compartments of small inspected vessels, that is, vessels that carry paying passengers. Regrettably, no such requirement exists for recreational craft. However, that’s no reason to forgo a smoke detector. After all, while there’s no requirement that mandates the installation of electric bilge pumps, few skippers would dream of putting to sea without one.

If the Coast Guard’s inspected-vessel guideline is followed, then a smoke detector that meets Underwriters Laboratories UL 217RV standard is also suitable for use on your vessel. To my mind, any sailboat with a cabin in which you could sleep, regardless of size, should be equipped with a smoke detector. Interestingly, UL 217RV is designed for recreational vehicles, not boats. However, its assessment criteria for these devices are surprisingly stringent. They include the effects of high humidity, temperature extremes, and extended exposure to salt spray, among others.

Most battery-powered, self-contained household smoke detectors have a useful life of between eight and 10 years. Higher-quality units will alert you when this 10-year time line is nearing its end. For marine use, though, go with a 50-percent safety margin and replace smoke detectors on a five-year cycle. Again, for the cost (easily less than $20), this is still the cheapest fire-safety insurance you can buy.

Because most fires occurring on recreational boats are electrical in origin, installing smoke alarms behind electrical panels, in lazarettes, and over battery banks makes good sense. I’ve installed and recommended wireless radio-frequency units (see “Detector Tip”) for years now and know of at least two times when the system alerted users to an impending engine-compartment fire long before it would’ve been noticed or it became critical.

Simply put, you shouldn’t cruise aboard a vessel that lacks smoke detection devices, even if they don’t meet the more stringent UL 217RV test requirements.

Detector Tip: Installing units that don't meet the UL 217RV standard isn't prohibited, and in many cases, such units have highly desirable features. Two of these, offered by Kidde (www.kiddewireless.com) and First Alert (www.firstalert.com), use wireless radio-frequency technology to trigger every smoke alarm installed aboard your boat. Therefore, if the engine-room/compartment-installed unit senses smoke, it sounds the alarm in units installed throughout the vessel.

Steve D’Antonio offers services for boat owners and buyers through Steve D’Antonio Marine Consulting (www.stevedmarineconsulting.com).