Mar 26, 2023 by Erik Speyer
New technologies help detect issues with batteries before a fire starts.
Fires aboard large yachts are not new, but what is changing is the types of fires and struggles to put them out. The latest year for which reliable data exists is 2018. During that year there were 39 fires on board large yachts, with 32 of those on board vessels under 500 gross tons; of the 39 fires, 37 were on motor yachts. There is a growing concern within the industry with the number of lithium-ion battery devices on board and the fire danger those devices present.
On Wednesday, ahead of the Palm Beach International Boat show, the International Superyacht Society’s Leadership Series explored many issues affecting the industry. The “hot” topic that everyone was interested to hear about was fire safety — specifically, the concern over lithium-ion battery fires. The number of lithium-ion batteries in the world is increasing exponentially. Obviously, everyone carries a cellphone, at the bare minimum. However, yachts are particularly affected due to the increased number of toys and other devices on board that use lithium-ion batteries. There is also a big push within the industry to go green, which means increases in the size of batteries on board to run hotel and propulsion systems.
What makes these fires so dangerous is the nature in which they combust.The process in which they burn is called thermal runaway – an entire thesis could be written on the subject. As it stands, there are no regulations covering detection or suppression of the fires. In fact, industry experts disagree on the correct ways to handle these incidents. Further, most crews lack the proper training on how to handle these types of fires.
“Fire, in itself, is a scary topic to insurers. There is no such thing as a good fire,” said Laura Sherrod of Newcoast Insurance. “Our biggest concern is the aging of our yachts and how we prevent losses from chafe, electrical, and lack of maintenance issues.”
However, it’s not all doom, gloom, and boom. There are currently available technologies that can significantly improve the detection of potential issues with batteries and warn crew up to 20 minutes ahead of thermal runaway. This early detection is a substantial advantage in mitigating risk to the vessel. Aspirating smoke detectors actively monitor the air and use lasers to analyze the particulate matter, which can reduce detection time up to five times sooner than traditional ones.
This will continue to be a “hot” button issue within the industry. The regulators, insurers, and manufacturers are working towards solutions. Industry experts are also working to provide the necessary education and training for crew. This issue won’t be extinguished anytime soon.