The summer of 2012 has shown just how dangerous the combination of water and electricity can be with three electrocution deaths in the Lake of the Ozarks within a week this past July. It has left many lake residents and visitors looking for answers and worried in a whole new way about the safety of the water.
Since July 4 when the double electrocutions of a young brother and sister occurred, the Sunrise Beach Fire Marshal's Office has received 23 hot dock calls.
"To me, that's a lot," said Sunrise Beach Fire Protection District dock inspector Steve Myers, who added that he has also received some 500 phone calls from people concerned about their dock's wiring.
While Ameren Missouri and six lake area fire departments have been working in conjunction since 2006 on dock electrical safety (more departments have begun since), the inspection process is only currently required for new, relocated, remodeled or repaired docks.
But it's not necessarily old docks that are the problem, according to Myers.
He and Sunrise Beach Fire Marshal Bobby Northcott have been doing electrical dock inspections in their district since the code was adopted.
When the inspection process is triggered by one of the above criteria, both the dock owner and fire department code officials receive written notice from Ameren. The owner receives a packet of information which includes electrical safety requirements with a wiring diagram and an application form for the fire district permit. It is up to the owner to contact the fire department when their dock is ready for inspection.
Of the 1,342 notices for inspection that SBFPD has received since 2006, 536 — 40 percent — have made no contact with the district to have the inspection done as required. And of the 689 permits — cases in which contact has been made — 455 docks have been approved; 234 are pending.
In 2012 alone, 102 docks have been noticed for inspection by Ameren in the Sunrise Beach Fire Protection District. Only 16 dock owners have taken out an SBFPD dock permit, representing a compliance of 15 percent.
To apply for a permit, the owner signs a form stating that the dock will meet the standards which they received from Ameren. Despite this, docks rarely pass the first inspection, according to Myers.
Of the docks that have been inspected by the SBFPD, only 193 passed the first time. So the 234 that are pending include docks that have already been failed. It usually takes a couple of times to pass. The most Myers has ever been out to one dock is five times.
"We're about compliance. It's about safety and compliance. We're not punitive," he explained. "We think that fines would be detrimental."
There are no tickets or fines related to the permitting process.
If a dock fails inspection, the officials leave the checklist showing why the dock did not pass either in a lift box or shed on the dock or at the home and contact the owner.
Page 2 of 5 - "We try to work with them. If they want it sent it somewhere, we'll fax it or mail it. Whatever we can do to try to help them get in compliance," Myers said.
All too often, however, an inspection is done, the dock fails and they don't hear from the owner again, he said.
SBFPD permits are good for a year. If the dock cannot come into compliance in that time, they are referred to Ameren. Owners are also given a year to contact the district about getting a permit, which can make the compliance process to two years.
Running indoor wire not protected by conduit is asking for a problem, according to Myers. These are opportune places for the wire to be rubbed bare, which can then lead to "catastrophic failure" if the grounding is not done properly and the GFCI is not working. And all of these issues and more are commonly found by inspectors, he said.
Bad dock wiring, however, is not just from people trying to do it themselves. Failed docks are often wired by an electrician, according to Myers.
"Some of them look at the national code as the maximum of what they have to do, but it's not the maximum, it's the minimum. It's the minimum that they need to do for safety," he said. "After July 4, I had three electricians call me and ask basically the same thing — How much of the national code are you going to make us follow? I ... What they don't see is this is a minimum standard. I cannot approve anything less than the minimum. We enforce the whole thing."
In the state of Missouri, there is no licensing for electricians. But even if there was, Myers is not sure that it would be enough to solve the problem. A person could be licensed and in business, but employees could operate under that person's license without being licensed themselves, he said.
There are good electricians in the lake area, and there are bad ones, he added, and there are also good electricians whose employees don't do the job properly. The inspectors have also seen bad dock wiring done by electricians coming out of the metropolitan areas where many seasonal homeowners live.
Myers recommended hiring electricians who are bonded and insured. Make sure that you actually see the proof of bonding and insurance, take down the information and verify it, he said.
What to do now
When it comes to a dock, you want to make sure you have your safety belts in place, he said. Green wires are the so-called "safety belts" of electrical systems because they are the ground wires.
Page 3 of 5 - "They are what save your life," Myers said. "That's why we're so particular about the green wires."
However, docks often fail because of the lack of proper grounding. The green wires may be there but they may not go anywhere. Or, the ground rod is not properly placed, according to Myers.
Failures also occur because the ground fault circuit interrupter doesn't work. Many docks have GFCIs that shut off the system, but they can also lead to a false sense of security, according to Northcott. People can assume that the GFCI will work forever and they don't know that the system should be tested frequently, so the GFCIs are rarely if ever "exercised."
Their two key pieces of advice: Test the ground fault circuit interrupter to exercise it and make sure it still works, and do frequent visual inspections of the system.
On the switches in the subpanel for the dock, there should be buttons that say, "Push to test." That is the built-in tester.
"There's a test button for a reason, but nobody's ever explained to them what they need to do," according to Myers.
The little handheld GFCI testers being offered by Co-Mo Electric Cooperative are also a great thing, he said. Use these devices to check electrical outlets to make sure the mechanism that disconnects the electricity actually works.
You want to test and "exercise" the GFCI at least every 30 days, according to Myers. The GFCI is a mechanical device and operates with a spring. Going unused for years can cause the spring inside to not spring anymore.
Northcott recommended having a qualified electrician inspect the system once a year.
A qualified person is defined by the code as "One who has knowledge and skill related to the construction, operation, and installation of electrical equipment, including safety training on the hazards involved with electrical systems."
Owners should also frequently be doing their own inspections — just a simple walkaround to visually check on the condition of wires and connections using the wiring diagram and requirements provided by Ameren.
If you feel a shock in the water, swim away from the dock and have the electricity shut off, said Myers. Swim away to get out of the water somewhere else, preferably to shoreline and not another dock because you may not know which dock is the problem if they're close together. And for those on land, make sure the electricity is shut off at the shore disconnect before getting on the dock or in the water, he said. Rescuers can become part of the problem if electricity is not addressed first.
The experts and inspection
Like the other code officials and dock inspectors at the lake, Myers and Northcott have had specialized and ongoing training in wet location electrical systems in addition to their years of experience in the field. They received training from James Schafer, an expert on wet location electrical systems from Florida. They have had training in general bonding and grounding as well.
Page 4 of 5 - Area code officials meet once a month to discuss all code issues and ensure that they are enforcing the code correctly and consistently throughout the area. According to Myers, docks are on the agenda every month to make sure everybody continues to be on the same page and continues proper enforcement.
"I would put our knowledge base up against anybody," Myers said.
Lake area dock inspectors use the 2005 National Electrical Code as the standard.
On a dock inspection, the code officials do not take anything apart to inspect it, according to Myers.
"We don't do anything that would compromise the work of the contractor," he said.
Code officials do a visual inspection of the shore disconnect, wiring and outlets — testing the GFCIs at multiple locations and checking the grounding elements as well as looking for general electric code violations. They also use a hair dryer to do a load test.
There is a checklist of 25 items that inspectors go through. Some of the requirements may not be met for various reasons — as they cover general code violations. Everything on the list must be met in order to pass.
If a dock is hot, the inspectors shut off the electricity to the dock at the shore disconnect. If there is not a shore disconnect as required by code, they will try to get a key to the garage or house to shut off the electricity to the dock, and if necessary they will have the electric provider shut down service altogether.
The inspectors also test the water around the dock to see if a neighboring dock is hazardous. But this is no guarantee that the dock next door is safe. The electric just may not be on when the inspectors are there.
A dock from across the cove has set their volt meter tester off before, according to Northcott.
If a dock fails an inspection, it does not mean it is necessarily an acutely hazardous situation, but it has the potential to become hazardous. It's usually small things that in the short term may not seem that bad but that can eventually combine for tragic results, said Myers.
Electrical problems on dock occur more often than most people may realize, but they are not new to people who work closely with the issue.
Myers and Northcott have seen many medical incidents over the years resulting from electric shock while people were swimming in the lake.
"We've had so many near misses on this lake," Northcott commented.
But because they were injuries and not deaths, the incidents have mostly flown under the radar. Knowledge about dock electricity and safety has unfortunately been under many people's radar as well.
Page 5 of 5 - "It's just that one day that draws attention to it. Until then, it's out of sight, out of mind. Nobody thinks today will be the day," Myers said.