By Ross Anderson
Much of the world watched with amazement last year as the Carnival cruise ship Triumph drifted helplessly in the Caribbean Sea, crippled by an engine room fire that shut down its electrical power as well as its engines.
Thousands of frustrated passengers who had paid for a luxury cruise settled instead for makeshift tents on the deck, cheese sandwiches and nonfunctioning toilets. The booming cruise industry struggled with a financial and public relations nightmare as the drama unfolded.
Back in Seattle, Mike Heckinger tracked the news, shook his head and thought to himself: I hate to say I told you so, but…
As founder and principal of Seattle-based West Coast Insulation, Heckinger is in the business of preventing such catastrophes on vessels ranging from salmon gillnetters and crabbers to tugboats and cruise ships. His Seattle shop, a former fish processing plant sandwiched between Emerson Street and the Ship Canal, employs some 20 people who specialize in various aspects of marine insulation.
Even as the Triumph drifted helplessly, Heckinger and a small crew were manufacturing custom-made insulation pads for the two-story-high engines of a similar cruise ship, one of 13 ships they worked on last year. Their mission: To avoid another “Triumph .”
Shipboard fires can be traced to a number of causes, Heckinger says. But most are engine room fires caused by inadequate engine exhaust insulation.
Insulating a marine engine is not nuclear physics, he says. But, in a way, nuclear engineering is what got him into the business. Fresh out of a college with a degree in engineering, he found himself working on a crew assigned to insulation in the construction of a nuclear power plant in Eastern Washington – a plant that continues to generate power today.
The same company started doing insulation work on ships and boats, and Heckinger found that work more to his liking. So, in 1977, he took a leap and started his own marine insulation company, operating out of his garage in Federal Way.
“I saw an un-served opportunity,” he recalls. “The commercial fishing fleet was booming with the king crab fishery and Bristol Bay salmon. New boats were being built, and each needed engine insulation, which involves a lot of custom fitting.”
The problem for fishermen and other mariners is mostly exhaust heat, he says. Dry stack exhausts can build up heat as high as 900 degrees. With fuel and hydraulic lines running over or around engines, even a minor leak – a failed hose clamp or a kinked line – can unexpectedly spray vaporized fuel onto a superheated manifold and ignite, shutting down power and stranding the crew.
That is almost certainly what happened with the Triumph and at least half a dozen other cruise ships in the past decade. And it is equally common with fishing boats and other smaller commercial vessels, Heckinger says.
Proper insulation prevents most such fires. The trick is to make sure there are no exposed surfaces hotter than 220 degrees centigrade, or 428 Fahrenheit – safely below the combustion point for diesel fuel. But marine engines don’t lend themselves to one-size-fits-all insulation; engines come in various shapes and sizes, and each installation is different.
“So it’s all custom work,” Heckinger says. “The pads have to be easily removable and re-useable. The customer needs to be able to remove it, work on the engine, and replace it easily without calling us back.”
To do that, each pad is individually cut, equipped with stainless hooks or eyelets and stainless wire, which keeps the insulation in place.
West Coast’s strategy is to measure the engine, fabricate the pads at their Seattle plant, then deliver the product to the vessel, where they install it.
Gradually, he grew the business, employed two of his three sons, and eventually moved the business into Seattle, a few blocks from the fishing fleet at Fishermen’s Terminal. Son Christopher Heckinger now manages the insulation side of the business. The company’s most recent project is the F/V Cerulean, a 58-foot “super-seiner”, for owner Neil Andersen.
“My strategy has always been customer service,” the elder Heckinger says. “The big companies do marine insulation, but we kept our operation small. I was always there when I said I would be, and my customers knew that. It’s all about treating customers well, and treating employees well, responding to their needs.”
His first big break was the phenomenal growth of the crab fleet, followed by the North Pacific factory trawlers. But another came when West Coast was awarded a contract to insulate engines aboard 90 new Coast Guard response boats built by Kvichak Marine in nearby Kent, Washington.
“We were insulating for heat and noise,” he says. “Each of those response boats needed 500 separate pieces. So we needed to find a way to cut pads much more quickly and efficiently.”
Heckinger looked at a number of technologies, and eventually decided to buy a computerized water jet machine made by Flow, in Kent, Washington.
It was a costly piece of equipment; in addition to the purchase, the company needed to spend money training crew to operate it. But it worked. Cutting the material by hand had required 12 man-days per boat with 40 percent material waste. The high-tech waterjet reduced those costs to less than three man-days with just 15 percent waste.
Then, two years ago, West Coast signed a contract with a prominent cruise ship company to beef up the exhaust insulation for their entire fleet – 65 enormous engines aboard 13 ships. The work took Heckinger and his crews literally around the world – from New Zealand to Singapore to Buenos Aires and the Mediterranean.
As with other contracts, the cruise ship insulation is made in West Coast’s Seattle shop, then shipped by the cruise company to distant ports, where Heckinger and others catch up with the ships and install the insulation.
Cruise ships don’t stop anywhere for long, so most of the installation takes place while underway from port to port. Engine room temperatures reach 120 degrees, so West Coast crews are limited to one engine per day on ships with up to six engines. The rest of the day is spent cruising. Rough duty, Heckinger smiles.
The waterjet was crucial to that project as well. Cutting insulation by hand for just one engine would take at least a day. The waterjet can do the same work for eight engines in a matter of minutes.
Another challenge has been to identify precisely how much insulation is needed where, and that called for more technology. West Coast now offers a state-of-the-art thermal imaging service that instantly records surface temperatures and translates them into digital images. Two of his staff are now trained and certified to use the device, which can zero in on overheated surfaces and detect moisture leakage – not just in engine rooms, but also in homes, industrial plants, internet server farms and more.
Experimenting with the device in a small industrial shop, Heckinger got an instant lesson in its value. An employee scanned the camera around the walls and zeroed in on the electrical panel.
“There was a hot spot in the breaker box that showed 300 degrees of heat,” Heckinger says. “It was an improper installation from less than a year ago. And it was a flash fire or injury waiting to happen.”
Another fire prevented – all in a day’s work.