When the nights start drawing in and the temperature plummets, it can mean only one thing – winter is coming and it is time to protect your boat from the elements.
During the winter months the safest place for your boat is out of the water, although hauling, transport and storage can prove rather expensive. A cheaper option is to shrink-wrap the boat or, if you’re on a really tight budget, at least use some other type of cover such as a tarpaulin to keep nature out. Allow for some air circulation under the cover to prevent mildew.
Storing Your Boat Out Of The Water
If you’ve chosen to store your boat out of the water over winter, it’s a great opportunity to clean the barnacles, algae and other foul off the hull, propellers, shafts and rudders etc. Open the seacocks, letting them drain and drain the bilges leaving the drain plug out. Make sure you remember to put it back in before your boat goes back in the water next season.
Storage In The Water
For boats stored in the water over winter, the main problem is freezing of the water around the boat. When water freezes it expands creating immense pressure on your boat’s hull causing terrible damage. Keeping the water around your boat in constant motion can prevent it freezing. Bubbling and de-icing systems exist for this very purpose, so make sure there’s one available if the water is likely to freeze.
Make sure all your seacocks are closed and that nothing is leaking and ensure the bilge systems (pumps, float switches, and battery) are running smoothly.
You should also check the boat at regular intervals to be sure it is safe and secure; the marina or Harbor Master may be able to do this and report back to you.
Further Winterization Techniques
Add stabilizer to the fuel in your fuel tanks to prevent the fuel from degrading over winter. Then run the engine to let the stabilizer get into the fuel system and engine to protect them. Refer to the fuel stabilizer instructions for the appropriate quantity.
Flush the cooling system and protect with anti-freeze. Every two to three years, the water pump impeller should be changed to keep the cooling system running efficiently.
Clean out rust and sediment from both outboard and inboard engines by removing the block plugs and letting the water drain away. Pump anti-freeze in to prevent ice damage.
To prevent rust on the engine, spray it with an aerosol fogging oil. When the engine is cool, remove the spark plugs and spray fogging oil into the cylinders through the spark plug holes.
Replace any spark plugs that are worn out. Replace the oil filter and oil and make sure you dispose of the old oil responsibly. If your engine is an outboard, store it in the upright position. To ensure your electrical terminals and fuse panel remain rust-free; spray them with a lubricant to displace moisture. Read the label to make sure the spray is safe for electrical items.
On inboard engines, clean out the backfire flame arrester with carburetor cleaner. Life jackets, seat cushions and any other fabric items should be hung up or positioned so they can air out easily. Pump out the holding tank adding fresh water to the bowl and flushing several times. Use a toilet cleaning product, but refer to your owner’s handbook to make sure the product you use is safe for your system.
If your boat is to be stored on a trailer, remove the tires and place the trailer on blocks to preserve the tire rubber and also make your boat harder to steal. It is certainly worth remembering that a little money spent winterizing your boat could save you a small fortune later. Your insurance company may actually insist on a certain level of boat
winterization to keep you covered. In addition to these general instructions, it is wise to check
your boat’s handbook for any winterization required that is specific to your type of boat.
If you’re one of the legions of trailer sailors, you know the advantages of having your boat in your driveway or storage yard instead of in a slip or on a mooring. Storms are not likely to be a concern and bottom paint is of only academic interest.
With these conveniences though, are other concerns. Your boat spends most of its life on the trailer. Either just sitting there, or being pulled down the highway at speeds it was never intended to attain on the water. All this places stresses on your water toy that may not have been considered by the original designer. Fortunately, there are things you can do to make life on the road less traumatic for your hull, rig, and accessories.
The most important is to be certain that your trailer is right for your boat. This means that the capacity should be adequate not just for the boat, but all the “necessary” gear you’ve stuffed into it. Not only does the trailer have to carry the weight, but so do the tires. It’s very common for sailboat owners to put smaller wheels on their trailers to lower the rig and make it easier to launch. Smaller tires turn faster, wear more rapidly, and are subject to higher stresses than ones with a larger diameter. Will the smaller tires carry the load without overheating and shedding their treads? Check the load rating on the sidewall. A 50% safety margin is not too much. Often, a better quality tire will do the trick without going to larger wheels.
What about the trailer bunks? (Those boards your boat rides on) Are they long enough to give the hull good support? Because the boat is on the trailer so much, a poorly supported hull can start to sag and show stress cracks in odd places. When the boat is off the trailer, take a good look at that old carpeting on the bunks. It’s not hard to replace, but you’ll have to give up some sailing after you launch and do some work with a big staple gun to replace the padding. Use some good indoor/outdoor carpet, and precut it before you go to the lake. It’ll make the job go faster and you’ll be on the water in no time.
Getting back to the trailer, take a look at the ball on your hitch. Is it big enough? Does the size match the trailer tongue? The shank should be no more than 1/8 inch smaller than the hole in the hitch. Use the nut and lock washer that came with the ball and tighten it to the manufacturer’s specifications. If the ball is at all suspect, replace it. A top-quality ball is less than $20 and thousands of dollars of boat are attached to it.
Trailer lights. I have never owned a trailer that didn’t give me problems with the lights sooner or later, mostly sooner. Electrical stuff was never meant to be dunked in the water. The best solution is to fabricate a light bar separate from the trailer that hangs on the stem of the boat. String a cable to the light plug on your tow vehicle and you have a system that will last for years, never be in the lake unless you forget to take it off before launching, and can be repaired without crawling around under the trailer.
If you’re using the lights mounted on the trailer, it’s a good idea to unhook them before launching. Cold water and hot lights do not co-exist well.
If you don’t have a set of bearing buddies that allow you to lubricate the wheel hearings without disassembling them, install a set. Give them a small shot of waterproof grease before every trip. If a bearing starts to go, you might not hear it and your first warning will be when it collapses and the boat and trailer go crazy at 60 mph. This does not make for a happy day.
If your boat weighs under a thousand pounds, it should be secured to the trailer. The easiest way is a webbing strap with a ratcheting adjustment. You might think that a five-or six-hundred pound boat won’t come off the trailer, but I’ve seen daylight under some pretty large craft when the trailer wheels hit a bump at speed. The strap is only about $20, so protect your investment.
Ensure that all the shrouds and rigging are held with ties or bungees so they won’t drag or catch on a passing semi. I like to use two bungees in each location. They have been known to break.
While you’re securing things, look at all the equipment on the boat. Will it stay in place in an 80 mph wind? I know you’d never drive that fast, but if you get a head wind or a gust from meeting a truck, things can become detached. Some of these might be vital to your day. When in doubt, stow items inside the boat or car.
The outboard motor should almost never be left on its bracket when towing. There are 40 pounds or more cantilevered out from your transom. When you hit a bump, the resulting loads can rip the bracket from the transom, leaving chunks of boat and motor parts on the highway.
Some auto policies cover your boat while you’re towing it, but it’s better to check. Insurance companies are in business to collect premiums, not to pay claims. A cheap form of insurance is a spare tire. How many times have you seen a trailer
parked along the road with one wheel off while the owner drives into town to have a flat fixed? Anyone with a spare can take your boat for an extended vacation without you.
Make sure your jack works on the trailer as well as on your car. Many either won’t fit or don’t have the capacity. A small hydraulic jack likely will fit both needs better than the one that came with your car. It’s probably easier to use, too. The hardest part of trailering is backing up. You don’t have to be a master truck driver to
do this. You do need to remember a few simple rules. The most important of which is, you have to be able to see the trailer. This might mean putting extended mirrors on the tow vehicle. These are available at automotive stores and can have either permanent or temporary mountings. For very low trailers you may want to add a couple of bright fiberglass poles so you can see it when the boat isn’t on it. These can be available from bicycle stores for a few dollars each.
To back the trailer, remember to GO SLOW. More people get into trouble trying to rush than for any other reason. Place both hands at the bottom of the wheel and move them in the direction you want the rear of the trailer to go. With this method, it doesn’t matter if you’re looking out the back window or in the mirrors. Take your rig to an empty parking lot and practice backing it into different areas. Most single-axle trailers turn and back easier than double- or triple-axle rigs. The two-wheel trailers do have a tendency to turn very sharply once they start, so back them even more carefully. Above all, don’t be reluctant to pull forward and start over if a backing operation is going badly.
An EPIRB is a small battery-powered transmitting device that is carried on board. As the name implies, it is used only in case of emergency and usually only as a last resort when your marine radio is inoperable or out of range.
There are several types of EPIRBs. If disaster strikes, some float free and automatically activate; others must be activated manually. All EPIRBs float and will send out a continual signal for 48 hours. Since EPIRB signals are primarily detected by satellites that pass overhead, occasionally there may be a delay in detection (perhaps an hour) because there is no satellite currently in the area to pick up the signal. Once activated, the EPIRB should be left on to make sure the signal is available for detection by the satellite and for purposes of homing in on your location.
EPIRBs that operate on 121.5/243 MHz (category II) are the least expensive and least capable. They may cost around $400.00. These were designed in the 1970’s to alert aircraft flying by. They are not well suited for satellite detection because of the problem of distinguishing them from other signals on the same frequency. Often, multiple passes of the satellites are required to identify the signal, which can definitely delay the rescue.
The one you want is the 406 MHz EPIRB (category I) which includes a 121.5 MHz signal which is mainly used for homing. This one is more expensive but what is your life worth? Response time to the 406 EPIRB is dramatically reduced and the position information it provides is much more accurate. Additionally, the 406 EPIRB’s signals are coded, allowing non-EPIRB signals to be filtered out. They also provide other valuable information which will help the search and rescue efforts. At the time of purchase you can register your EPIRB and part of the coded signal will include your name, address, phone number, vessel description, and an emergency contact shore side who will know of your plans and capabilities. Once the satellite picks up the signal and transmits it back, the search and rescue team knows where you are and who you are.
The 406 EPIRB is carried on all U.S. flag merchant vessels and is required on commercial fishing vessels operating beyond three miles from shore (unless they do not have a galley and sleeping facilities). EPIRB’s are also required to be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. They should be listed on your ships station license. Although EPIRBs are not required on recreational vessels, the U.S.C.G. strongly recommends them and strongly suggests that the choice be the Category I, 406 MHz model. Its long-reaching, long-lasting signal can make a significant difference in the speed and effectiveness of rescue efforts.
Each year, around this time, thousands of people start flocking to the waterways to enjoy a day of boating. While many are experienced boaters, there are plenty of first time boaters hitting the water… and the docks.
Docking techniques are always going to be dependent upon the weather and wind conditions, but there are a few simple things you can keep in mind. First of all, especially in this particular case, practice makes perfect. Although we can provide tips, docking techniques in boating are going to be something you will have to personalize to your experience, your boat, and the dock itself.
Many boaters make the common mistake of attempting to dock their boats by approaching the dock in a straight line. It is much easier to get close to the dock and improve the accuracy of your approach by approaching the dock at an angle. Also, the speed at which you come in to the dock must be controlled.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Often, even idle speed on a boat is too fast and coasting reduces steering capability, making it even more difficult to accurately line up with the dock. The best way to counter this problem is to alternate between power for steering (short shots of forward gear) and coasting for speed control. You’ll have to practice this one over and over. As you get closer to the dock start to turn the boat and decelerate to a stop by using reverse. Again, the deceleration reduces steering capability. You are going to have to rely on the momentum of the boat to get you over this obstacle.
Momentum and speed are not the same thing. Momentum is simply the forward motion of the boat that will actually carry you into the dock. You will need just enough momentum to get you to the dock and allow you to smoothly make the shift to reverse to stop. Once you’ve actually mastered this task, you’ll probably agree that the best docking technique is the one that you learn by trial and error. Nothing will be a better teacher than practice, practice, practice.
The best advice would be to take it slow, don’t get nervous or discouraged and most importantly, remember that every time you try it, will make it a little easier the next time.
A marine VHF-FM radio is one of the most critical pieces of safety equipment a boater can own. Unlike personal flotation devices, the Coast Guard does not require mariners to have a VHF-FM radio on board, but they do encourage mariners “to invest in a VHF-FM radio as their primary means of distress alerting on the water.”
When you encounter a maritime distress, or you or a passenger become injured or ill, you can easily call the Coast Guard for rescue assistance. Consider a VHF-FM radio for your boating electronics package for the following reasons:
- A VHF-FM marine radio sends a broadcast message so assistance can be offered by not
- Any call placed over a VHF-FM radio will transmit at least one line of bearing (LOB).
- Newer VHF-FM radios have a special feature called Digital Selective Calling (DSC).
Together, these features can mean the difference between life and death should an emergency
If it’s all you’ve got, by all means use your cell phone to call for assistance in an emergency. Just be sure to dial 911, rather than *CG. The Coast Guard discontinued the direct routing service due to misdirected calls resulting from spotty cellular coverage.
The Coast Guard prefers that you invest in a VHF-FM marine radio and transmit emergency calls over Channel 16. They reason that when you call on a cell phone, other boaters who may be near enough to provide assistance cannot hear your distress call, as they would if they were monitoring VHF Channel 16. Also, it is difficult to determine a caller’s location, not to mention it wastes precious time. Possibly the most frustrating reason not to use a cell phone is the “can- you-hear-me-now?” syndrome of poor reception and low cell phone batteries.
Autopilot, the first self-steering gear was introduced in the 1920’s to control model yachts but it was not until 1948 that the principle was applied to full scale yachts. Standing at the helm for lengthy periods, monitoring instruments and keeping a good look out can be very tiring. An autopilot relieves the helmsman from steering the correct course leaving him free to maintain a proper watch. The autopilot can be set to either steer a compass course or a course relative to the wind. A fluxgate compass or electronic wind indicator feeds information to a microprocessor which then makes the necessary rudder movements to return the vessel to its required course. The mechanical power is applied to the rudder by electric linear activators, hydraulic pumps or rotary drives. GPS/Chart plotters can be used to input navigational instructions to the autopilot.
Battery Chargers will keep batteries fully charged thereby extending their working life.
Chart Plotters Typically a chart plotter consists of an antenna, mounted high on the boat, to track GPS signals and a display unit sited either at the at the navigation station or the helm of the vessel. The vessels position is sent from the antenna to the display unit which in turn shows it graphically on the chart. The Chart itself will look similar to its paper equivalent and show depth, land mass, navigational aids such as buoys and potential dangers in the form of wrecks and obstructions. The user can add way points to the chart and zoom in and out of the display. Chart plotters can be connected to drive an autopilot and/or send GPS data to a fish finder or radar. They can also interface with a laptop enabling complex passage planning to be done away from the boat and then entered into the chart plotter after arriving at the boat.
Magnetic Transmitting Compasses work like traditional compasses using magnets to determine the vessels orientation to the earth’s magnetic field they then transmit the boats heading to an electronic display. They make steering easier than with conventional compasses because they display steadier headings and do not suffer from the “lag” that occurs when making a turn. They can interface with chart plotters, autopilots and radar. Fluxgate Compasses consist of two pieces of readily saturated magnetic material with coils wound round them in opposing directions. AC current is passed through the coils and the material is saturated in one direction and then the other. The earth’s magnetic field affects slightly the time at which saturation occurs, earlier in one coil and later in the other. The difference is then calculated giving an output proportional to the earth’s magnetic field. They are accurate to 0.1 of a degree. Their output can be displayed digitally to the helmsman or they can interface with autopilots, chart plotters and radar.
Echo Sounders work on the same principle as sonar. A transducer emits a narrow beam of high frequency sound. This is reflected by any solid objects and the time between transmission and receipt of the echo is measured. The speed of sound through water is know and so the range or distance to the sea bed can be calculated. That is then displayed in meters. Forward Looking Sonar (FLS) enables you to see the underwater hazards before you’re actually on top of them. A typical range for a FLS is 150 meters.
An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is a piece of equipment designed to float free of a vessel in distress. It then sends a radio signal that can be detected by Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) satellites. They relay a message to a ground station that in turn can instigate a search and rescue operation.
Fish Finders use the same technology as sonar. A narrow beam of high frequency sound is transmitted by a transducer; this is reflected by solid objects such as the sea bed. By developing this technology, fish finders provide displays that show where the fish are and they can differentiate between bait fish and larger species
Global Positioning System (GPS Receivers) – This system was originally designed for military purposes and is owned and operated by the United States Department of Defense. 24 satellites are arranged in a “birdcage” around the globe, they are positioned in such a way that at any place on the earth’s surface a direct line of sight can be established to a minimum of 4 satellites. A fix is obtained by measuring accurately the distance between a satellite and the GPS receiver at a precise time. Because the exact position of the satellite is known, these distances provide position lines which are converted by a microprocessor within the GPS receiver to read outs of latitude and longitude.
The log is used to measure the boats speed through the water. A paddle wheel or impeller, mounted below the waterline is turned by the flow of water; this generates electrical impulses that are fed to a microprocessor that displays both speed and distance run.
Inverters – On most boats today you will find domestic equipment of one sort or another. Live aboard boats might have a washing machine, dishwasher or microwave. Most boats have on board entertainment with televisions or stereo systems. The inverter can take 12v, 24v or 48v supply and convert it to a stable 110 v or 220v AC supply.
Navtex can perhaps best be described as a continuously updated telex service providing navigation and weather information within specified areas. An on board receiver, tuned to 518kHz, the worldwide Navtex frequency, if left turned on will either print out or display the latest massages sent from a local station. The service is available up to 400 miles from the coast.
Radar enables you to see what otherwise would be invisible. They offer greatest benefit at night and in fog or rain and are of particular value when close to shore or in busy shipping lanes. They consist of an antenna and a display. The antenna sends out a stream of RF energy which is reflected back off hard objects. When this energy is bounced back it is converted to a signal which displayed to the user. The antenna rotates every few seconds, the display continuously calculates the direction of the antenna and so a precise bearing to the target is calculated. The time is measured for the energy to be reflected and so the distance of the target is also displayed.
Satellite Phones consist of an antenna, a modem and a normal handset. They are powered by an iridium battery. Their range is anywhere covered by in Inmarsat Mini-M satellite. Voice, fax, email and data can be transmitted. Satellite TV requires an antenna and of course a television. Reception is available within a “footprint” which is based on EIRP (Effective Isotropic Radiated Power) of a transmitting satellite. The EUTELSAT together with the two ASTRA satellites cover Europe. NILESAT and the two ARABSATs cover Africa and the Middle East. Good coverage is also available in North, Central and Southern America.
SSB Radio has a range of several thousand miles. You will need an FFC license or the equivalent in whichever country you plan to operate it. Power consumption is a consideration. Up to 100 Watts may be required for transmission. SSB radio requires several items of equipment. A transceiver capable of SSB operation, An antenna, this must be 8 meters long and in practice most boats use a backstay or shroud for the purpose having fitted the necessary insulators. An antenna tuner matched to the transceiver model. If you want to send email you will also need and radio modem and computer.
VHF Radio the power required to transmit is minimal, all sets have the option of transmitting on either 1 Watt or 25 Watts and the lower power should be used whenever
possible. Unlike telephones that allow you to both talk and hear at the same time most
VHF sets require you to press a transmit button prior to talking. This is known as simplex. Duplex sets are available but are much more expensive. VHF radio waves travel in straight lines so the aerial should be mounted as high as possible, preferably at the masthead.
Boat plumbing is easy considering there are no pipes. The pipes in a yacht are replaced by flexible hoses which is easier to use.
Here are a few guidelines for your on-board water system.
• Tanks are best mounted low in the boat as it will be simple to add extra tanks given the space available. You can choose either a rigid polyethylene tank or flexible tank.
• Make sure that the vent of the tank is not higher than the fill to avoid overflow and use Teflon tapes on all threaded fittings. Avoid over tightening the fittings in plastic tanks and always secure hoses with stainless steel hose clamps.
• The hose that supplies drinking water should be nontoxic, non-contaminating, taste free and approved by FDA. The common choice for water hose is PVC reinforced with polyester braid. The hoses that will be used for draining purposes should be stronger than vinyl hose. For this, the best option is reinforced rubber hose. Make sure to double clamp all the hoses that are connected through hull fittings.
• Boats can have either an electric pump or manual pump. It is advantageous to use manual pumps as they reduce water wastage which can be boon for boats spending long periods away from water supplies.
• Some water systems have an accumulator. Large accumulators have pressurized bladders in them, but most small ones are just empty tanks tied into the line downstream of the pump. When the pump runs, it tries to fill the tank from the bottom, compressing the air trapped inside the tank. The pressure from the tank allows small amounts of water to be drawn without the necessity of the pump running, thus reducing pump cycling.
• To operate a water heater you will need a pressurized water system. Only metal fittings must be used to plumb water heater.
• Head sinks must be plumbed to drain into the bowl of the toilet to avoid flooding. To avoid bilge odor and unnecessary jamming, shower pans should include a discharge pump which can be automatic or connected to a switch. The through – hull discharge outlet should always be above the water.
If you are installing a deck wash pump, use a Y- or T-connector to tie into an existing inlet line to keep the hose from collapsing use tough rubber suction. The intake line should have a strainer to filter off debris.
Grounds and Grounding
One of the least understood aspects of a boats electrical system, and the most troublesome, is the proper method of grounding. That we often get questions of whether AC or DC electrical equipment should be grounded to the boat’s bonding system is illustrative of this point. AC and DC grounding systems are two separate systems, for distinctly different reasons. If you don’t understand these systems, you run the distinct risk of creating a disaster. Actually, there are four separate ground systems: DC ground, AC ground, AC grounding (or bond), and the vessel’s bonding system. You can add to this lightning and HF radio grounds as well. Do you know the principles of each? Are you sufficiently confused to discourage you from doing your own wiring? Unless you understand each thoroughly, you’re headed for trouble.
The AC ground and grounding systems are “free floating,” meaning that they do not ground on the vessel, but only to shore. The ground, or neutral, is a current carrying conductor, and is the source of many troubles because people do not regard it as such. The grounding, bond or green wire is the “safety” intended to channel current safely to ground in the event of a short circuit. Both of these circuits are capable of conducting current and can be the source of electrolysis when there are system faults with the dock or marina wiring. This is very easy to test for.
There is only one point where the DC side is grounded, and that is at the battery. It, too, is a “free floating” system in which nothing is ever grounded to any metallic part of the vessel, most especially not the bonding system. Just like a car sitting on rubber tires, completely insulated from earth potential, the battery itself provides the negative potential.
The bonding system, also green wire, has nothing to do with electrical systems. Underwater metals are simply wired together to equalize differences in potential of different kinds of metal. Nothing should ever be grounded to the bonding system. Unfortunately, some people don’t understand this and use it to ground electrical equipment, occasionally with disastrous results.
Bonding simply means wiring all the boats underwater metals together. This is done because of the galvanism caused by the different metals. By wiring them together, the differing potentials are equalized. Bonding does not solve problems of galvanism or electrolysis, but it does spread the flow of current around over more metal, so that 1/4 volt or so won’t cause any damage. In other words, bonding lessens the effect of small amounts of current. On the other hand, it also spreads it around to all underwater metals so that higher currents end up damaging everything.
Bonding systems use wire and ordinary crimped ring terminals. After a while these get wet and corroded. Electricity doesn’t flow very well through corroded metal, so your bonding system after a while stops working. To maintain it, simply cut off the old terminals and install new ones. Do you have wires attached to sea cocks with hose clamps? Forget it. This is putting stainless and copper together, which are galvanic ally incompatible and it won’t work.
What does bottom paint have to do with electrical systems? Nowadays, with copper based paints, a lot. If, the next time your boat is hauled and you see large ugly burn patterns around all your underwater metals, you got a stray current problem. Copper-based bottom paints react severely to stray current, and serves as a great indicator.
Of course, the common wisdom is that the stray current “is from the marina.” Or it’s always the other guy’s boat that is causing your problem. Don’t bet on it. Most stray current problems are sourced on the boat in which they appear. Otherwise, everybody in the marina would have the same problem.
Electrolysis and Galvanism
Electrolysis is a word that is badly abused by boaters who don’t really know what it means, so let me correct this right now. First, understand that all boats have an electrical potential. That’s because of all the different metals on the boat which, themselves have differing electrical potentials. This is exactly the same principle that makes a dry cell battery generate electricity. This electrical potential is called galvanism and is the reason why we put zincs on boats.
Electrolysis is stray current escaping from the system and is most damaging. It is an abnormal condition. When this happens, it will eat up the zincs in no time, usually leaving that metal looking bright and shiny. Therefore: Shiny zincs = electrolysis. Dull
eroded zincs = galvanism.
I spent two years putting a meter on every boat that was hauled for survey. The average boat generates about 1/4 volt DC current and going as high as 1/3 volt without causing damage. But when it gets up to 1/2 volt, you got a problem. Zincs will erode rapidly and underwater metals begin to be affected.
Shore Power Cords
The single largest cause of problems with shore power systems results from failure to maintain the connectors on both the cord and the boat connectors. These devices are exposed to water and over time suffer from corrosion and general wear. High resistance caused by corroded, bent or worn connector’s results in high resistance which causes overheating and further amplifies the power drop. This not only creates conditions for a potential fire, but causes electrical equipment to work harder, resulting in reduced life span of equipment. IT PAYS TO MAINTAIN SHORE POWER CONNECTIONS.
You can perform a very simple check just by placing your hand on the shore cord near the connection to determine if it is heating up. Obviously, this should be done while you have a lot of equipment turned on. If it’s anything but slightly warm, not more than 110 degrees, suspect a problem. Shore power connectors should be dismantled at least once per year, cleaned and repaired as necessary. Most of these connectors have replaceable parts. If you drop your shore power connector in the water, you must take it apart, clean and dry it. Otherwise, expect it to burn up.
We recommend that you buy only the highest quality power cords, as these will last longer and have the advantage of replaceable connector parts. Cheap connectors usually can’t be taken apart. We also advise against ever using the three-pronged household type adapters as this type of connector is highly unreliable and prone to causing system faults and fires. Only the twist-lock type connector is suitable.
One more thing: If you are not turning off the dock breaker before disconnecting the power cord, start doing it now. Not only do you risk getting electrocuted, but disconnecting an energized connector damages the contacts. Also consider what happens if you drop the energized cord in the drink!
This is an issue only with 125 VAC systems since 250 VAC systems will not function with wrong polarity. Since you have three terminals on a shore connection, wrong polarity can mean that any of these wires are in the wrong position. Not only should you pay attention to the polarity indicator on your boat, we recommend that you keep a plug in polarity indicator aboard and use it every time you hook up to shore power at a different location.
Reverse polarity is not only an electrocution hazard, but can also damage electrical equipment. It is most often found with the three prong spade connectors (household type), but occasionally twist lock connectors as well, particularly in marinas with dilapidated equipment. Never trust the power supply at strange docks, but always check the polarity. When hooking up to strange docks, always check your volt meters to make
sure you have adequate voltage. Low voltage is very damaging to electrical equipment. Turn on the stove or water heater and watch what happens to the meter.
Main Circuit Protection
Many people think that the circuit breakers on the dock protect their boat. They do not; they only protect the dock wiring. Your main circuit breaker protects your boat’s systems. What about that section of wiring and connectors between your main panel and the dock breaker? Well, the fact is that it is unprotected is why so many fires occur. Check out all the top end boats and you will find that they have circuit protection located directly at the shore connectors. Having slow blow cartridge fuses installed directly at the connectors can go a long way toward preventing fires and burned up shore cords, particularly if you are a traveler and frequently rely on uncertain power supplies. Circuit breakers should NEVER be installed on the exterior of the boat. Only gasket, water proof cartridge holders should be used.
Circuit breakers wear out, and when they do they work less well, or not at all. If you are using circuit breakers as ON/OFF switches, you are helping them wear out that much faster. It also damages breakers when you shut off equipment via the breaker. This causes arcing at the contact points which damages the points. When connecting and disconnecting shore power, you should always turn OFF equipment at the appropriate equipment switch, then shut the main breaker off. Do not ever simply throw the main breaker off to shut down equipment that is operating. The circuit breaker arcs and damages it.
Also be aware that any equipment run by a motor, such as air conditioning and refrigeration equipment will start up with initially much higher amperage than the normal running amperage. An air conditioner that runs at 14 amps may have startup amperage of 20 amps, so that if you just go and turn all the equipment on at once, it overloads the system. Then the circuit breaker gets hot and won’t stay engaged until it cools down. Ergo, start up heavy equipment one item at a time, allowing it time to cycle into its normal operating voltage before turning something else on. For example, don’t turn the AC, refrigerator and icemaker all on at once and not expect the breaker to pop.
Chronic Breaker Popping
Breakers that pop frequently are signaling that there is a problem, which could either be the breaker, or something in the circuit. Yet most people will keep on attempting to make the breaker engage. This can be dangerous because you may cause the contact points of the breaker to fuse together from arcing, in which case it will never trip again. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO ENGAGE A BREAKER THAT IS OVERHEATED BY FORCING IT. You must allow it to cool down.
If you are experiencing chronic problems with circuit breakers popping, first check how much current draw is involved. A single 30 amp circuit is not much when you’re running things like air conditioners, water heaters and battery chargers. One very simple way to check whether you’re dealing with an overload problem is to add up the amperage draw of each piece of equipment. List both the start up and run amperages. You will usually find the amperage right on the equipment label. By making a list of the total power demand, you’ll get a good idea of what you can and cannot operate simultaneously, particularly when starting the equipment. If you have an ammeter on your panel, check it against the amperage tally you made. Ideally, you should try to hold power consumption at 80% or less than the line rating.
Check the breaker by allowing it one hour (or whatever it takes) to cool down. Turn the equipment off and, after it is cool, reengage the breaker. Now turn the equipment back on. Place your finger on the front of the breaker and note its temperature. If it does not heat back up again, then the problem was probably a start-up overload. If the temperature rises again, there is a fault in the circuit or the breaker. (Note: when the breaker contact points become eroded, the breaker itself can overheat).
Ground fault current interrupter service outlets are required to be installed in wet locations such as the galley or head. In reality, there’s little chance of being electrocuted inside a boat because you are not grounded within the boat. A greater risk is from service outlets being located in places that get wet, such as below leaking windows, hatches or close to doors. Three pronged plugs are prone to shorting across the terminals when wet, so having all your service outlets changed to GFCI’s is a good idea.
Use only the highest quality devices from a reliable manufacturer like GE. Service outlets located anywhere on the exterior of the vessel are an invitation to trouble for reasons that should be obvious.
The same advice about jury-rigging wiring applies to DC systems as well AC systems. While you’re not going to create an electrocution hazard, it is very easy to take a faultless system and create faults in it. A typical problem starts like this: The owner wants to add a new piece of equipment, but the electric panel is way over there, and the place he wants to install the equipment is way over here. Besides, there are no extra breakers in the panel, and no space in the panel to add another one. To make matters worse, the panel is located in such a way that he couldn’t string new wires into it even if he wanted to. So what he does is to find a place where he can tap off an existing circuit, and maybe adds an in-line fuse, stringing wires all over the place in the process. Or maybe he is replacing a piece of equipment that has a faulty circuit, but instead of trying to locate the fault, he just clips off the old wires and strings new ones. This happens a lot, and by the time the boat has a few years on it, it’s got cut wires all over the place, many of which are still hot!
In many cases, he will just go and take new leads off the batteries, bypassing the panel altogether. Now when he goes to turn off the main power supply, all that new stuff added remains energized. In addition to which in-line fuses have also been added all over the place, so when something craps out he’s got to go tearing through the boat to find that hidden fuse.
The worst of the problems with DC system add-ons comes with improperly installed wiring and the use of wire splices of all sorts. Typical of these are the use of electrical taped connections which, when the tape gets warm (as in the engine room) the tape glue gets soft and the tape falls off. Or the use of wire nuts or crimped butt connectors in locations that get wet. Wire nuts (those twist-on cones) are not approved for marine use. When connections get wet, the wire corrodes, creates high resistance, usually resulting in equipment damage or failure for reasons which the owner will never discover. He’ll think just that damned lousy piece of equipment crapped out; when in fact the lousy wiring job is the culprit.
Principles of Wiring
I would venture to say that half the electrical problems on boats result from improperly installed wiring. After the boat is built, there’s no convenient way to route new wiring. But we need to understand that systems on boats are subject to high G-forces due to pounding, rolling and vibration. Connections get stressed and wires rub and chafe against abrasive or sharp objects. It doesn’t take much damage to wire insulation before you have a condition where stray current may develop. And the chance of finding a little bit of damage on one wire is about nil.
1. Must be routed in a suitable, dry area and be well secured. They should not be lying in bilge or in areas that get wet.
2. Must not be routed with pipes or hoses of any kind, and not be in contact with fuel tanks or fuel lines.
3. Splicing circuits should be avoided. If splicing is necessary, it should employ a proper terminal block, and not butt connectors. Every splice in a circuit creates additional resistance, and the potential for the connection to come apart. Taped connections and wire nuts should not be used.
4. Wiring must be firmly secured and in locations where it won’t get damaged. Should not be dangling or strung across open spaces. Use only plastic, not metal, clips to secure the wiring.
5. Must have chafing protection or conduit at vibration points around machinery.
6. Must not be in contact with, or proximity to machinery exhaust systems.
7. Wiring should be neat. A boat full of tangled wiring demonstrates unprofessionalism and the inability to fix something that goes wrong. An electrician can’t trace a plate of spaghetti, and when something does go wrong, the cost of fixing it goes way up.
Adding in-line fuses to a newly installed piece of equipment is a terrible way to add circuit protection. First of all, these devices trap water and corrode internally. Secondly, you end up with two more splices in a wire circuit that shouldn’t have any. Third, you usually forget where they’re located. A boat full of in-line fuses is a boat full of short cuts and amateur installations.
Batteries are a constant source of aggravation to many boat owners, almost always for reasons that are preventable. These are: low quality batteries, poor or nonexistent maintenance, and improper installation and wiring. As a general rule, batteries perform consistent with the price you pay for them. Good batteries are expensive, and shopping for price will only lead to momentary satisfaction. Cheap batteries have thin plates and poorly insulated casings and therefore cannot give long service.
Secondly, batteries have to be installed correctly. That means in a clean, dry location that can be reached. If you can’t reach them, if you have to kill yourself to get at them, then you will not maintain them. If installed in an inaccessible location, you should consider having them moved to a better location.
Place a fully charged battery on the concrete floor of your garage. Then come back two weeks later and check the charge. That battery will have completely discharged, and it will have done so right through the plastic casing. Now you understand my point about proper installation and dryness. On many small boats, I usually find the batteries sitting in uncovered plastic boxes that are full of water. Or they’re sitting in bilge water or on wet decks. If that’s the case, you needn’t look any farther for at least part of your problem. If you want your batteries to be reliable, they must be kept clean and dry. That includes the top surface, particularly between the terminals.
It won’t do to make your cable connections with threaded studs and wing nuts. These afford inadequate contact surface that can cause high resistance and is one of the major causes of engine starting motors burning out. Your starting motor cables should be attached only with swaged lead lugs, not the ring terminal kind smashed with a hammer to make the connection. Small boats are usually the worst offenders in this regard.
Batteries develop heat when charging, as well as hydrogen gas. For that reason, they need to be in a well-ventilated area. Gel cells are particularly vulnerable to overheating damage. Putting gel cells in covered, plastic boxes has proved to be a problem, and for this reason they are falling out of favor. Sometimes improved technology isn’t an improvement after all.
Electrical Devices Exposed to Weather
Why it is that there so many builders that install instruments, panels and switches in locations that are going to get wet is something I’ll never understand. Oh, I know, you look at those switches and think that they’re water proof. Well, you just go look at the back side of the panel and see if you still think so. See if you don’t see a lot of corrosion back there. What happens when the back side gets wet? Well, water being a conductor means that these devices will short small amounts of current across the terminals, or to any available ground. This is one of the reasons why you have so many engine instrument failures, and boats have so much of a hardware corrosion problem, and why they have stray current problems, never mind equipment failures. Electrical equipment exposed to weather that is not absolutely water proof is just asking for trouble.
Locating Internal Equipment
Just because it’s inside the boat doesn’t mean that electrical equipment will stay dry. Boats leak, and stuff located under those leaks are going to get wet. That means that you have to pay attention to where you put stuff. Many people mount various types of pumps low in the bilge, assuming that the bilge water is never going to rise. Believe me, the bottom of the boat is the last place you ever want to mount something. Sooner or later your bilge pump will fail, and when it does that expensive equipment is going to get ruined.
If you have exposed panels you need to keep them covered and dry. The vast majority of small boats that I see don’t even have panel covers, yet alone having covers that are used. Having a small cover made up is a small price to pay to avoid serious damage and other problems.
Due to vibration and high temperatures, damaged wiring on and around engines is one of the most common causes of stray current damage, i.e. true electrolysis. It is extremely important to consider the routing of the wiring so that it is not in contact with hot manifolds, or vibrating on sharp edges or rough surfaces. Engine wiring should be inspected periodically for signs of damage.
Adding New Equipment
Most boats, particularly smaller ones, are unfortunately not designed with the idea of adding equipment, even though nearly everyone does. The primary reason why systems get so messed up results from the attempt to force something in where there is no provision for it.
The best way to deal with this is to simply add a new panel, whether AC or DC. Doing this is neither very difficult nor expensive, especially considering the cost to repair all the problems you’re likely to create when you try to cram something onto a system not designed to handle it. A six breaker DC panel will cost less than $200 and is a whole lot better than scattering inline fuses all over the place, and with installation will run less than $500. Plus, the new panel can be added at any location where it will be convenient.
Adding a second shore power circuit is especially useful for those boats with single 30 amp shorelines where the addition of new equipment will tax the system. It’s not very convenient to have to turn the water heater off to turn the air conditioning on, or constantly be managing equipment as breakers keep popping off. You have two options here, the first of which is to increase your shoreline to 50 amps. To do that you have to change the main breaker, power receptacle and the shore cord, which is a lot bigger and heavier. The other option is to add a second 30 amp circuit, which means adding a new panel, receptacle and shore cord, which costs a bit more.
Adding a second circuit has the advantage of separating the air conditioning onto a separate line, which is the way all good systems are designed. That’s because of the high power demand; combined with frequent dock power faults makes it desirable to separate it from the main service.
A multiplex system is a multiple power source system which permits switching from one line to another, from one power source to another. For travelers, this is extremely useful to deal with unreliable dock power or sudden faults in your own system. It allows you to choose which line you want to run equipment on, and particularly if you have a generator, it provides a great deal of flexibility. Let’s say a circuit breaker on the dock goes out while you’re cooking dinner and it’s very hot this day. Instead of only being able to turn the AC off and go on cooking in the heat, you can fire up the generator to run the failed circuit simply by switching it over. The better larger boats invariably have this kind of system.