Electric shock around docks warning sign

The Smith Mountain Lake Marine Volunteer Fire Department is providing signs like this one to dock owners.

The Smith Mountain Lake Marine Volunteer Fire Department is providing free signs to lakefront property owners in an effort to spread the word about the dangers of stray electricity around docks.

Spearheaded by Neil Harrington, the department’s president, the signs warn dock owners to keep boat and personal watercraft lifts out of the water when people are swimming nearby. It also warns swimmers to stay away from the lifts while in the water.

Harrington has spent years testing for stray voltage around docks at the lake. Almost all the docks tested had some level of electricity in the water — so much so, he stopped testing and began trying to raise awareness.

Harrington said the stray voltage almost always enters the water from a dock’s lift. When the lift was in the water, some level of stray voltage was found.

While levels were usually low, Harrington said any amount of electricity in the water is a problem. He also warned there could be power line surges that could result in higher levels of electricity in the water for a brief time that could cause injury or death.

Electric shock drowning occurs when an electrical current passes through an individual in the water. A person can become paralyzed and unable to swim away or stay afloat.

Harrington has worked with lake resident and former electrical engineer Jim Erler to stop the stray voltage at docks by changing Virginia electric code. They concluded that the source of a dock’s stray electricity often comes from a ground wire that is connected from a home to a dock. The wire allows stray voltage to travel from the power lines to the home and to the dock.

Harrington and Erler took their concerns to state officials earlier this year where they were put on a subcommittee of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to study the issue further. Harrington said the committee showed no interest in making changes to the state code from the start.

“After the third meeting, we agreed there was no sense in meeting again,” Harrington said. “This issue will likely die in Richmond.”

Unable to change the state code, Harrington said posting signs are his way to raise awareness. He is working to get signs to as many docks as possible, especially those used for short-term rentals.

“Since we can’t get the problem fixed, we have to mitigate it,” Harrington said.

SMLMVF received a donation from an anonymous resident to pay for the cost of making the signs, each costs approximately $10 to make.

Anyone interested in receiving a sign can contact SMLMVF at signs@smlmfr.com or 721-5585.