Have a safe holiday. I may not be back until Tuesday, as Jay’s employer has added in a 35th anniversary holiday to make a four day weekend.
Keep safe, keep learning
West Marine offers a good overview of the possible set ups for marine sanitation systems (aka, the head and holding tank).
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Moving on to the boat’s water systems, the main issue you are likely to face these days is stagnant water from less use than usual.
The go to expert on all things water system related is Peggy Hall, and she has standard advice for cleaning/sanitizing your whole system.
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To wrap up electrical systems week, take a look at this article from Boat US regarding boat batteries!
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It was going to be very hard to explain your boat’s wiring set up without pictures, so I was very happy to find this website that did it for me! This is only the DC (12volt) system, but it does a very good job of showing the various components necessary for safety.
Although it claims to be all about wiring your boat, it leaves out the actual wires. Ever wondered why there are so many different sizes of wiring on your boat? Using the smallest wiring appropriate for the task reduces loss of energy and transfer of heat. The amperage, which is basically how much energy you expect to flow through the wire at the time, and the distance, determine the actual size of the wire. Wires are sized oddly: the bigger the gauge, the smaller the diameter. If you are installing new equipment, the equipment itself may well tell you the ideal wire gauge. Otherwise, you will need to look up the amp draw of the equipment and cross reference that with your distance. West Marine actually posts a handy table where they sell the wires.
As for the rainbow of colors of wiring, well they are manufactured that way to allow you to color code the whole system, so that you can tell at a glance which system a wire will run to. In reality, unless you are particularly fastidious, at some point, you will grab the wire that is available to you, double check the gauge, and 20 years later some poor fool is left trying to figure out why one green wire is used as a positive in the DC system while all the other green wires are grounds for the AC system. And that is where this poor fool has come up with the term “previous idiot” when referring to work done on the boat.
Marine grade wiring is stranded (lots of little wires creating a cable, rather than one wire). This allows for you to run the wiring through those odd contours of your boat. Solid wiring is prone to breakage if you make too tight a turn or pull too hard, or bang the wire against the bulkhead with each pounding wave in a storm. Stranded wire is more flexible, and also means that if one strand breaks, the others can still carry the load.
Marine grade wire is also tinned. This means that your individual strands may look tinny, rather than coppery. This is to protect the copper wire itself from the corrosive marine environment. If you find that your boat has untinned wiring, you may notices that a black substance has built up on the wires, or the wires may even be corroded through. In such cases, the wires should be trimmed back. If there are still signs of corrosion a few inches back, the wires should be replaced.
Marine grade wiring should be connected with crimping and waterproofing. Soldering is not appropriate. Your boat is a mover and a shaker, but solder is fragile. If anyone insists that you should solder, you have my permission to have them walk the plank. Wing nuts are not appropriate. They can trap moisture in the connection and create all kinds of issues. Crimp and waterproof. I prefer to buy the the connectors that come with heat shrink, but we also carry all sizes of heat shrink tubing in our electrical tool kit. Be sure not to confuse the built in heat shrink with the nylon covers. Ancor sells both, but as you can imagine, the nylon does not shrink and it does not smell good when you apply heat. Most jobs on the boat we either naturally fall into or we fight over whose turn it is to suffer through. But when it comes to wiring, we both find a high level of satisfaction in the process of stripping, crimping and shrinking a good connection!
The front of your electrical panel probably looks nice and orderly. These panels tend to consist of neat rows of switches with clear, black and white labels. And a pretty light beside each switch. However, depending on the age of your boat and the orderliness of the electricians over the years, it is very likely that the back of your electrical panel looks like something that would give Indiana Jones heart palpitations.
Whether your panel is a set of three DC switches or several rows and columns of switches divided into DC (usually on the left) and AC (usually on the right), it will be worth your time to get to know what is going on both on the panel and behind the panel. I once found myself helping a recent widow who knew little about the nuts and bolts of her boat. It was delivered by a friend, but when we went to check it out, the batteries were dead. Boiled completely dry, no room for recovery. Turns out, the labels on the electrical panel did not do what they said they did. A switch on the panel had been randomly assigned to the inverter, which ran all of the outlets, even when the boat was hooked up to shore power. A separate, unlabeled switch in the engine room was used to turn on the battery charger when hooked up to shore power. The boat had been left for a month or more drawing energy from the batteries to power the time on the microwave. I don’t know if I mentioned it yesterday, but while inverters may be awesome, they use a lot of DC power to mediocre amounts of AC power. It took us a full day of following wires to figure out what was going on in this case.
And that, unfortunately, is what it takes on most boats. My boat has an AC switch labeled “appliances.” What appliances? It isn’t like we have an electric stove, a 120v fridge or even a blender on board! We have followed the wires, but we still do not know what may have been on the far end of them, seemingly when the boat was built in the 1980s.
Start exploring by reading the labels. Flip a switch and see if the expected thing happens. Once you have flipped the switches and made your slip neighbors wonder why the lights are going on and off, get out a flashlight and turn of the main breakers for the DC and AC. Only then should you set about figuring out how to open your board. Once you have gotten behind your board, prepare to marvel. Perhaps you will get to marvel at the orderliness of it all, with harnesses and cable ties keeping everything in place. More likely, you will get to marvel at the sheer disorder, or perhaps at the fact that so many colors of wire have been manufactured. Hopefully, you will at least see some patterns. Red, blue, grey, white will likely be attached to the breakers themselves. Black wires may well be attached to a bar somewhere set off from the breakers. This is called a bus bar. Everything that is connected will need to have both the positive and negative wires attached to work, most of the negatives will be on this bar. You may also find negative bus bars located near clusters, such as where your batteries are located or the helm.
While you were following your wires, did you find any unattached wires in your lazarette? Your cabin? Follow these back to the board – hopefully your board is still turned off, in case some prior budding electrician decided to uninstall an instrument and leave the live wires just dangling in space. We have removed miles of wiring in this way from Sea Story.
If you keep following wires and back and forth, you will get to know your whole boat better than you ever thought possible. While it may not always be possible to follow the wires through a conduit, at least you will know where the conduits are so that you don’t accidently drill through your wiring in the future. However, if you have a household member around, you may be able to follow the wiring through the conduit if you can find the other side. One person stands at one end and wiggles the wire they are interested in until the other person identifies the other end.
This may all seem like rather a lot of busy work, and maneuvering through the crawl spaces of your boat involves more uncomfortable positions than sitting at home reading Nigel Calders’ Electrical Manual. But if you can make time to do it when you would otherwise be sitting home twiddling your thumbs, it is the kind of hands on learning that can prove invaluable when you have to replace your bilge pump or trouble shoot why your GPS won’t come on.
Just make sure you turn off the main switches! If we are actually going to be doing any wiring, I even take the time to unplug the boat from shore power.
Keep safe, keep learning
One of the first things to understand is the difference between your AC system and your DC system.
AC power is what you have at your house. As you know, you shouldn’t stick your finger in the outlet (or the light socket, for that matter) because AC power is, well, powerful. It is the high voltage that will get you. We also refer to the AC system on the boat as the 120volt system (or the 110volt: the truth is that it is usually somewhere in between 110 and 130).
DC power is stored in batteries. It usually gets to the batteries from an AC source or from solar power. Boat systems tend to operate in multiples of 12 volts. 12 volts isn’t so bad, but I still don’t recommend trying to touch your tongue to the terminals like your older sibling used to suggest with a 9v (just me? sorry). But once you get up into 24v or 48v, which is used for larger systems, and especially for those fancy new electrical motors, things are getting more serious. Don’t underestimate any kind of electricity: even at its most mild it is far too good at starting fires.
Your house probably gets its AC power from either a solar system or the power lines. The power lines also carry AC power to your boat via the shore power cord. We often refer to this as plugging our boat in, but it has the fancy connections to allow you to pull a lot more energy than any individual household outlet can handle. You will notice that your Tesla and maybe even your dryer have fancy plugs for much the same reason. Or perhaps your only use of AC power for your boat is the trickle charger that you use to keep your batteries happy in the off season.
If your house has a solar system, there is a reason we refer to it as a system: it requires an inverter to take the DC power collected by the panels and change it into AC power that your house can use. Even if you have a Tesla wall battery, that is just storing DC energy to be inverted to AC when the sun isn’t shining. Your boat may also have a similar system. An inverter is used to take the energy stored in the batteries and make it available for AC devices, like standard vacuums, TVs, kitchen appliances, etc. If you have sophisticated electronics that require AC power, they will thank you for getting a True Sine Wave inverter. This creates a more clear electrical signal, where as older or cheaper systems kind of try to fake the wave and end up causing damage to systems that can tell the difference. This is definitely a place where it can be tempting to be penny wise (buying the cheaper modified sine wave inverter) and pound foolish (watching your laptop die).
If you live in the backcountry or have sensitive equipment or just like to be prepared, you may have a third source of AC power: a generator. Boats tend to have two different sources that take the place of a generator and are much more common on boats than in American houses, due to the fact that houses don’t often try to wander away from the power lines. Many boats have a generator, either installed somewhere or portable, that will allow them to have AC power wherever they are, for as long as they have fuel (remember to leave enough to get home again, please!). Batteries are not very good at producing power for heat, even with an inverter (or at least an inverter that will fit on your <100ft boat). As such, many power boats with electrical stoves will need to run the generator in order to cook.
You will notice that I have referred to inverting from DC to AC and converting from AC to DC. I will admit right now that the ins and outs of why that is requires one to really care about electronics a smidge more than I do. Nonetheless, it is important terminology to keep straight. One way we keep that straight onboard is to refer to a converter as a “battery charger.” That is much more straight forward. Why didn’t I start there? Because your alternator still manages to convert from the AC power generated by spinning things to the DC power that goes straight to your battery, do not pass Go, do not collect $200 at the battery charger.
It is with all of the above that you can see why one might want to purchase a battery charger/ pure sine wave inverter combo. You get one thing that does all the things, hook it up (well, if you have learned anything in this email, you might want to do some more research or hire someone else to hook it up), and forget about it. That is, until one or the other of the components burn out… Many of us still choose to get a battery charger and a separate inverter so that we know what the problem is and only have to replace one at a time down the road.
One reason it is important to know the difference is so that you can figure out how to best shut the power off in case of emergency. You may be able to shut down the AC main breaker and still operate off DC power to see your way around to fixing an issue. More simply, if something isn’t working, the first thing to check is usually going to be the corresponding circuit breakers and cut offs. You wouldn’t be the first person to call out an electrician to find out the problem is your boat isn’t plugged in. On our boat, we had a particularly frustrating situation with a light in the galley because when we were at dock and had plenty of time to trouble shoot, it was working. But when we were out sailing and just wanted to flip it on and see, it wouldn’t work… Someone had chosen to install a hard wired AC light. This is very rare on boats. Even boats that have plenty of power tend to use a combination of installed lights that run on DC and maybe a few lamps to plug into the AC system.
Keep safe, keep learning