Have you got gas? Be alarmed

Gas is arguably the most dangerous element on a boat. If you want to arrive safely and sleep soundly, make sure your gas system is up to standard. It might cost a few ‘bring out another thousand’ (BOAT) units, but better to be right than alight.

Trusting our sensors

We were aboard our Catalina 470, Barrenjoey Light in Keppel Bay Marina, ready to continue our voyage south to Sydney after several months aboard cruising to the Whitsundays. Ruth and I were just enjoying a cup of tea prior to going to bed ready for an early start in the morning.

The gas alarm started to beep. Never mind, that has happened before. Reset the gas monitor and in all likelihood it will prove to be a false alarm. Several minutes later the alarm sounded again. Hang on.

Well perhaps it is a faulty sensor or an electrical problem. After all we did have some electrical work done on the boat earlier that day. Text electrician who was only too happy to respond at 9pm, “try swapping the sensors over and see if the other sensor also triggers the alarm.”

Our DVK gas alarm has two sensors. One under the galley stove, the other in the bilge. Prudently the gas alarm is also linked to our gas cut-off solenoid and will open circuit if any gas is detected. You might not always hear the alarm or see its flashing red light but it is comforting to know the alarm will do the right thing and shut off the gas even if you are not aware of the potential problem.

So cut the cable ties and pull out the sensors and swap them. Now it really was, not good! The sensor which had been under the stove was now detecting gas in the bilge. We could not have two faulty sensors. We had to have gas or perhaps fuel in the bilge. Text back results to electrician, “turn off all gas at the bottles and I will be back on your boat first thing in the morning.”

Next morning David Toolen, the marine electrician who had helped us resolve a faulty anchor chain-counter problem, was back on board just as he had promised, late the previous evening. David was excellent; if anyone wants an electrician in Keppel Bay we found him to be very good: 0429 996 041.

The problem with the chain counter was a corroded fuse, very cheap except that we had to pull a lot of the boat apart to get at it. Sound familiar?

We checked all the wiring back to the gas cut-off solenoid. It gave a reassuring click when all the switches were on and clicked open again when any switch was turned off. We used a small dab of petrol near each sensor and they duly worked. Electrically everything seemed good.

The gas alarm was no longer going off but what had caused the problem the night before?

Trust a real professional

So we ask the marina; “try Wayne Feeney, Just Plumbing and Gas: 0407 234 121”. I thought I would give him a plug right off the bat as he proved to be more than excellent; potentially a life saver.

“Wayne, thanks for coming down at such short notice. We thought we had a gas leak last night. David has helped us prove that electrically we are all good, but we are concerned that there might be a leak somewhere.

“We filled the gas bottles yesterday. Maybe some gas leaked then, but we don’t want to go to sea and discover we really do have a leak somewhere. Could you pressure test the line?”

“Sure I’ll have a look”, responded Wayne. The marina staff had of course told us stories of how Wayne had recently inspected multiple boats and failed the majority, “regulations gone overboard”, some might have suggested. That was fine by us though. We just wanted to feel and, more importantly, be safe on our beautiful boat.

Wayne sat on the transom and surveyed the gas bottles and how they were connected. “Do you have a gas certificate?” “Yes”, we responded, “we made sure we had one before we left Sydney, want to see it?”

Wayne sat there for a while longer pulling things, lifting things, all the time quietly shaking his head. “Show me the gas certificate will you.” “Fine, I have a copy on the laptop.” Wayne went even more serious. He continued to shake his head.

“Your gas system cannot be tested. It fails on about six points. They all have to be fixed. I would lose my licence if I certified it as being safe without fixing everything properly.”

“OK,” I said, sensing that we would not be heading south that morning. “How much will it cost to do it properly and how long will it take?”

Wayne then proceeded to inform us that if the gas system was changed in any way it had to comply with the latest gas standards. “Your stove,” he began, “it’s a Seaward Princess. Probably original with the boat and it is not certified by the Australian Gas Association. I guess I could see if the local certifier could look at it and it will probably take a while to do. Also, it won’t be cheap: $800-$900.”

Wayne gave the certifier a quick call. Unfortunately he was up in Bowen on a job for the government certifying gas installations at mining sites, he would not be back for months. We did find out later that maybe the stove was OK as it had been originally certified with the boat, but to continue.

“OK, so that’s not an option. What else can we do?”

“You will have to get an AGA certified stove but that will not be cheap, about $2,500 including freight and that might take a while.” “Thanks Wayne.”

By now I am thinking that Wayne really is a seriously pessimistic person, but when it comes to safety, we do need someone who is careful and risk averse.

“All right, we will investigate a new stove. It is now Tuesday. If we can get it here by the weekend, could you fit it say Monday next week?” Wayne however volunteered to check out the stock in
a Rockhampton store to see if they just might have one of the required stoves that would fit our galley space. That, however, did not pan out.

Nevertheless, Ocean Solutions in Brisbane had a Force 10 three burner with grill and oven and they could have it to the marina by Thursday. It was a North American size stove which should fit our old gas stove location almost exactly. We confirmed this with measurements and Ocean Solutions installation guide.

The timeline challenge was set. Get the stove on board by Thursday or Friday, get some shipwright work done and Wayne would put it all together on the coming Monday. A one week delay to our trip south but much, much better than perhaps not arriving at all.

Trust in common sense

The story does have a happy ending, after all we got to write this article.

We can take some very important lessons from our experience but, in the end as you will see, it all boils down to common sense.

Gas is not something to be trifled with. It really isn’t an opportunity to complain about different standards or enforcement regimes across different states.

In fact the applicable standard is AS/NZ5601.2: LP gas installations in caravans and boats for non-propulsive purposes published in 2013, although we understand that NSW is still on the 2004 version (see Jilderts article beginning on page 54 for state by state and federal regulation explanation). Earlier versions of the standard may also apply depending on your boat’s build date.

Note that if you update the stove or some other part of the system, you will generally have to comply with the latest version of the Standard anyway. There are some differences between the Australian and New Zealand jurisdictions but, in Australia for all practical purposes, the standard applies across every state. You can quibble about how one state is different to another, but it makes sense to meet all aspects of the standard.

Michaela Backes, the operations manager – finance for Pantaenius Insurance in Australia, says in addition, “Pantaenius in 40 years of insuring yachts and powerboats all over the world has had plenty of experience with insurance claims resulting from gas leaks.

“Unfortunately they are mostly for major damage to the vessel and often also result in personal injuries. From the insurance point of view it is crucial that the gas system complies with international standards and is certified as required by law. However, it is often not that simple as this article shows.

“Boat owners should be aware of the risk and keep their eyes open for anything that appears unsafe. In the end it is better to spend the money and be safe rather than sorry.”

To reinforce these points, a friend of ours related this story. Ten years ago he bought a yacht, oblivious to the need to have a gas certificate. While he owned the yacht, neither of the two insurers he used, or his club during its annual safety audits, ever asked to cite a gas certificate; something that yacht club has now rectified in its procedures.

He only became aware that a certificate was required when it was surveyed for sale recently. Like us, he was safety conscious and would have done the right thing had he been more aware. Lucky for the new owners that the omissions of the past have not been perpetuated. Be aware, be alert and if needed, be alarmed.

System six points

So lets look at the system from end to end, starting with where the gas is stored. Note, however, these descriptions apply to our gas system; if you have something different on your boat you will need to obtain and, importantly, understand appropriate professional advice. You will see it all makes common sense, armed with knowledge you can ask the right questions and make the right decisions.

In fact Michael and Robyn off Windwalker strolled past our transom and we chatted. They had a very similar experience to us and learned similar things, lessons which they also felt ought to be shared.

Storing the gas:liquid petroleum gas (LPG) is heavier than air. That means if it does get inside your boat it will sink to your bilge and be very difficult to remove. So clearly you do not want it to get inside your boat unless it is burning in a stove.

Where is the gas stored? In a compartment that is labelled of course. Why labelled? Well, if you do have a fire you do not want a visiting crew member having to search for the gas bottles.

The Standard requires that the cylinder(s) be stored such that gas cannot leak into the boat. If there is any gas leakage it should leak out of the boat. The Standard requires that the pipes and hoses that convey the gas overboard should have an internal diameter of 19 millimetre (¾ inch).

That was our first point of failure, we only had half inch fittings and hoses. The Keppel Bay Marina shipwrights helped us comply on this point.

However the Standard also requires: ‘cylinders should be protected from corrosion’. Now that is a bit difficult on our boat as the cylinders are stored in compartments in the transom.

A small issue is the drain hole is not quite at the lowest point of the compartment, so it can hold a small amount of water. A couple of our friends suggested that we investigate stainless and galvanised bottles. You do, however, then have to fill them. ‘Swap’n’go’ bottles may be easier to find than a filling station but you do need to watch out for corrosion; so they should be regularly swapped out rather than just being refilled.

Of course if you plan to leave your boat for a long while then stainless or galvanised bottles could make a lot of sense, or it might be wise to take the bottles home rather than leaving them on the boat for an extended period. In the end we went for stainless bottles, which were also slightly more capacity than what we had before.

Each cylinder also needs to have adequate ventilation to ensure that gas can drain to the bottom of the compartment and then overboard. Previously we had wrapped both cylinders in some plastic padding material but have now realised that this would compromise the need to ventilate properly. Now we are using four pieces of rubber hose, these stop the gas cylinder moving in the compartment but also have large spaces through which gas and any water can drain.

Domenic, a gas fitter from Western Australia who also kindly reviewed this article, highlighted how we needed to ensure the bottle cannot fall out just in case we do invert. The latches on our lockers mean that, at worst, the bottles might move a few inches in a bad knockdown, which would not compromise the gas system. Just the same, we have a lanyard to absolutely stop each bottle from moving at all.

Our next point of failure was that two of the holes in the gas compartment were not properly sealed. They simply must be or else, rather than draining overboard, gas can just as easily leak into your boat. In our case that would mean into the area surrounding where we sleep in the aft cabin.

Some friends of ours told an alarming story. They experienced a storm with torrential rain. Water accumulated in the gas compartment but then drained into the engine compartment. If water could find its way into the engine compartment imagine what LPG would do? The engine could have provided the ignition source.

Pigtail: the pigtail takes the high pressure gas to the gas cut-off solenoid and regulator. It needs to be flexible so you can easily remove and reinstall your gas bottles. However the regulator only comes in a 600mm length, the maximum allowed under the standard, which limits your configuration options.

The gas cut-off solenoid: a gas cut-off solenoid is designed to shut if it is not supplied with current. It should be installed on the high pressure side of the regulator, our next failure point. It had been installed on the low pressure of the old regulator for our galley.

Not sure how that happened but we did have a couple of different technicians helping us at different times to install the DVK monitor and fix a broken wire to the solenoid, so it could have happened at any time we guess. It does however highlight the need to be on top of details like this yourself. Maybe someone was not as aware of the need to put the solenoid on the high pressure side of the regulator. Never mind, we are now.

Of course, importantly, our solenoid is wired into our DVK gas alarm, everything will be turned off if any gas is detected or any of our safety switches are turned off.

Note also that with a DVK alarm, the sensors will not work if they get wet. They have to be replaced, so it would be wise to test them periodically and carry some spares. We understand that the Sentinel brand of sensors do not suffer from contact with water in the same way, so they might be worth checking out if you have not yet installed an alarm system.

We do not use a gas cut-off solenoid on our barbecue. It is basically all external to the boat and is controlled via some manual valves on the back of the boat.

Now a gas cut-off solenoid is not actually required if you have flame failure detectors on all stove burners. However, we feel it is much wiser to have it than not. A detector and alarm connected to a gas cut-off solenoid is being extra careful and we believe you cannot be too careful with gas.

The regulator: we have two gas bottles. Some of you might have a manifold and a switch-over valve but we keep both bottles separate, with one for the galley and one for the BBQ. Each one requires a regulator as we need to reduce the bottle pressure of 800 to 900 kilopascals down to the 2.75kPa required by our gas stoves.

This was another failure point on our old system. One regulator was a single stage regulator, best suited to a domestic BBQ. The second at least, had a two-stage regulator, which is safer as a failure in either part would still not allow full bottle pressure to get through to our stove with possible disastrous consequences.

However, neither of the old regulators was suitable for marine use. Corrosion could easily have compromised the integrity. A total failure of the single stage regulator could have resulted in about 270 times the volume of one gas bottle ending up in our boat, or should I say bomb?

Our new regulators are both two-stage regulators, reducing the 800 to 900kPa down to 7kPa and then down to 2.75kPa. The two sides of each regulator are bolted together as added protection. Note on the photo also the place where your gas fitter can attach a gauge to pressure test the line, something that was just plain absent on our old regulators.

The regulators are both attached very securely.

Pipes and hoses to the stoves: our BBQ system is fairly simple: copper tubing from the starboard side bottle to a bayonet fitting and then a rubber hose to our BBQ, which is installed on the port side of the pushpit.

Two things to note here: the rubber hose is protected against ultra-violet damage and there is a simple manual valve to turn the gas to the BBQ on or off. We were advised by Wayne that it was better to turn the gas off there, rather than at the bottle as we had been doing; this is kinder to the regulator, which then has high pressure gas on one side and lower pressure gas on the other. It is also easier.

However, our old galley system had a rubber hose fed all the way from the regulator to the galley stove. Not good again as it was all too easy for the rubber to wear at the point it entered the boat.

We later checked with Catalina in Australia and they indicated that the hose was braided rubber and had complied when originally installed. As Wayne pointed out however, systems do degrade over time. For example, LPG is liquefied petroleum and you can get toxic petroleum residues gumming up the system over time.

We understand that a reasonable expectation of product life for a rubber hose is just five years and hoses should be retested every year after. Meaning, for all practical purposes, they should be replaced. After fifteen years it was clearly a potential safety issue. There was also no shut-off valve near the galley stove.

Wayne ran new Kemlag sheathed copper piping from the port-side compartment through to the galley stove. Our galley is on the port side. He used the old hose as a mouse to pull the new piping through.

Wayne highlighted how it had to be one length with no joins as it was running under our aft sleeping accommodation and beside our engine compartment, not somewhere where you want to have a crack or hole.

The stove: this was our first bit of really good news in the whole exercise. Besides, that is, knowing that we had a problem and it needed to be fixed.

The Force 10 stove model we purchased was a tight fit down the companionway and involved some help from a marina staff member but, with some contortions, we successfully got it below. It also conformed to the standard American dimensions, meaning that when it was fitted it slotted into the gimbal mounts used for our old Seaward Princess perfectly.

The other good thing is that the new gimbal attachment points had locks on them, which were missing in the old installation. Something that would not have been good in a big knockdown. Imagine a stove crashing around the galley with a broken, damaged gas hose.

We also have a turn-off valve, although I must admit it is not the easiest thing to get to. I think I would be switching off the gas cut-off solenoid or turning off the gas at the bottle if I was in a hurry.

Anyway, the new

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