Jersey Shore Boardwalk Fire Serves as Cautionary Tale for Property Owners with Water Damage to Have Their Electrical Systems Inspected

October 1, 2013


Assessing Damage to Electrical Equipment Exposed to Flood Waters, Fire-Fighting Activities and Hurricanes for Safety Hazards

NEW YORK, NY— A destructive boardwalk fire on the Jersey Shore that left the charred remains of more than 50 businesses along a six-block stretch was a result of electrical wiring being damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

As the fast-moving fire in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights taught us earlier this month, water damage to electrical systems can create a serious problem.  Like many commercial and residential properties along the Jersey coast, salt water, sand and debris had made its way into businesses and homes during the massive Oct. 29 storm.  As a result, the insulation of the wiring in the boardwalk structures apparently had become compromised, allowing conductors to short and create an arc, and ultimately started the blaze.

After such an event, the Copper Development Association (CDA), a trade association representing companies that manufacture copper electrical components, recommends that property owners have their electrical equipment thoroughly inspected for possible damage to ensure it is functioning properly and that no potential hazards exist. It is also important that the manufacturer be contacted for specific guidance if the equipment is being considered for reconditioning. However, in most cases, unless the water is pure, waterlogged wiring and electrical equipment in a building should be replaced. 

“Reusing equipment and wiring that has been exposed to salt water or contamination can be extremely dangerous,” said David Brender, the National Program Manager, Electrical Applications for CDA.  “Doing so cannot only affect the ability for electrical equipment to perform its intended function, but it can also potentially cause a safety hazard, sometimes not immediately apparent.”

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) provides advice on the safe handling of electrical equipment that has been exposed to water.  NEMA’s publication entitled, “Evaluating Water – Damaged Electrical Systems,” serves as a guide for suppliers, installers, inspectors and users of electrical products when performing an evaluation.

Several factors can impede the integrity and performance of the electrical equipment and determine whether or not there is a potential to recondition the equipment. These include the degree of flooding, the age of the equipment and the length of time the equipment was exposed to water.

The level of damage to the electrical wiring and equipment can also vary if flood waters are contaminated with chemicals, sewage, oil and other debris. Ocean water and salt spray can be particularly damaging due to the corrosive and conductive nature of the salt water residue, according to NEMA.

The NEMA guide also provides requirement and recommendation information for standards references and the replacement/reconditioning of electrical distribution equipment, motor control, power equipment, transformer and wiring that have been subjected to water damage.

Copper in the wire itself effectively resists moisture- and humidity-driven corrosion that can destroy other wiring systems. This same property does not necessarily apply to the insulation.

”In the case of actual sea water incursion or potential contamination, prudence would dictate the replacement of the wiring,” said Brender. “We would recommend following the NEMA guidance.”

For more information visit our Copper Building Wire section. Download the NEMA publication free of charge.