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Don’t Blow Up Your Boat: Top Reasons Boats Catch Fire (and How to Avoid Them)

Don’t Blow Up Your Boat: Top Reasons Boats Catch Fire (and How to Avoid Them)

No one wants to watch their boat go up in flames, but unfortunately, many boat fires are caused by human error or routine maintenance neglect. 

Fires on boats tend to happen around the engine, since that’s where fuel, heat, and sparks regularly come together. For inboard boats, that means fires generally begin in the engine room and may not be as easily or quickly recognized and contained as outboard fires, which generally occur under the motor’s cowl.

Here are a few of the top reasons boats catch on fire and what you can do to avoid having it happen to you.

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Regulatory Issues

Almost one-third of outboard motor fires start somewhere in the engine’s electrical system. A large majority of those fires are caused by a failed voltage regulator or the wiring attached to it. In the simplest of terms, the voltage regulator converts alternating current (AC) power to direct current (DC) power and ensures that the voltage coming out of it remains at a specified level that won’t damage the boat batteries by overcharging, which is a fire hazard. 

The good news is that most powerboat and other boat motors made in the last 10 years are considered pretty safe from this. However, if you start to notice that your battery doesn’t appear to be charging and you’ve eliminated other issues that could be causing the problem—such as loose cable connections or corrosion on the battery terminals—you should check the voltage regulator to make sure it’s working properly.

Fortunately, voltage regulators on many outboard motors are reasonably inexpensive and easy to replace. If you don’t have a voltage meter to do the test, or you’d prefer to have an experienced professional take care of it for you, your local dealer will be happy to assist. Even with the service charge, it’s still a lot cheaper than buying a new motor.

Crossed Wires

The second biggest source of engine fires is when the owner fails to place the battery cables on the proper terminals. In other words, putting the positive cable on the negative post and the negative cable on the positive post. Another battery installation issue can occur if a short happens when using metal tools to complete the process, or if batteries that are meant to be connected in series should have been connected in parallel instead.

Before you remove the batteries for any reason, be sure to take a photo of the configuration first so you know the right way to put it back together. Some people also use red nail polish or something similar on the positive battery cable to make sure it doesn’t mistakenly get put on the negative post.

A Bad Connection

Speaking of batteries, always be sure to check the terminals for corrosion or pitting and use a wire brush to clean them fully before attaching cables. Also, make sure that the battery cables are the right size for the posts and that the cables themselves are not worn or frayed. A loose connection or short could both spark a fire.

In addition, check the fuel lines in your center console or other boat to make sure they’re all connected correctly, that the connections are tight, and that the lines aren’t frayed or cracked. Telltale signs might include if the lines are shiny, indicating they may be covered in fuel. When in doubt, use your nose. If you smell an excessive amount of gas, you could have a leak that needs to be serviced before you start the motor.

Charging Forward

Marine batteries require very specific charging systems. If you remove the batteries for the winter and charge them up right before reinstalling them in the spring, be sure that you’re using a charger specifically made for the battery you’re charging. Automotive battery chargers should never be used on marine batteries.

Be Prepared

Even if you take every precaution to service your boat’s engine and take good care of the battery and all electrical and fuel hookups, fires can still occur. Whether it comes from a wayward flick of a cigarette or cigar ash, or even if you aren’t in your boat and a fire occurs at the marina, accidents happen.

Always make sure you have enough properly sized fire extinguishers on your pontoon boat or other boat and be sure to keep your boat insurance up-to-date. Preparation is key. And if you’re ready to start looking for a boat to enjoy this summer, check out the nationwide inventory of new and used boats at

By Barrett Baker


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