Weather – To “Go” or “Not To Go”

11/22/2020: Initial post

Whether the weather is hot or whether the weather cold,
whether the weather is wet or whether the weather dry,
whether the weather is windy or whether the weather is still,
whether the weather is nice or whether the weather not,
there will be weather, whether or not.

The US East Coast ICW from Maine to Florida, or the Great Loop cruise, are long cruises that span significant geography in eastern North America. Weather conditions encountered by long distance cruisers will range over time from “delightful” to “severe.”  Annual El Niño and La Niña conditions in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean (ENSO), and the Madden-Jullian Oscillation in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans, can lead to significant year-to-year variations in overall North American weather patters.  Regional patterns in the Southern US are different than in the Northern US and Canada.  Year-to-year variations are a fact of life.  There are dry years and wet years. There are calm years and stormy years.

Summer T’storm Out!ow Boundary produced 50-plus mph gusting
winds for 40 minutes. Could not see the shoreline, barely could see the blue-roofed MYC Pavilion. Very exciting!

In general, I discourage the all-to-common notion that a fast boat can “run away from” – or, “outrun” – developing thunderstorms.  This is NOT a good assumption on large bodies of water where there are limited “ditch-out” options to get off the water.  It is NOT a good option for running offshore or running large.  The air masses that produce thunderstorms can be hundreds of miles across.  Very large air masses can become unstable (cross the “wet lapse rate”) in minutes, and build across wide areas very quickly.  We have had severe weather blow up for 30 to 50 miles all around us in a matter of 15 – 30 minutes.  Being exposed to high winds, heavy rain and lightening in a boat on the water IS NOT part of our definition of “havin’ fun.”  We suggest prudent avoidance is much better than managing an unpleasant – or dangerous – heavy weather encounter.

DSCN1937

Hazy, hot, humid summer afternoon on a mooring ball in the US Northeast.

We suggest that each individual cruiser establish – in advance – a written criteria for the conditions that are acceptable for their routine daily departures from safe harbor.  One size does not !t all, and no single criteria fits all cruisers. Different boat designs ride rough seas quite differently from one another. Dfferent individuals on boats of the same make and model may have very different attitudes and sensitivities (tolerance) about what constitutes “acceptable” travel conditions to them. Steelhulled (all metal hulled) boats are more safe in lightening than Fiberglass-Reinforced Plastic (FRP). Boats with active stabilizers often handle rough seas better than boats without stabilizers. Individualized vessel departure criteria must address the needs of the captain and crew, pets, any guests (children) and the vessel itself.

The US East Coast and Gulf Coast are prone to hurricanes from mid-August to mid-November.  Less of a time-span in El Niño years, more in La Niña years.  With just a few exceptions, we live in a time where weather forecasts are reasonably good indicators of future reality.  During hurricane season, we watch the Atlantic Basin and Gulf of Mexico daily.  When storms are forming and tracks are developing, we don’t depart from a safe harbor unless we know we can get to the next safe harbor well before encountering the storm.  

Your individual departure criteria must ensure the safety, and consider the comfort, of all aboard.  Boat’s are generally tougher than people. We find little enjoyment in being beaten up on the water. Seasick or terri!ed guests are undesirable. A happy crew and a happy marriage depend on getting this criteria right for your crew and your boat.

Finally, the prudent captain will review the weather forecast for the daily cruise area against his or her departure criteria.  A beautiful early morning can deteriorate into a lousy afternoon. Sanctuary’s departure criteria follows:

Acceptable: Bright sun to periodic, light rain; visibility > 3 StM; Seas < 2 ft from any quarter; winds < 15 kts; temps >60℉.
Marginal: Periods of rain, no or “isolated” t’storms; visibility > 1 < 3 StM; seas 2-4 ft if following, 2-3 ft if ahead, abeam or abaft of abeam; winds 20-25 kts; temps >45℉<60℉; these conditions forecast stable or with an improving forecast.
Unacceptable: T’storms; strong squalls; persistent rain; visibility <1 StM; winds > 25 kts; temps ,45℉; deteriorating forecast.
Additional Considerations: Travel on protected inland river/ICW vs. open water; distance from “safe harbor;” if offshore, period and direction of ocean swells; air temps; hours-of-daylight; summer wx patterns; availability of traveling companion (“Buddy Boat”), availability of Tow Boat if needed.
Sanctuary’s “Go”/”No Go” Criteria

Some useful guidelines in the US Northeast and mid-Atlantic states for Barometer status and trends:

  1. barometer rising & Westerly wind → good weather
  2. barometer falling & Easterly wind → perform “180° turn;” return to safe harbor
  3. barometer slowly falling & steady breeze → unsettled, likely wet, weather
  4. barometer rising → best for boating
  5. barometer falling → stay alert & watchful

Some useful resources for tracking local weather and weather forecasts include:

  1. Sirius/XM satellite “Master Mariner” subscription; provides real-time weather conditions displayed on new generation chart plotters and via WxWorx-on-the-Water on Windows-based computers. Sanctuary uses WxWorx-on-the-water.
  2. Link: Marv’s Weather Service
  3. Link: Atlantic Marine Zones
  4. Link: National Weather Buoy Data
  5. Link: Great Lakes Weather
  6. Link: Chesapeake Bay Weather
  7. Link: Severe weather
  8. Link: Local weather forecasts
  9. Link: Local weather forecasts
  10. Link: Local Weather forecasts

iOS (iPhone & iPad) weather apps I personally use and like:

  1. Storm Radar
  2. Dark Sky
  3. Marine Weather Forecast Pro
  4. Windy; pro upgrade gives several weather model wind forecasts that are particularly useful on large East Coast Bays and Sounds
  5. NOAA Buoys Live Marine Weather (Hurricane forecasts; not easy to use)

For hurricane tracks and track projections:

  1. Marv’s Weather Service
  2. https://preview.weather.gov/edd/
  3. Mike’s Weather Page

Prescription Meds and Personal Care Needs

11/21/2020 – Initial post

ON THE WATER, FOR ANYONE HAVING CHEST PAIN OR DIFFICULTY BREATHING, A “M’AIDEZ” CALL SHOULD BE MADE IMMEDIATELY.  LIKEWISE, MENTAL CONFUSION, SLURRING OF WORDS OR DROOPING OF FACIAL EXPRESSION, HEAD INJURIES WITH OR WITHOUT CONFUSION AND SERIOUS FALLS REQUIRE IMMEDIATE, URGENT EVALUATION AND CARE.  Plan and drill ahead of time for the possibility of a “m’aidez” call.  Know what you will need to be able to tell the USCG and rescue personnel about your location and the nature of your emergency.  Emergencies don’t care about the weather or seastate, so consider how you would handle the boat while caring for your spouse’s chest pain BEFORE an emergency happens.  Plan and drill for the sudden and unexpected possibility of being “Suddenly Alone.”  Plan for sudden disability of the Captain; plan for sudden disability of the First Mate or visiting crew member.

Prescription Medications and Medical Devices:  Always do  your own due diligence!  My Admiral and I take over-the-counter vitamins and aspirin, and prescription statin anti-lipid drugs.  I take prescription eye drops, and she takes several cardiac medications.  Well in advance of cruise departure, order a 3-month supply of all prescription medications and personal care needs.  With the proper documentation, customs and immigration officers (Bahamas, Canada) will clear them.  Without documentation, check-in delays are possible, if not likely.  It can be a problem to ship some medications across international borders, so medications that you absolutely cannot be without must be transported with you.

In the past several years, we have dealt with several different mail-order pharmacies.  They are not very good at supporting travelers.  (No, it’s worse than that; they are a superb pain in the posterior.)  We know that they can accommodate travelers, so stay calm, but be persistent.  Order early, and order only when you’re going to be in one place for long enough to wait them out.  Different medications will come from different warehouses in different parts of the country.  Be sure to update your delivery address a couple of days before you actually place the medication order.

Expect surprises.  We have gotten to the point that we call the pharmacy company a day or two ahead of placing the order just to update our shipping address.  That allows time for the updated delivery address to propagate across the pharmacy company’s computer server farm. We have had parts of our medication orders go to several different, random delivery addresses.  The pharmacy companies will always blame that on you.  They will want to use up one of your refills and will threaten to charge you full price for a re-do of the order.  We can scramble through all that, but it’s time-consuming and annoying.  If you change your permanent address before you place the order, there is a better chance they’ll get fulfillment and delivery right.  But, it’s on you to manage the process and your pharmacy company.

When cruising, be sure to have documentation aboard for any injectable medications and injection supplies that you transport.  What particularly comes to mind is diabetes medications and needles, and epinephrine injectors for anaphylactic allergic reactions.  Sanctuary’s Admiral uses a medical device called a “TENS unit.”  It’s electrical; it runs on batteries and needs electrode wires.  Carry spare batteries, and if you need/use rechargeable batteries, carry a spare charger.  Carry spare electrodes.  Get a copy of the prescription from the doctor to keep in your onboard file.  Consumable supplies for CPAP, BPAP, infusion pumps, catheters and ostomy supplies, glucose test strips and INR measurement test strips should be secured in advance of cruise departure.

Talk with your doctor before departure about having a 10-day supply of antibiotics and pain killers aboard for use in emergent situations.  If you’re cruising in some remote place, it may be a day or two or three before you can get to see a nurse, let alone a doctor.  Assuming no allergies to the antibiotic, starting an antibiotic right away may be/can be the right thing to do.  Your doctor can advise products suitable to your personal needs.  We were traveling in the salt marshes of the US southeast when the Admiral came down with an abscessed tooth.  Having a pain killer at hand definitely made us both more comfortable until we could locate a dentist.  I nicked a finger with a screwdriver, and within 18 hours, the finger was three times normal size and very painful.  I caught the wheel of a shopping cart at Walmart with my ankle.  By the next morning, my ankle was several times normal size.  Things happen.  Having a supply of Cephalexin/Ciprofloxacin was a really wise exercise in planning ahead, but it does not replace seeing a doctor as soon as you can.

Emergency Care: many pharmacies offer emergent care services intended to manage relatively minor health incidents.  They also administer flu, pneumonia, tetanus and shingles shots (shingles with a prescription, of course).  Walgreens and CVS are two national pharmacy chains we have used successfully.  These facilities are typically  staffed by a Nurse Practitioner.  The ARNP will be able to prescribe antibiotics, and handle simple conditions like skin rashes, bruises, splinters, cuts with simple stitches, burns, sprains, and similar types of injuries.  Depending on state law, an ARNP may not be able to prescribe opiate pain medications.  For initial assessment of an emerging situation, these facilities are very helpful, if available.

Free-standing emergency care facilities are also available in many areas.  These usually have on-site staff physicians.  Obviously, they can handle a wider range of health problems, including x-rays, simple blood and urine labs, and EKGs.

If you are taking responsibility for minor children (grandchildren, for example), make sure you understand any medications they need to take and whatever condition(s) those medications are intended to treat!  For minor children in the absence of their parents/legal guardians, have written and notarized parental permission to seek and request medical treatment if that should become necessary.  As we Boy Scouts are fond of saying: Be Prepared!

Earthing and Grounding

11/6/2020: Initial Post
11/16/2020: Text and Graphics added

Introduction

This is an introductory article, written to provide a basic understanding of a complex aspect of AC electric systems to an audience with little or no prior background in electricity. This subject is fundamental to AC system wiring in buildings and on boats, and is a prominent underlying part of the discussion in many other articles about AC Shore Power found on this website.

The concepts around “earthing” and “grounding” are at the very core of making electrical systems as safe as possible to people, pets, farm animals and wildlife. But, “earthing” and “grounding” may or may not mean the same thing when used in conversations and when used without context. These subtle concepts and the terminology they involve can be new and confusing to people without prior electrical backgrounds, and are among the most important to electrical safety. “Grounds” and “grounding” are topics that embrace multiple related ideas. “Earthing” and “Grounding” have different implications in residential single-family house settings than they do on boats, and residential electricians often are not aware of issues that apply to electrical safety on boats. Context is very important to understanding these issues, and as always in electricity, there are many “language shortcuts” that occur in group discussions on docks. Boaters will benefit from an understanding of these topics.

Static Electricity/Lightening

In nature, there is a form of electricity called “static electricity.” A major characteristic of static electricity is that it “flows” outside of wired electrical circuits, through the air. Its flow is intermittent and spontaneous. Static electricity is caused by the friction of two surfaces moving across one another. Static electricity results from the accumulation of electrons on one object (“negative charge”) and a deficit of electrons on another object (“positive charge”). It occurs where friction between surfaces creates a negative charge on the surface with excess electrons and a positive charge on the surface from which electrons were taken.

Residents of low-humidity, cold climates are familiar with static electricity. Little static shocks result from walking across a carpeted room in wool socks, petting the cat or dog, putting on a sweater or overcoat, and then contacting a doorknob, another person, or a car door (or any number of similar life activities). “St. Elmo’s Fire” is a visible ionized corona; a static electricity “charge” that occurs in humid conditions. In St. Elmo’s Fire, a sphere of blue or purple ionized plasma forms at the sharp points of outdoor structures, such as electric utility towers, spires, chimney’s, masts, flag poles, weather vanes, etc. In clouds, warm, rising water droplets collide with cold, descending ice crystals, causing static charge to accumulate and eventually result in lightening.

The “discharge” of static electricity is a visible flash – an “electric arc” – composed of electrons flowing through ionized air. Electrons “flowing” is the definition of an “electric current.” With static electricity, a voltage difference (electric charge) between the two poles of the static system becomes instantaneously great enough that the insulating characteristic of the normally nonconductive air gap breaks down and conducts. In household situations, the arc is mainly a nuisance, although it can damage modern semiconductor electronics and the “shock,” together with an occasionally audible “snap,” can scare/surprise its animal and human victims.

Lightening is by far the most impressive static electricity discharge phenomena with which we are all familiar. Lightening is static electricity with a massive visible arc composed of many, many thousands of amps. That arc current creates many thousands of degrees of instantaneous temperature rise in the surrounding air, resulting in thunder. Lightening releases massive amounts of energy (mega-joules) and often results in severe damage at its earth contact point. Lightening is more than capable of killing animals and people.

The arc of a static discharge “neutralizes” the accumulated positive and negative atomic charge of the oppositely charged poles of the static “system.” Protecting building electrical systems from being damaged by the discharge arc of lightening involves creating a means to get the arc current to flow AROUND, rather than THROUGH, the electrical system of the building, or its structural components. To protect a building, metallic “air terminals” are placed high, on roofs. A network of heavy electrical conductors connect the air terminals to rods driven into the earth. Large communications towers, bridges and high rise buildings often utilize their own metallic structure as a safe path for guiding discharge currents into the earth. Farm structures (barns, grain elevators, windmill pumps, etc), industrial sites (refineries, chemical plants, chimneys, etc, etc), and hospitals are protected with air terminals and metallic paths to earth ground. These protective devices are apparently considered unsightly and undesirable in suburbia, because they are rarely found on single-family residential buildings. When we lived in Indiana, our neighbor across the street had the chimney blown off his house by a lightening strike to that unprotected structure.

Lightening protection for boats is a separate and complex study; inexact, expensive to install, and impossible to properly retrofit if not built into the initial design at the construction phase of the boat’s life. Boats struck by lightening almost always experience severe electrical system damage and extensive damage to electronic equipment aboard. Lightening can literally blow a hole in a boat’s hull on its way to earth ground.

See my article on “Faraday Cages” for ways to protect sensitive electronic gadgets from lightening; for example, hand-held VHF radios, hand-held GPS, computers, back-up hard drives and cellular telephones.

Residential Electric Circuit “Wire” Naming and Identification

All operational electric circuits require two conductors (wires); one outbound from the source to the load, and one returning from the load to the source. The pair of conductors that lead current to and from the source of power are both called “Current Carrying Conductors.”

In DC circuits on boats, the conductor carrying the positive charge is called “B+,” and can also called the “plus” or “positive” conductor. By conventional agreement, the positive DC conductor is red in color. The conductor that returns current from the load to the source is called the “B-,” or “negative” conductor. By conventional agreement, the negative conductor (in 2020) is yellow in color. Until recent years, DC negative conductors on boats had black insulation, and many such systems are still in service today. In boats with both DC and AC systems installed, the black DC negative wire was easily confused with the black AC energized wire, so the DC color code was changed to “yellow” to eliminate the safety implications of confusing those two wires. In DC situations, the “negative,” or “B-” conductor is sometimes referred to as a “ground,” although that is usually (almost always) not technically correct, since “ground” wires are not intended to carry current in normally operating systems (reasons explained later).

In AC circuits in buildings, the power on the conductors is alternately positive and negative, so the DC nomenclature “B+” and “B-” doesn’t work. In single phase 120V circuits in North America, the two conductors are named for their role in the circuit. The conductor that is considered to be the energized (power suppling) conductor is called the “Ungrounded Conductor,” or “Line 1,” or the “hot” conductor. By code and convention in North America, “L1” is black in color. The other conductor in a 120V circuit is considered to be the return conductor. It is called the “Grounded Conductor” (for reasons explained later), or the “Neutral Conductor,” or simple the “neutral,” and it is white in color.

In single phase 120V/208V and 120V/240V circuits in North America, there are two “Ungrounded Conductors.” They are commonly called “Line 1” and “Line 2.” “L1” is black, and “L2” is red. In these circuits, there is also a “Grounded Conductor,” always referred to as the “neutral,” and white in color.

In electrical engineering, “earth” is the single reference point in an electrical system from which voltages are measured and which provides a direct physical connection to the earth. Since the 1950s, the National Electric Code for AC distribution circuits in buildings has required “Equipment Bonding Conductors” and an “Equipment Grounding Conductor.” In the NEC, Article 250 is the standard for “grounding and bonding.” Each individual conductor that is an individual component that comprises the network of conductors that make up the “ground system” has its own specific name. For the purpose of understanding concepts, the term used here will be the “ground conductor,” or “safety ground.”

The NEC, Article 100, defines an “Effective Ground-Fault Path” as an intentionally constructed, low-resistance, conductive path designed to carry fault current from the origination point of a ground-fault in a wiring system to the electrical supply source and that facilitates the operation of the overcurrent protective device or ground-fault sensors. The purpose of the safety ground is to create an “effective ground-fault path.” That low resistance path is intended to function as a fault-clearing path; for that single “emergency use” only. “Fault-clearing” means that the circuit breaker feeding that faulting circuit will trip to remove power from the circuit. Under normal conditions in a properly wired electrical system, the safety ground conductors (including the bonding system network on a boat) DO NOT/MUST NOT carry current in normal, routine operation. The safety ground conductors are intended to ONLY carry current when there is a “fault” in the system. In buildings on land, the ground conductor is typically bare copper wire. On boats and in appliances, the ground wire is insulated, and solid green in color, or green with a yellow stripe.

Subtle take-away: the DC “negative” conductor has the same role in a DC circuit that the AC “neutral” conductor has in a residential/boat AC circuit. That is, the DC “Negative” conductor returns current from the load to the power source (battery). In a “grounded DC electrical system” (which is uncommon), there is a third conductor that is part of the DC circuit, just as there is a safety ground in a 120V AC system. The B- conductor is a “Current-Carrying, Grounded Conductor,” and is entirely separate from the actual ground conductor.

NEVER, NEVER use wires of the wrong color for the wrong purpose in a circuit. In new and repair work, always install the correct color of primary wire. Personnel safety and equipment safety depends on colors being correct! It is code-legal to “change” the color of a conductor in cases where that cannot be avoided. Changing the color of a wire is accomplished by wrapping electrical tape of the proper functional color for a distance of several inches at BOTH ENDS of the wire having its color changed. If ever that is found in existing work, DO NOT DISTURB that wrap of tape. The NEC does not allow green safety ground wiring to be changed. Safety ground wiring must be green, and green must not be used for any other purpose.

Note: on some but not all boats built overseas, AC wire colors may be different than the North American standard (NEC and ABYC) colors cited above. On some boats, like some Grand Banks trawlers, one 120V “hot” conductor (L1) is black, but the other (L2) is brown, not red; and the AC neutral conductors are blue, not white. This difference is also common on boats built overseas, because they follow the European color standards. If “strange colors” are found aboard a boat, BE PARTICULARLY CAREFUL to determine how that wiring is used to ensure equipment, fire and personnel safety.

However tedious this discussion seems, an understanding of wiring terminology and color conventions is important to understanding electrical installation instructions for many different types of electrical equipment on boats, and to understanding the host electrical systems, themselves.

Electrical Circuits

Core concept: opposite to the situation with static electricity, in man-made electrical circuits, the electricity originates at a point that is know to be its “source.” This can be a battery, a solar cell, a fuel cell, a generator, or a point-of-connection to the electrical grid. An electric “circuit” is said to exist when an electric “current” has a path that enables electrons to flow out of the source on a conductor, travel through a load to do useful work, and then return to its source on another conductor. The “source” can be DC or AC. Whether DC or AC, a “voltage” can appear at the output terminals of a source (like a battery or generator), but a “circuit” does not exist unless electrons can flow out of the source, through a load, and back into the source. A “circuit” consists of is a round trip of continuous conductive wiring for current flow out of a source and back into the source. A “switch” is any electrical device that “opens” a circuit to prevent electron flow as a matter of convenience and/or function; a relay is a device that interrupts current flow in the circuit that it controls; a “fuse” or “circuit breaker” is a device that “opens” a circuit to protect conductor insulation or remove power as a matter of fire prevention and/or personnel safety; and, a “severed” (“broken”) wire is a “malfunction” (“fault”) that “opens” a circuit so that there is, in effect, no round-trip circuit for electrons.

Fundamental Physics of Electric Circuits

Rule 1: Electric currents MUST RETURN TO THEIR OWN SOURCE.
Rule 2: Electric current will return to its source on ALL AVAILABLE PATHS. Corollary: if there are parallel paths back to the source, current will divide and some portion of the total will take each available path.
Rule 3: An electric “circuit” does not exist UNLESS current has a continuous conductive path on which to flow from source back to source.

Readers will come back to these fundamental rules of electrical behavior over-and-over again when dealing with electrical systems and the concept of electrical faults. The more complex the electrical system, the more numerous and complex the issues, but electrical safety always comes back to the physics that underlies the behavior of electric currents.

The National Electric Code (NEC) and the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) electrical standard, E-11, provide design and installation requirements that define system controls that manage how voltages will be safely removed and currents will be safely stopped (disconnected) in response to faults of various kinds that may occur in an electrical system. It is actually quite easy “to get something to work.” It is much more complicated and much more important to control electricity when something isn’t right. Disconnecting power, and disconnecting power safely, is the only way to prevent fires and electric shock risks to personnel.

Electric Code Grounding Categories

Finally, we get to “earthing” and “grounding.” There are two contexts for electrical “grounding” as required by the NEC.

  1. System Grounding
  2. Equipment Grounding (Bonding)

Residential System Grounding

“Ground” is the standard reference point for measurement of voltages. The NEC, Article 100, defines the crust of our beloved home planet as “Ground.” Ergo, Sir Knight, the electrical potential (natural voltage) of the earth’s “soil” is defined to be “zero volts.” All voltages are measured from an earth ground reference point.

The crust of the earth is electrically conductive. The earth’s crust contains many minerals and mineral salts which provide “free electrons.” In response to an impressed voltage, electrons will flow from point-to-point around and within the earth’s crust. An important corollary is that currents flowing in the crust of the earth follow the fundamental rules of electro-physics, including “Ohm’s Law” and “Kirchhoff’s Law.” In order to create a residential electrical system connection to “earth ground,” one or more interconnected metallic rods (often copper) are driven into the earth.

In the North American residential AC system model, three conductors arise from the utility power transformer at the street. All three are “Current Carrying Conductors.” Two of those conductors are considered, by conventional agreement, to be “energized” (“L1” and “L2”) and one is the neutral line (“N”). This is known as a “Single Phase, Center Tapped, Three-Pole,” system. The “Neutral is the transformer’s center-tap connection. As these three lines emerge from the utility transformer in the street, 240V are present between “L1” and “L2,” and 120V is present between “L1” and “N” and between “L2” and “N.” Note, however, that at the street, these voltages “float” with respect to their external environmental surroundings. They are not connected to anything. This situation is referred to as a “floating neutral system,” and in a “floating neutral system,” the voltage between the neutral and earth ground is unlikely to be “zero.”

If these three lines were connected to a distribution panel in a residence, all electrical appliances would work correctly. All of the necessary operating voltages inside the building would be correct. But, measured against a ground reference, it’s entirely likely the neutral would be at some perhaps large voltage difference with respect to the metal sink where food is prepared, or the metal bathtub when the baby gets bathed, or the metal faucets in the family shower. Clearly, a shock hazard would exist. To eliminate that hazard, the “Neutral” is electrically “tied” (connected) to an earth-ground reference point.

To create a system referenced to a known. zero-volt earth ground, copper rods are driven into the earth at the building’s service entrance location. Within the main service panel of the building, the utility-provided neutral conductor is connected (“bonded”) to this network of copper ground rods. This connection results in an earth-ground, “grounded neutral” system, throughout the premises. In a grounded neutral system, the voltage between the neutral conductor and the safety ground conductor is “zero,” or should be very close to “zero.”

While it’s true that the earth is electrically conductive, the earth is not a good conductor. Even at its best, “dirt” is not as good at conducting electricity as aluminum and copper wire (and also not as good as salt water). But rest assured, Ohm’s Law is a fixed “law” of physics, and it does apply to currents flowing in the earth. So while “dirt” may not be a great conductor, it is a very large-diameter conductor, with an infinite number of parallel paths, and with virtually unlimited ampacity. Just how well any local parcel of “dirt” conducts electricity depends on many things, including mineral and moisture content. The NEC requires that ground rods have a minimum contact resistance of 25Ω to earth. Sometimes, that can be achieved with a single 10′ rod driven into the soil; sometimes it requires a long rod driven 40′ – 50′ into the ground; and, sometimes it requires an entire network of long ground rods, all driven deep, and all connected together in parallel.

The essential point here is that “earth ground” is a universal reference point for all terrestrial power distribution systems. It represents the presence of “zero” electrical potential, or stated in the negative, the absence of any voltage. This works well because in a properly functioning, properly wired system, no current flows on the grounding system. Since no current flows, the voltage at the contact point with the copper grounding rods stays reliably at zero volts (as predicted by Ohm’s Law). Electrical faults (discussed later) create vastly different, sometime dangerous conditions.

Important to realize in this discussion, the earth ground alone DOES NOT protect against electric shock. It is merely a reference point against which system voltages are stabilized at “zero.” Earth ground IS NOT a reference for protective devices (fuses, circuit breakers) to trip to remove power when an electrical fault condition occurs. The Earth IS NOT the “source” for any DC or AC electrical energy. Remember Rule 1: “All electric currents MUST RETURN TO THEIR OWN SOURCE.” Electrical currents in residential and boat electrical systems DO NOT originate in the earth, and so, do not return to the earth. However, under some kinds of fault conditions, current can and does return to its source by traveling through the “dirt;” or, through the water in which a boat is floating!

Well then, why do we have the “Earthing” connection? Well, “Earthing/Grounding” in this context is a single-point-of-connection (one point and ONLY ONE POINT) to the earth for the purposes of mitigating:

  1. Static build-up (wind induced),
  2. System voltage instability, including:
    ▪ Unintentional physical contact with a higher voltage system (automobile accident or severe weather incident involving “hot” utility services),
    ▪ Repetitive intermittent short circuits (dispatched to first responders as “trees on wires, burning!”), and
    ▪ Utility switchyard and distribution system switching surges (spikes).
  3. Nearby vicinity lightning splash, and
  4. Transient interference (from static discharge and local RF emissions).

Not all of these exceptional conditions apply equally to all residential premises systems, but because some do apply in all areas, the National Electric Code treats all alike.

Faults

Consider a building’s main electrical service panel as the “source” of AC power (volts and amps) for the building and all of its branch circuits. In a household AC electrical system, current from that source emerges from a wall outlet on one appliance conductor and returns to the wall outlet on the other appliance conductor. Refer to Rule 1: “Electric currents MUST RETURN TO THEIR OWN SOURCE.”

Now consider a hot water heater, washing machine, trash compactor, dish washer, garbage disposal, microwave or toaster oven, each constructed with a metal exterior cabinet. The appliance is an electrical “load.” Electricity is provided to it from the wall and returns from it to the wall. With just two conductors (supply and return), the appliance can work normally. But, what happens if there is a frayed or cut wire inside the cabinet, and in physical contact with the metal cabinet of the appliance? In that event, the cabinet will have a non-zero “touch potential” (voltage) on it’s metal enclosure, and that voltage could easily be a shock hazard to residents. This is exactly how houses were wired before the 1950s, and many people reading this will remember the “two prong” duplex outlets of that time. In those days, people did get shocks from household appliances, fans and table lamps. Sometimes even from the iron. (Did Granny’s iron have fraying cotton insulation at the plug end? Does anyone actually iron anymore?) And sometimes, the shocks were serious. These shocks were the results of “faults” in the circuit.

A “fault” is said to exist when:
1) an electric current does not flow when it should, or
2) an electric current flows in an unintended path to get back to its source.

Clearly, an electric shock – which is a path through a person’s body – is an unintended path. To avoid shocking experiences like this, a third electrical conductor (safety ground) was added to electrical systems in homes, garages, barns, workshops, supermarkets, retail stores, office buildings, malls, commercial offices, workplaces, etc. That is, anywhere people might come into contact with electricity.

Grounding Conductor

This brings us to the next major category of “grounds” and “grounding.” Not to the earth itself, although it is connected to the earth, but rather to a common point in the building’s main electric panel. In this context, the word “ground” is a useful – but misleading – concept, because the ground conductor does not live in the ground and it does not send fault current into the ground. The ground conductor is connected to the ground rods at the service entrance, so it is REFERENCED to ground. That way, that ground conductor is held at “zero” volts with respect to all other components in the electrical system.

The “equipment grounding conductor” (a/k/a the “safety ground”) in residential and boat electrical systems is designed and intended to cause fuses or circuit breakers to trip in order to DISCONNECT POWER in case of a fault. It is, in the words of the NEC, an “Effective Ground-Fault Current Path;” that is, an intentionally constructed, low-resistance, conductive path designed to carry fault current from the origin point of a ground fault in a wiring system to the electrical supply’s source and that facilitates the operation of the overcurrent protective device or ground-fault sensors.

Disconnecting power is the ONLY WAY to protect against fire and personal injury caused by ground faults in an electrical system. Equipment grounding is the intentional (in fact, NEC Article 250.2 mandatory) act of providing a network of conductors that interconnects the metallic cases of all electrical equipment attached to an electrical distribution panel. The bare copper or green-insulated “grounding conductor” discussed earlier is connected to the metallic cabinets of all modern appliances, and to the round ground pin of North American 15A and 20A household electrical utility outlets. The wires that make up the network of grounding conductors in a home have several names, but “safety ground” is representative for this discussion. On a boat, this network of green grounds is called the “bonding system,” of which the AC Safety Ground is a key part.

Residential dwelling units in North America range from tiny houses to single family homes to compounds with outbuildings to multi-family buildings of all kinds. A “ground buss” is always located in the main service panel of a dwelling unit, and in any sub-panels that may be supplied from that main service panel. Ground conductors from all branch circuits in the panel are connected together at the panel’s “ground buss.” Sub-panel grounds are in turn brought back to the ground buss in the main service panel. Boats are wired as sub-panels, not as main service panels.

At ONE PLACE in the main electrical service panel of the building, the “Grounding Conductor” is electrically connected (bonded) to the “Neutral” “Current Carrying Conductor.” By code, there is ONLY ONE “Neutral-to-Ground” bond in a residential electrical system, and it is placed at the Main Service Panel – never in sub-panels. A boat is wired as a sub-panel, so there should NEVER be a neutral-to-ground bond aboard a boat connected to, and operating on, shore power. This mistake in wiring on a boat is a very common cause of boats tripping shore power ground fault sensors on docks.

Now consider the fault case where an internal fault of some amount tries to put a touch potential voltage on the metal cabinet of an appliance. Rule 2 applies; “electricity will return to the source on all available paths.” Since the grounding conductor is attached to that metal cabinet, the Grounding Conductor does two things. First, it holds the voltage of the appliance cabinet at zero volts (because it’s “grounded” at the main service panel to the network of ground rods), which protects people and pets from shock. Second, it provides a very low-resistance path back to the service panel, via the neutral-to-ground connection, which instantaneously draws a very large spike of current through the circuit breaker (or fuse). That instantaneous large overload trips the circuit breaker to REMOVE POWER from the faulting circuit. Removing power is how the system protects buildings against fire and protects people from electric shock.

Ground Faults

The earth’s crust is electrically conductive, so that creates two electrical system design and code issues.

Rule 1 again: Electric currents MUST RETURN TO THEIR OWN SOURCE; and
Rule 2 again: Electric current will return to its source on ALL AVAILABLE PATHS;

Enter, our Corollary to Rule 2:: if there are parallel paths back to the source, current will divide and some portion of the total will take each available path. This law of physics is called Kirchhoff’s Law, which states that when there are multiple parallel paths back to the source, current will divide and some portion of the total will take each available path back to its source.

In both home appliances and boat appliances, the two most common causes of “ground faults” are aging water heater elements and aging motor/transformer windings. In a water heater, power can leak through the water in the heater between the energized heating element and the metallic case of the water heater. In a motor, over time, dust and other airborne contaminants build up in motor windings, and at the same time, heating and cooling cycles cause the winding’s insulation to break down and develop micro-pores. In these cases, the fault current isn’t enough to trip a circuit breaker, but small amounts of power can leak to the Grounding Conductor, and then back to their source at the main service entrance panel. This is a ground fault by definition, because ANY current flowing on the safety ground is flowing on an unintended path. In this case, the fault current flows back to the source on the Safety ground’s conductor. More in a couple of paragraphs, but first, some illustrations.

Here’s a homeowner scenario… Dad’s gonna trim up the lawn, trim some plants, and wash the car (he’s young and energetic, unlike myself). He runs a 100′ extension cord in order to power an electric hedge trimmer, grass trimmer, circular saw, reciprocating saw, radio, charcoal fire starter, polisher/buffer, whatever. The extension cord has a ground wire, but the “tools” attached to it by multi-outlet adapter either have only two wires, or the ground pin has been cut off as a “matter of portability convenience.” Tools that aren’t actively in use are lying on the ground, where they and their cords are in contact with the ground. Now there is a path for power to get back to its source through the soil, to the ground rod(s) serving the main electric panel, and back to the neutral in the main service panel. That is a ” ground fault” because it is clearly an unintended and unwanted electrical path through the soil (ground). And at some point in this scenario, Dad will pick up his tools and possibly have a shocking experience. Possibly even, a lethal shocking experience. Without a continuous “effective fault-clearing path,” there is no way to shut off the power to save Dad from a shocking experience

OK, here’s another scenario with which my daughter and I have direct, personal experience. One Halloween “Hell Night,” Kate came home in need of a shower to remove 17 cans of different brands of shaving creme and lord-only knows what else she had encountered while “out with friends.” She went off to the shower, whereupon Peg and I laughed at her state of dishevelment! Note here, one of our sons had just finished his shower from his night “out with friends.” After just a couple of minutes, there arouse a righteous and shrill scream from the upper reaches:

“Daddy! Turn the water back on!”

In my total, complete and absolute innocence, I grunted at Peg: “Huh?”

The house water pressure had disappeared to a dribble while Kate was all lathered up. Mid-shower! Springing into action, Mom was “off to the rescue,” and Dad was “off to the basement.” In the basement, all seemed OK, but alas, there was no house water pressure.

Plumbing leaks? No water on the floor!
Pressure in the well tank? No! Gauge reading “zero.”
Pump Circuit Breaker “on?” Yes; and not tripped.
Pump relay OK? Yes, relay “picked.”

“Uh oh!” “Darn it!” (or words to that effect)! “Must be the well pump!”

Our homestead in the Catskill Mountains – and all of our neighbors – had a private deep-well that supplied our drinking water.  Our well was 100′ deep, and the pump lived at the 90′ level (not very deep). As the pump started and stopped over many years, it twisted (torquing) on the end of 90′ of semi-flexible PVC hose. The wires running to the pump abraded against the earth and rock walls of the well, and eventually the wire’s insulation wore through. This created a ground fault connection from the exposed bare wire directly to the earth about 70′ down.

Deep well pumps are usually two-wire, 240V circuits. One conductor of ours was in direct contact with the wall of the well. If the point-of-contact had been within the cast iron portion of well casing, it’s likely the circuit breaker would have tripped, because that metal casing did have an equipment grounding conductor. But in our case the point-of-contact was with sediment or rock, the 240V circuit breaker indeed did not trip. That did, however, create a significant ground fault. The pump was trying to start, but didn’t get enough voltage to overcome the weight of a 90′ column of water. Power was flowing into the earth, but not enough to overload and trip the pump’s circuit breaker. Power divided where the bare wire touched the well’s wall. Some of the power going down that hole got to the pump and returned on the other current carrying conductor, but some of the power going down that hole flowed back to the panel through the earth, to our home’s ground rods, and back to the service panel’s neutral.

In these situations, a newly-installed (since 2002 or so) residential service panel would have been fit with “Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter” (GFCI) to remove power and terminate the ground fault condition. In the case of yard tools creating a shock hazard at the end of an extension cord, GFCI could literally save Dad’s life. In the case of the deep well fault, GFCI could have saved equipment from damage. Our deep-well pump got burned out by the prolonged stall created by the low supply voltage. Relate this to boats on docks with pedestals fit with 30mA “Equipment Protective Devices.” This is a case where a 30mA EPD on the well supply would have saved the well pump from damage, and would have provided a clear hint to the location and nature of the fault.

GFCIs and EPDs work by monitoring the outgoing and returning current on the two Current Carrying Conductors. The currents should balance equally between the two conductors. If not, there is a ground fault and the GFCI device trips power off. What happens if there is no GFCI, as was our case at that time? Well then, the ground fault condition continues, because power flows out from the source, but has multiple parallel return paths, one through the returning current carrying conductor and the other through the earth to the ground rods at the main service panel at the same time.

See my article on causes of ground faults on boats for information specific to that topic.

See my article on GFCIs for more detail on how these devices work.

Ground faults on boats behave in the same manner, but are very dangerous, because instead of flowing through dirt, which is largely inaccessible to people, pets and wildlife, ground faults on boats can and do flow through the water. People – especially children – pets and wildlife are sometimes found in the water.

See my article on “Electric Shock Drowning” to read about ground faults in the water.

Ground faults on land can be quite dangerous in another, subtly different way. Suppose a 240V mercury arc exterior driveway light has a ground fault at the pole base that is not large enough to trip an over-current circuit breaker. We all now know from my well scenario, above, that 240V in direct contact with the earth will probably not trip a circuit breaker. But in that condition, the soil surrounding the point-of-contact between the energized conductor and the soil itself is electrically “hot.” This condition sets up a “voltage gradient” on the surface soil surrounding the point-of-contact. Using 240V in this example, at the point-of-contact with the voltage, the voltage in the soil is the same as the supply voltage, so there is no DIFFERENCE in the pole voltage and the soil voltage. But Ohm’s Law applies here, and however much current is flowing into the ground and back to the service entrance panel is creating a voltage drop along the surface of the soil (or driveway). So, the resistance of the local soil matters. One electrical standard1 assumes that 25% of the total voltage drop due to path resistance will be found in the first foot of distance away from the point-of-contact. One foot away from the point-of-contact, the soil is at 163V of shock “step potential.” Three feet from the point-of-contact, the soil is at 202V. Five feet from the point-of-contact, the soil is at 206V. As you can see, straddling the voltage gradient of the surface soil can create dangerous “step potentials” in the soil. Imagine the potential for what could happen when Rover comes over to “mark his spot” at that light pole.

The same sort of voltage gradient forms in the water around the prop and rudder or a boat if there is an AC ground fault on the boat. That gradient is quite enough to get a diver’s undivided attention. If the fault itself is in a heat pump, and the diver is working on the boat when the heat pump cycles “on,” … Well, that diver would quickly know how Rover felt…

See my article on “Electric Shock Drowning” to read about ground fault voltage gradients in the water.

Ground faults can be very dangerous!

Do not defeat safety devices.

Install GFCI and ELCI on boats.

___________________________________

  1. ANSI/IEEE 142, Recommended Practice for Grounding of Industrial and Commercial Power Systems (Green Book) [4.1.1]

Inverters On Boats

7/20/2020: Initial Post

The ABYC definition of an inverter is “an electronic device, powered by batteries, designed primarily to provide AC current at a required voltage and frequency.”  In North America, inverters produce 120V AC (or 240V AC) at 60 Hz from energy stored in 12V or 24V batteries.  On boating forums that I follow, there have recently been many questions about selecting and installing inverters on boats, so in this article, the topic is “Inverters on Boats.”

There are two types of inverter installations found on boats.  The first case is the stand-alone inverter.  These are usually smaller inverters used for charging cell phone batteries or powering portable computers.  Larger stand-alone inverters can be installed alongside, but separate and isolated from, the built-in AC system of the host boat.  Stand-alone inverters are  limited in features, requiring manual intervention each time they are needed.  They are turned “on” manually when needed and turned “off” manually when no longer needed.  Their un-shared outlets are often mounted mounted on the unit itself.

The second case is inverters installed within the host AC power system of a boat.  When installed fully-integrated within a boat’s AC power system, inverters offer boat owners a whole-boat “Uninterruptible Power Supply” (UPS), and commonly function as battery chargers while external AC power is available.  Inverters installed within the host electrical system must comply with cUL/UL-458 per the ABYC Electrical Standards E-11 and A-31.

In 2020, most inverters sold for installation on boats are Pure Sine Wave (PSW) devices.  Older inverters were Modified Sine Wave (MSW) devices.  Some 120V household devices did not work well, sometimes not at all, on MSW inverters.  Generally, PSW devices are to be preferred for overall compatibility with consumer electronics in household equipment and appliances.

Figure 1 shows a stand alone inverter.  Inverters in operation can demand a great deal of DC current from batteries. Regardless of stand-alone or fully integrated installation, the B+ and B- cables from the batteries to the inverter must be sized for the maximum current the inverter can draw from the battery.  The B+ feed must be fused to protect the cables, and should have a disconnect switch rated for continuous use at or exceeding the maximum demand of the inverter.  The device itself must be “grounded” to the grounding buss of the host boat.  Unfortunately, I too often see stand-alone inverters that do not meet these ABYC electrical standard requirements, which apply to all DC devices.

The ABYC electrical standard, E-11, “AC And DC Electrical Systems On Boats,” July, 2018, treats stand-alone inverters in the same way it treats any other DC device (windlass, winch, thruster, water pump, instruments, auto-pilot).  The AC output of a stand-alone inverter is entirely separate and isolated from the boat’s host AC power system.  Thus, there are no specific ABYC requirements for the AC output of a stand-alone inverter.  These devices are easy to install, relatively inexpensive, and can meet basic AC power needs.  Some stand-alone inverters do not comply with North American residential electrical system requirements (grounded-neutral).  Stand-alone inverters enable bad user practices, such as extension cords running across the floor of a boat, and wiring that is too small for the loads.  A common “operator error” is to forget to turn the stand-alone inverter “off” after use, which can damage or destroy batteries.  These “owner errors” are common as fire and personal safety concerns.

Figure 2 is a “simplified view” of a typical 120V AC shore power system as found on many cruising boats.  I have taken a shortcut to also show that this boat has a generator installed.

The ABYC E-11 electrical standard does apply to this AC system.  In a previous article, I discussed the E-11 Standard as it correlates to Sanctuary’s AC system.

There is an important US National Electric Code/Canadian Standards Association “rule” to remember about all end-user AC power systems in North America.  For fire and shock safety, AC power sources are grounded at their source.  The result is called a “grounded-neutral” system.  The neutral conductor itself is a current-carrying conductor that returns current from the load to its source.  To automatically disconnect electrical faults, the neutral conductor is held at zero volts by a connection between the neutral conductor and the facility’s ground conductor.  The connection is called the “neutral-to-ground bond,” or “System Bonding Jumper.”  So in Figure 2, the shore power neutral conductor is “bonded to” the shore power ground conductor before these conductors come onto the boat, in the electrical infrastructure of the marina/boatyard.  The neutral of the boat’s onboard generator is “bonded to” the boat’s AC safety ground network at the metal frame of the generator.

The “grounded-neutral” requirement is the reason the “energized” (“hot”) Line conductor AND the “grounded” Neutral conductor must BOTH be switched by the Generator Transfer Switch (GTS).  When the GTS is in the “Shore” position, the neutral-to-ground bond comes onto the boat from the shore facility, via the shore power cord.  When the GTS is in the “Generator” position, the neutral-to-ground bond is at the generator, as shown in Figure 2.  To eliminate a ground fault path, the generator’s neutral-to-ground bond CANNOT also be in the active circuit when shore power is feeding the boat.  So, it is switched “out” of the active circuit by the GTS, which switches both the hot and neutral conductors.

Figure 3 shows the case of an inverter that is fully-integrated into the host AC system of the boat.  In this case, the inverter is not stand-alone, as in Figure 1, but is installed within the host AC system, between any other AC power source(s) and the boat’s AC distribution panel.  Here, it can be operated manually, or it can operate automatically, changing modes as incoming AC power comes and goes.  Automatic operation is helpful when commercial power fails, or when a dock neighbor inadvertently turns “off” the pedestal breaker of another boat.

As shown in Figure 3, power from either shore or the onboard generator is supplied to the inverter’s AC input.  This cUL/UL-458 compliant design operates in one of two modes.

STANDBY mode – passes power that originates upstream of the inverter through to attached downstream loads (“passthru”); in Figure 3, all of the boat’s AC loads are fed via the inverter.

INVERT mode – draws energy from the onboard batteries in order to create AC output at the rated voltage (120V, 240V) and frequency (60Hz) to feed downstream loads.

Figure 4 shows a similar system, but here some loads are powered via the inverter and other loads are powered only by upstream AC sources.  On Sanctuary, our onboard utility outlets are powered via our inverter, but our hot water heater, genset battery charger and fridge only receive AC power from uostream sources.  That arrangement greatly conserves our available battery capacity.

Note that Figures 3 and 4 refer to the Underwriter’s Laboratory’s UL-458 Standard, which is entitled, “Power Converters/Inverters and Power Converter/Inverter Systems for Land Vehicles and Marine Crafts.”  Recall that all AC power sources in North America must be grounded at the source (grounded-neutral), and so shore power is grounded in the facility infrastructure and the generator is grounded at the generator.  To accomplish automatic ground switching, inverters intended for use on mobile platforms (ambulances, trucks, airplanes, RVs and boats) MUST comply with cUL/UL-458.

This is a good time to digress for a moment to look at the ABYC portfolio of electrical safety standards.  These standards fall broadly into two categories.  The first is standards that apply to the design and construction of individual electrical components, such as:

    • A-16 Electric Navigation Lights
    • A-27 Alternating Current (AC) Generator Sets
    • A-28 Galvanic Isolators
    • A-31 Battery Chargers And Inverters
    • A-32 AC Power Conversion Equipment And Systems
    • E-10 Storage Batteries

The second is standards which apply to joining individual component parts together to work within a unified boat system, such as:

    • E-11 AC And DC Electrical Systems On Boats
    • E-30 Electric Propulsion Systems
    • H-22 Electric Bilge Pump Systems
    • TE-4 Lightening Protection
    • TE-12 Three Phase Electrical Systems On Boats

All of these standards make reference to other Industry Standard sources for detailed specification of performance requirements.  Typical outside references are to established by  industry standards organizations including IEEE, IEC, ISO, cUL/UL and eTL.

So as applies to inverters, there is an ABYC standard (A-31) that is specific to the design of the unit itself, and a second ABYC standard (E-11) governing the system into which the unit is installed.  For inverters, the design reference is UL-458 in the US (and CSA C22.2#107.1 in Canada).

When a UL-458 compliant inverter is in “Invert” mode, a relay inside the inverter automatically creates the inverter’s neutral-to-ground bond.  When the inverter is in “Standby” mode, that same relay automatically removes the inverter’s internal neutral-to-ground bond so both AC power and the source’s neutral-to-ground bond are “passed through” the inverter to the boat’s AC power panel.  Functionally, this is what a GTS does in the case of a generator; i.e., when the GTS is set to “Shore Power,” the neutral-to-ground bond at the generator is switched out of the system.  The GTS transfers both hot and neutral, and transferring the origin of the neutral is what changes the origin location of the Neutral-to-Ground bond.

Figure 5 shows a simplified drawing of a UL-458 inverter in “Standby” mode.  AC power passes through (“passthru”) the inverter from an external AC power source, whether that be shore power or generator.  The relay shown in the red circle is “energized” (“picked”) by the presence of external AC power, so it connects the incoming power hot and neutral conductors to the output load circuits.  The green circle shows the inverter’s ground connection, but since external power is present, the relay is “picked,” so the neutral-to-ground bond that is located at the incoming source is “passed through” the inverter to protect downstream branch circuits.

Figure 6 shows the same inverter operating in INVERT mode.  In this case, incoming AC power is absent, so the inverter’s internal relay (red circle) is de-energized (“down”).  Because the relay is “down,” AC output from the inverter is created by the inverter’s electronics from energy stored in the boat’s battery bank.

The green circle highlights the inverter’s internal neutral-to-ground bond, which in this mode is connected via the relay.  That connection is required because the inverter, in INVERT mode, is the actual “source” of the AC power being delivered to the boat.

Following in Figure 7 is a complete circuit diagram of the AC system aboard Sanctuary.  Our 120V, 30A, two inlet AC System is fairly common on boats of our size class, and consists of eight AC branch circuits serving the equipment on the boat.  Other than completeness, our system is just like the simplified view portrayed in Figure 4.  Boats with 240V, 50A shore power service (3-pole, 4-wire cords) will look slightly different on the front end, but 120V inverter installations will be the same as shown here.

Sanctuarys generator is in the upper-right corner of the drawing.  Note the generator’s neutral-to-ground bond, highlighted there in green.

Our fully-automatic, fully-integrated inverter/charger is in the lower left-center of the drawing, in the small red circle.

On the right middle, in the dotted red circle, is our house, “Shore 1,” AC distribution panel, containing the eight branch circuits.  The top four branch circuits are fed only from either shore or generator power, whichever is selected by the GTS.  The bottom four branch circuits are fed via “Invert” or “Standby (passthru)” power via the inverter.  Our inverter is always part of our outlet distribution circuit, 24x7x365-1/4.

In Sanctuary’s system, at inverter installation-time, the hot buss feeding the branch circuit breakers on the AC power panel had to be divided into two parts (blue ellipses) in order to accept two separate feeds from 1) external power and 2) the inverter.  Dividing the hot buss required modification of the OEM electrical panel.  Also at installation-time, the neutral buss (red ellipses) had to be divided in order to separate the neutrals of circuits that are not fed via the inverter from the neutrals of circuits that are fed via the inverter.

The need to separate the neutrals stems from the requirements of the 2011 NEC and 2012 ABYC E-11 standard, adopted in coordination to reduce/eliminate dangerous ground fault currents flowing into the water from docks and boats.  (See the article on Electric Shock Drowning for more information.)  If the neutrals are not separated, an unintended ground fault leakage path can be present.  The day the boat arrives at a marina or boatyard where pedestals are fit with ground fault sensing shore power breakers is the day that boat may trip the shore power breaker, and will not be able to get shore power.  The dock attendant will tell the unhappy boat owner that “there is an electrical problem on your boat.”  The unhappy boat owner will think, “but it’s been working for many years!”  Both statements are correct.  It had worked for many years, but there is “an electrical problem on the boat!”

A fundamental rule of all electricity is, current will flow on all available paths to get back to it’s source.  If the neutrals from one AC circuit on the boat are cross-connected to the neutrals of another AC circuit on the boat, power will divide at the cross-connection (neutral buss) and flow back to the source via all available paths.  That situation is, by definition, a ground fault.

Following are two relevant and important excerpts from ABYC E-11, July, 2018:

11.5.3.6 Isolation of Sources – Individual circuits shall not be capable of being energized by more than one source of electrical power at a time.  Each shore power inlet, generator, or inverter is considered a separate source of power.

11.5.3.6.1 Transfer of Power – The transfer of power to a circuit from one source to another shall be made by a means that opens all current-carrying conductors, including neutrals, before closing the alternate source circuit, to maintain isolation of power sources.

Ordinarily we think of cross-connected neutrals as a situation that affects boats fit with two 120V shore power inlets; indeed, the neutrals from those two inlet circuits must not be cross-connected on the boat.  But more subtly, the separation requirement also applies to distribution circuits fed from generators and inverters.  UL-458 is the design standard that specifies that the needed neutral-to-ground bond in an inverter be “established” and “removed” based on operating mode.  If the inverter neutrals and non-inverter neutrals are cross-connected (as, for example, all sharing a common neutral buss on the boat), the terms of 11.5.3.6.1 may not be met, resulting in a short ground fault condition.  In that case, there can be a duplicate path, if only momentarily, for shore power to use to return to the pedestal.  The following events happen in a fraction of a second.  Just “milliseconds (mS).”

At the instant (time=0.000) shore power is applied to the boat, any AC current that comes onto the boat via the hot conductor should also return to the pedestal on the shore power neutral conductor, and ONLY the neutral conductor.  Period!  Full stop!  Fundamental rule!

But…   At the instant shore power is applied to the boat (t=0.000), the inverter is in “Invert” mode with its internal neutral-to-ground bond still in place.  For the time it takes the inverter to respond to shore power and transfer its internal relay from “Invert” mode to “Standby” mode, there are two paths for the newly applied shore power to take to get back to its source at the pedestal.  The first path is via the shore power neutral, as intended.  But with unseparated neutrals, there is also a second effective (ground fault) return path.  The ground fault path starts at the neutral buss, where the returning current divides.  Some current will return as intended, on the shore power neutral conductor, but some will divert to the shore power cord’s ground conductor, through the inverter’s as yet unbroken neutral-to-ground connection.  That diversion path is a true ground fault.  One half of the total current will flow in each path.  The pedestal ground fault sensor expects the outgoing and returning currents to balance (within 30mA), but in this case, that sensor will see much less current returning on the neutral conductor than what was delivered on the hot conductor.   The pedestal breaker will want to trip.  How fast will it take for the trip to happen?  Usually between 30mS (t=0.030) and 50mS (t=0.050), but in all cases, less than 100mS (t=0.100), the maximum specified for the pedestal circuit breaker to trip.

In any case, we now have a “race” condition.  The race “contestants” are 1) the inverter relay against 2) the ground fault sensor.  The intent is for the inverter relay to “win.”  My inverter’s spec for transfer time is 18mS (t=0.018).  But, if the time it takes for the shore power Ground Fault sensor to trip is less than the time it takes the inverter’s relay to transfer into “Standby” mode, the pedestal breaker will indeed trip.  Furthermore, turning the inverter “off” will not eliminate that ground fault condition because the inverter’s internal relay would still be de-energized (“down”), and therefore, even with the inverter set “off,” its internal neutral-to-ground bond would still be present, creating the ground fault path.  Regardless, if the neutrals are separated, no cross-connection, so “no problem!”  So yes, it really is necessary to separate the branch circuit neutrals of the inverter-fed circuits from the neutrals of circuits that are not fed from the inverter. Elimination of the cross-connection of these neutrals is what eliminates the unintended, unwanted ground fault path.

Although I have not implemented an Inverter Bypass Switch aboard Sanctuary, I have drawn up a circuit diagram for such a switch, for those interested.  In Figure 8, the bypass switch is shown in the “Bypass” position.

When in “Bypass,” the switch’s external AC “power in” (red lines) comes from the hot and neutral lines that also feed external AC to the inverter.  Note that the “hot” feed for the bypass switch is upstream of the inverter’s power switch on the “Shore 1” AC panel.  This arrangement allows for bypassing the inverter while at the same time enabling a service technician to apply AC power to the inverter for diagnostic testing and repair verification.

When planning for the installation of an inverter, two pre-purchase considerations are, 1) what branch circuits will be powered from the inverter, and 2) what does the capacity of the inverter need to be in order to support the load of those circuits?  Aboard Sanctuary, we determined that we wanted to have AC power in the galley and at other utility outlets while underway.  That allows us to use our coffee maker, microwave, toaster and crockpot (not all at the same time), keep our DVR and AC lighting active, and occasionally charge utility batteries for my power tools.  We selected a 2kW inverter/charger to do that, which provides a maximum continuous AC output of 15A, shared by our four utility branch circuits.  That has served us well for 12 years.

Following is a “cut ‘n paste” from my “project plan” for the installation of our UL-458 compliant inverter/inverter-charger into Sanctuary’s DC and AC electrical systems, and timeframes based on my personal DIY-install timeline.  My need to “reconfigure” the B+ and B- DC busses on Sanctuary was because I consolidated the batteries from two separate banks (“house” and “start”) into a single bank at the same time, and updated the battery monitor from a stand-alone Xantrex monitor to a Magnum BMK. Combining banks greatly simplified battery charging from both the inverter/charger and the engine alternator.  Those steps are not specifically necessary for the inverter installation, but I like the consolidated battery bank.  Click to see my article describing that change.

Harmonic Distortion of AC Power

Initial post: 6/7/202
Minor edits: 6/8/2020

I’m posting this here because it came up on a boating club Forum that I follow.  As I have said often, my “target audience” is people in boating that do not have much prior background in matters of electricity.  This topic is a bit arcane, and does tend to be an advanced topic.  But at the same time, it does show up as a symptom that affects some boaters in some situations, so I offer it here for awareness.

Here is the question that started the discussion:

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“I would like to elicit opinions from the electrically minded of us regarding the following.  When running my NL 9Kw gen at anchor my Dometic/Cruisair heat pumps (240V, 16000 btu) work fine with just one of my Magnum Energy MS2812 (2800W, 125A charger) active to charge the batteries. But, when the 2nd charger is activated (now balanced loads on the gen legs), the heat pump compressors stop active function (no heating/cooling), fan drops to minimum level, but, amp load is unchanged. The above occurs whether 1 or all 3 Dometic units are running (this is not about trying to start one of the compressor motors with the gen loaded).  I have not noted this interference when the battery charging load is minimal.  The gen amp output at 100% is 37.5/240V.  Max charger demand is 17A both legs.  All 3 heat pumps together draw 13-14A. There is no problem if the water heater is run (240V/10A) with the heat pumps on and just one charger (brief test – 40A on one leg).

“It seems as though there must be some type of electrical interference that is occurring when the 2nd charger is added to the circuit affecting the heat pump compressor motor function. Any ideas as to what this might be and how it can be tested for? Emails were sent to NL and Dometic with no response. Thanks!”

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Here is my response to this question, edited for completeness, which I offer to others who may be experiencing similar intermittent, “weird” symptoms:

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What you are describing sounds like a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary (but not “extraordinary”) problem called Harmonic Distortion.  Here’s the electrical theory of HD in four sentences: A pure resistance – water heater heating element, light bulb, running motor – draws current in linear proportion to its impedance (according to Ohm’s Law).  Electronic devices do not follow Ohm’s Law;  they can and do draw current in short bursts within the AC sine wave voltage cycle.  These electronic devices are called “non-linear” loads.  Since in non-linear loads, current does not follow Ohm’s Law against voltage, the apparent internal impedance of the source can cause the waveshape of the AC voltage to distort (dip, flatten at the top and bottom), rather than be or remain a pure sine wave, clean as the driven snow.

So in your situation, the inverters are AC loads being used for battery charging, but the battery charger’s internal DC circuits are non-linear, “switch-mode” devices.  That creates non-linear current demand on the input AC waveform that is reflected back into the source.  The system doesn’t fail on shore power because the apparent impedance of the shore power source is many, many, many times less than the apparent impedance of the genset.  That doesn’t mean the phenomena isn’t there on shore power.  It just means the source is big enough to overcome the magnitude of the non-linear load component.  On shore power, the ratio of load impedance to source impedance is sort of analogous to David-on-Goliath.   But with the much smaller capacity of the genset, the aggregate effect of the switch-mode current demand can affect the shape of the genset’s output voltage sine wave.  Here, the ratio of load impedance to source impedance is definitely David-on-David.  What tends to happen with Harmonic Distortion is that the positive and negative peaks of the AC sine wave flatten, although more complex distortion is possible in extreme cases, even to the point of approaching a square wave with a flat top and very low peak voltage.

You mentioned in your post that you have a 9kW NL genset.  Nine kilowatts is somewhat under-sized for a 250V, 50A boat.  The power that can be absorbed by a 240V, 50A load is 12000 Watts, or 12 kW.  What you have is NOT “bad” from the perspective of genset loading or the perspective that you rarely need the entire capacity of the generator anyway.  But, if what you have is a symptom related to Harmonic Distortion, the smaller genset will have a higher apparent impedance than a larger genset would have.  The higher the apparent impedance of the source, the more likely it is that Harmonic Distortion would present itself as a noticeable and annoying symptom.

My conjecture that this is Harmonic Distortion is easily confirmed with an oscilloscope.  In the old days, that was the only way to see it.  But today, you can confirm it easily it if you have a means to read TRUE RMS voltage and a means to measure the TRUE PEAK voltage.  The peak of a 60Hz sine wave should be 1.414 times the RMS value.  I use an Ideal SureTest 61-164 or 61-165 circuit tester for this task.

So let’s assume you have a stable 60Hz voltage at 118V when running on the genset.  And we must also assume you have a stable 60hZ frequency, ±2 hZ, when running on the generator.  Multiply the 118 x 1.414, and the peak of the voltage waveform should be 167V.  If you then measure the actual peak, and it’s – let’s say – 156V, then you know you have Harmonic Distortion taking place, and the wave form isn’t a pure sine wave.

Now, the tolerance of the inverter/charger(s), the SMX Controller electronics and the blower drive electronics of the heat pump to AC voltage waveform shape, for which they, themselves, are responsible for distorting in the first place, may not be favorable.  That is a vicious circle.  It’s creating something that it, itself, can’t live with.  Since the genset is also feeding the Dometic SMX heat pump control unit and the blower and compressor control electronics of the heat pumps, those circuit boards can also be impacted by distortion of the voltage waveform.  Symptoms across the onboard system can be unpredictable, and can vary from attachment to attachment.  Pure resistance loads will not be affected, but electronic devices can be to varying extents.

Harmonic Distortion and Power Factor are two of the most challenging problems power utility companies have to manage.  A distorted AC voltage sine wave waveform is called “dirty power,” and it costs utilities a lot of money to manage.  Buildings with banks of computers and servers cause huge HD problems on the power grid, often affecting their neighbors and neighborhood.  Virtually all electronic devices cause Harmonic Distortion, right down to the family flat screen TV and stereo.  Power quality is a huge problem at the level of commercial power utilities serving residential neighborhoods.

And by the way, from the perspective of the 9kW NL generator itself, the higher apparent impedance and distorted wave shape will cause additional heat in the windings of the genset.  That heat is not related to useful work done by the generated power.  It amounts to excessive waste heat of which the genset’s cooling system has to dispose.  This can be worse than having unbalanced 120V loads on each side of the genset.

The fix?  You’d need a bigger capacity generator; i.e., one with lesser internal impedance.  With a lower reflected impedance, the genset would maintain the shape of the waveform for equivalent non-linear loads.  Or, your can just choose to live with it…

I have not written about Harmonic Distortion or Power Factor for my website because it’s definitely not a beginner’s/layman’s topic.  (Well, I have now, haven’t I?)  And even if you have HD, there’s little that can be practically done.  But if you want to read more about HD, click here for a fairly readable and reasonably good explanation from Pacific Gas & Electric; and click here for a better explanation of non-linear loads.  Start on page 3, at the heading called “ELECTRICAL HARMONICS.”  Skip the math; you don’t need it to understand the concepts.

Hope this helps.  And of course, this is only a guess on my part…   Cough, cough, choke, choke…

I wish I could recommend something practical that would make this better, but in the current system configuration, I think it’s a permanent restriction.

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Understanding Harmonic Distortion is complex and it’s definitely an advanced problem in an electrical distribution system.  What I’ve written above is just the very tip of the the technical iceberg.  But, although relatively rare, HD can produce observable symptoms related to the performance of boat AC electrical attachments.  It can affect the quality of sound from an entertainment system or produce what looks like interference (snow, lines) on a TV.  And, it can affect the operation of other types of equipment, like network routers, DVRs and printers.  If you have these symptoms and all else has been ruled out, consider Harmonic Distortion as a possible cause.  If you have these symptoms, it will be necessary to call in a skilled professional electrical technician to troubleshoot and confirm the diagnosis.  The tools that are necessary are expensive, and the skills to appreciate and understand the causes are advanced.  This is not a job for a residential electrician.

ABYC Electrical Standard Mapped to Sanctuary’s AC System

4/20/2020: Significant editorial updates to content.
5/27/2020: Added borders to images via HTML edits.

INTRODUCTION

All boaters at one time or another get involved in discussions about what boats “are required by standards and codes to have or to do.” This comes up every time the owner is faced with getting a boat survey. A boat survey report usually makes copious references to “ABYC Standards” and to “industry best practice.” But the vast majority of boat owners do not work in a world of industrial codes and standards and are not familiar with what they are, what they are intended to do, and how they are used throughout the marine and commercial business world (especially, the insurance risk world).

This article is in the form of a stand-up classroom presentation. Slides are presented along with text (“speaker notes”) that describes the slide’s content. This is a mix of “engineering” and “safety.” My hope is that this material will make sense in this format. What I do in this article is look at the “electrical system” of our own boat, and compare that to the requirements of the principle ABYC electrical standard, E11, “AC and DC Electrical Systems for Boats.”

Our trawler, Sanctuary, is a Monk36 Trawler fit with two 120V, 30A shore power service cords. In our case, the shore power cords are configured so that one feeds the house AC loads and the other feeds our heat pump AC loads. Many boats are configured in the same way, but other configurations are possible. Our house loads include a battery charger for our genset start battery, fridge, hot water heater, inverter/charger and several utility outlets. The heat pump loads include one 5kBTU self-contained unit and one 16kBTU self-contained unit and a raw water circulator pump.

While configurations of individual boat electrical systems may be different, the ABYC Electrical Standard E11, “AC and DC Electrical Systems on Boats,” applies equally to all electrical system configurations on all boats of all designs and hull forms. Boats that adhere to the ABYC electrical standard are highly likely to be safe and compatible with 2020 shore-side infrastructure (marinas, boatyards, community, condo, municipal and residential docks). These standards are intended to maximize the safety of the boat; safety from shock hazards, freedom from ground faults, freedom from accidental fire hazards and much worse. I strongly encourage boaters to bring their boats into compliance if that is not already done!

THE LAYOUT OF A BOAT ELECTRICAL PLATFORM

Figure 1 shows an “energy flow diagram” of the total electrical system of a typical cruising boat, comprised of three separate divisions. The central electrical system is the vessel’s DC division (shown in red). This is the division that starts the engine and powers navigation lights, pumps, windlass and miscellaneous navigation equipment. All engine-powered boats have DC systems, but AC divisions are optional. Sanctuary’s platform also has an AC division (shown in green) which allows captain and crew to enjoy the comforts of a shore-side residence. Interfacing between the DC and AC divisions is a means to charge the batteries, and optionally, also use the batteries to power all or part of the AC division.

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Note: in this topology view, solar battery charging systems would be part of the DC Division.

Note: out-of-scope for this article is the Bonding System Division of the electrical system. Those interested are referred to my article “Bonding System Design and Evaluation.”

Figure 2 shows the interfacing division with an inverter/charger instead of a battery charger. The red highlighted lines show the Inverter/charger in “Invert” mode. For the inverter to be in “Invert” mode, no other AC power source is available to the vessel; ie, no shore power, and no onboard generator running. Absent a source of AC power, the inverter draws DC power from the batteries, converts it to AC, and provides AC power to a subset of AC circuits on the boat. This operating mode would be the typical operating mode for boats at anchor, or boats underway on a travel day. While at anchor or underway, power is available for an AC coffee maker, a microwave, a crockpot, AC space lighting and entertainment systems, and an AC charging source for computers, onboard routers, smart phones and tablet computers. At least, that’s what we do aboard Sanctuary.

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In Figure 3, the red highlighted lines show the flow of AC power when the boat is connected to shore power via a dock-side pedestal. AC Power enters the boat at the SHORE POWER INLET, passes through a MAIN DISCONNECT BREAKER to, and through, the GENERATOR TRANSFER SWITCH and on to a DISTRIBUTION PANEL which supplies HOUSE LOADS. AC Shore Power passively “Passes Through” the INVERTER/CHARGER to power a subset of AC loads, and the inverter/charger device acts as a DC BATTERY CHARGER.

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Note: in this topology view, the inverter/charger is fully integrated into the boat’s electrical system, and automatically switches between “Standby/Pass Through” mode and “Invert” mode as AC power from another source comes and goes. If a boater in a neighboring slip accidentally turns off Sanctuary’s pedestal breaker(s), our inverter/charger automatically transfers to “Invert” mode to maintain AC power to it’s attached loads. This configuration is the ONLY use case that ABYC supports for inverters or inverter/chargers installed aboard boats.

Figure 4 shows the above AC Electrical System components mapped to the actual wiring diagram detail of Sanctuary’s installed AC electrical system. The remainder of this article focuses on ABYC requirements of the E11 standard related to the AC Division of the boat platform.

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Note: Sanctuary is not fit with an Isolation/Polarization transformer (shore power transformer). Shore power transformers have a number of unique ABYC requirements and considerations. Consult the E11 standard for the treatment of these devices.

Note: I occasionally hear that an isolation transformer has been recommended as a means of avoiding the need to “spend unnecessary money” in order to fix/correct conditions aboard a boat that cause dock-side ground fault sensors to trip AC shore power “off.” I strongly discourage that thinking. The conditions that cause ground fault sensors to trip are often serious, potentially dangerous electrical safety or fire hazards. Transformers do mask safety problems which can be a threat to the boat and its occupants, but they DO NOT CORRECT THE UNDERLYING ELECTRICAL FAULT-CAUSING CONDITIONS.

Figure 5 is a clear view of the wiring detail of our AC electrical system. Notice that the neutral buss for house circuits has been divided so that the circuits fed from the Inverter/charger are separated from the house circuits that are not. Further, except as necessary for explanation, AC safety ground wiring is not shown on this diagram; that is a conscious choice made in the interest of simplifying the diagram.

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THE ABYC ELECTRICAL STANDARD, E11

The ABYC electrical standard is quite extensive and complex. This presentation only covers the major highlights that apply to the AC system division. Similar requirements apply to the DC division. Get these basics right and the boat will be well on its way to being safe. This presentation does not include a discussion of the requirements of onboard 120V load circuits; it focuses on the power distribution components of the AC division, to which we normally give little specific consideration.

L5-30

By far the most common 120V, 30A shore power connectors are National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) L5-30R and L5-30P pairs. These are found on the familiar 120V, 30A commercial cordsets. I do not like them because I feel they are not nearly robust enough for the repetitive removal and replacement to which shore power cords are subjected in normal use. NEMA L5-30 connectors were designed 80 years ago for light industrial applications where outlets were sometimes ceiling mounted and machinery cords hung from ceiling receptacles. They were plugged in and given a twist, and they were rarely touched again. They are not intended to be roughly handled by boat owners and dock assistants, dropped on docks, stepped-on, rained-on, snowed-in and otherwise abused in routine service.

Which brings up an important point about all ABYC standards. The “requirements” stated in ABYC E11 are MINIMUM PERFORMANCE REQUIREMENTS. They do not require a particular piece of equipment or a particular manufacturer’s product. They simply specify minimum compliance requirements. So, NEMA L5-30P/R connectors ARE NOT “required” by the standard. What is required is a “grounding plug that locks into place” so it can’t “fall apart.” Also realize, ABYC standards apply to boat manufacturers, marine equipment manufacturers, and service technicians. Only indirectly do they apply to boat owners. The standards DO NOT contemplate that DIY electrical work will be done by owners, but they do contemplate that all work done by anyone will comply with the requirements.

0DA35F75-5CF5-4F08-B340-40F94896936A_1_201_aI have personally chosen to replace the OEM NEMA L5-30P shore power inlet receptacles with those made by SmartPlug, LLC (http://www.smartplug.com/) (no personal financial interest; just a very happy customer). I personally feel SmartPlugs are much safer and more robust than L5-30 twistlocks, and they meet all NEC (UL, cUL, eTL) and ABYC requirements. That said, the SmartPlugs EXCEED the minimum performance requirements of the E11 standard.

The following slide shows requirements for the shore power CORDS and the shore power INLETS of the boat. The E11 standard refers to the “Type” of the wire. The cord’s “Type” descriptor is part of the information printed on (or molded into) the cord’s insulation, and should be easily readable on all marine-complaint cordsets. Don’t worry about the “Type” descriptor on Shore Power cables unless for some reason (I discourage this) doing a DIY shore power cord fabrication project. Simply buy products made by marine manufacturers and certified for marine use. The cordset manufacturers will have covered all that’s necessary for ABYC standards compliance.

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The following slide illustrates a very important concept for shore power systems which all boaters should know; most especially, those who do DIY electrical projects!  At the head of the dock, in the facility’s electrical service infrastructure, the safety ground conductor is bonded (connected) to the neutral conductor. This is an NEC code requirement for all sources of AC power throughout North America, and results in a system referred to as a “Grounded Neutral System.” In a “Grounded Neutral System,” the neutral is intended to carry all of the current returning from the boat to the shore-side source. By design, the ground conductor IS NOT intended to carry current except to trip a circuit breaker in a fault situation. Thus, the neutral-to-ground bond is located in the facility’s infrastructure for both 120V and 240V systems.

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The following slide emphasizes the boat-side of the shore power connection. The E11 standard requires that there be no neutral-to-ground bond(s) on the boat. At this point, for clarity, that firm statement can be modified to read, “there must be no neutral-to-ground bond(s) on the boat when operating on shore power.” The reason for this distinction now will become clear later, but for shore power, if there is a neutral-to-ground bond on the boat, that wrongly-placed bond creates a connection between the neutral conductor and the ground conductor that electrically parallels the two conductors all the way back to the dock-side infrastructure’s correct ground bond. Since the ground conductor on the boat is in direct contact with the sea water in which the boat is floating, this also parallels-in a ground path through the sea water. When all of these paths are in parallel, current that should flow only on the neutral will divide and flow in equal amounts on both conductors, and in some amount, through the water itself. By definition, this is a “ground fault,” and it will trip power “off” if there are ground fault sensors on the dock-side pedestal, but it can also kill people, pets and wildlife in the water. Incorrect neutral-to-ground bonds on boats are a primary cause for AC power leaking into the water, and can lead to incidents of ELECTRIC SHOCK DROWNING. For further information, readers are referred to my article on “Electric Shock Drowning.”

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The following slide shows correct and incorrect wiring examples. In my article entitled “AC Electricity Fundamentals – Part 1,” I explain that a boat connected to a pedestal is intended to be wired like a sub-panel in a residential installation. Many residential electricians and DIY boat owners do not understand that technical detail, and so often connect neutrals and grounds together as they would in the main panel of a residence. On boats, as explained above, this is WRONG and DANGEROUS. Those who DIY must understand this natty technical detail.

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The following slide shows the next major component in the flow of AC power into the boat: the Shore Power MAIN DISCONNECT BREAKER. This device is mainly for overload (and since 2012, ground fault) protection. Note that for 120V, 30A circuits, both the hot conductor and the neutral conductor must be switched, so this disconnect must be a 30A, “double-pole” circuit breaker with either a single operator handle or operator handles that are mechanically interconnected so if one side trips, the other side is also opened.

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Boats built before 2012 will not have OEM ELCI (Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter) circuit breakers installed. That is OK. Although required since 2012 on new construction boats, ABYC states that boats that complied with the version of E11 that was in effect at the time the boat was built by the OEM manufacturer are “grandfathered” for compliance. Note that MANY MARINE SURVEYORS do not choose to adhere to/acknowledge the ABYC “grandfathering” policy. That can result in an inappropriate non-compliance finding in a boat survey.

The following slide shows the MAIN DISCONNECT SWITCH on a boat fit with 240V, 50A service.  The significant difference is that here, only the two hot conductors (L1 and L2) are switched. The neutral is not switched. Thus, a double-pole breaker rated at 50A is appropriate here. As before, this breaker must have either a single operator handle or operator handles that are mechanically interconnected so if one side trips, the other also opens.

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Note that the neutral-to-ground bond is only correctly located in the shore power infrastructure, which is one of the National Electric Code (NEC) “rules” for residential and light commercial 120V/208V/240V electric services.

The following slide illustrates another very important wiring detail. Recall, Sanctuary is served by two 120V, 30A circuits. Earlier, we saw that neutrals and grounds MUST NOT be connected together aboard the boat. This is a similar case, and for the same reason. Here, it’s essential that the neutrals from Shore Power Circuit 1 and the neutrals from Shore Power Circuit 2 be SEPARATED aboard the boat. The reason is, both of the neutrals run back into the marina pedestal, or may run all the way back to the marina main service panel. If they are connected together on the boat, they become electrically paralleled all the way back to wherever they are ultimately joined together (pedestal junction, panel neutral buss, etc). All current returning from the boat will divide and flow equally on both neutrals. By definition, that is a “ground fault” at the pedestal circuit breakers, which will trip both breakers and interrupt power to the boat. But even more importantly, if one of the shore power cord neutral conductors were to fail open (due to, for example, a burned blade on a NEMA L5-30P twistlock plug), the other neutral circuit would become overloaded and could easily become a fire hazard aboard the boat. Preventing that fire hazard is why understanding and complying to these standards is important.

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The following slide shows the “right” and “wrong” views described above.  Again, MANY, MANY  RESIDENTIAL ELECTRICIANS DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS REQUIREMENT BECAUSE BOATS ARE NOT HANDLED IN THE SAME WAY AS THE MOST COMMON RESIDENTIAL INSTALLATIONS.

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And by the way, the “wrong way” is a common way to find neutral wiring done on older boats.

Check your boat.

The following slide highlights the need for Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter (ELCI) devices for protecting against ground faults on the boat.

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Those interested can read more about ELCI circuit breakers in my article entitled “ELCI Primer.”

The ELCI requirement was added to ABYC E11 in 2012 for new boats. ELCI devices are intended to both protect from overloads and detect ground faults. Ground faults on boats can result in dangerous levels of AC power being dumped into the water, which is a hazard that can lead to Electric Shock Drowning (ESD), as discussed previously.

An ELCI device on the boat is the same thing as a “ground fault sensor” on the dock-side pedestal (ground fault sensors on docks have many acronyms, including “EPD,” “GFD,” “GPD,” and “RCD;” don’t worry about what they’re called. By any name, they do the same thing.) ELCI devices also do the same thing as pedestal sensors, but the ELCI is physically installed aboard the boat. The value of having an ELCI on the boat is twofold. First, the simple act of installing an ELCI will flush out any silent, hidden wiring problems that currently exist on the boat. Second, ELCI will trip instantly upon the spontaneous emergence of a ground fault issue on the boat at some later date, so the boat owner will become aware of it, and be able to initiate repairs, as soon as it surfaces as a safety issue.

The following slide introduces the concept of a GALVANIC ISOLATOR. Galvanic Isolators are very important to controlling corrosion of underwater metals on any boat.

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Galvanic Isolators are installed IN SERIES WITH the safety ground conductor AT THE POINT WHERE THE GROUND CONDUCTOR ENTERS/EXITS THE BOAT. Nothing – NOTHING – should be connected to the side of the isolator that leads to the shore power inlet connection except the actual safety ground conductor, itself.

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The E11 standard considers Galvanic Isolators to be “optional” equipment, but if they are installed, the standard provides installation requirements.

If a Galvanic Isolator is NOT installed, the rest of the GROUNDING CONNECTIONS are still mandatory.

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Earlier, above, the ABYC requirement that “there must be no neutral-to-ground bond on the boat when connected to shore power;” was mentioned with the proviso that it would “become clear later.” Now is the time to clarify as we look at the topic of POWER-SOURCE SWITCHING. The following slide shows the three possible sources of AC power on Sanctuary: 1) shore power, 2) genset, and 3) Inverter. The North American design standard for ALL AC power sources is, ALL power source neutrals are grounded at the source. Since shore power sources are grounded on land in the facility infrastructure and NOT aboard the boat, and since both the generator and the inverter are located aboard the boat, then how is it possible for them to be “grounded at the source” if neutral-to-ground connections are not allowed on the boat? Well, compliance is accomplished through appropriate source transfer switching.

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Note the construction of the GENERATOR TRANSFER SWITCH shown on this slide.  That Generator Transfer Switch on Sanctuary is a three position rotary switch: “Shore,” “Off,” “Generator.” When the switch is in the “Shore” position, the generator’s neutral-to-ground bond is switched out of the circuit, thus meeting the shore power separation requirement. When the switch is in the “Generator” position, the shore power circuit is switched out of the boat’s electrical platform, thus permitting the onboard neutral-to-ground bond at the generator. The same type of logical switching is accomplished for the inverter by a relay located within the inverter.

Note: ABYC A31 requires that Inverters installed on boats be certified to UL458 (Power Converters/Inverters and Power Converter/Inverter Systems for Land Vehicles and Marine Crafts) to ensure this grounding management relay is present. ABYC E11 includes ABYC A31, amongst other boat electrical standards. BOAT OWNERS SHOULD ENSURE THAT ANY INVERTER INSTALLED ON A BOAT IS COMPLIANT WITH UL458. Especially, be aware that inverters from Harbor Freight and other discount sources will not be compliant to UL458 and are not suitable for use on mobile platforms like boats and RVs.

Following is a close-up of Sanctuary’s Generator Transfer Switch. This is a three-position rotary switch. There are other switching styles that use lockout slide mechanisms to accomplish the same thing. Here, the breaking of the neutral conductors is highlighted by the red ellipses.

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The following slide is just a reminder of what we looked at earlier WITH RESPECT TO SHORE POWER SOURCES. For Shore Power, the neutral-to-ground bond is in the shore power infrastructure and NEVER on the boat.

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And this slide shows the generator neutral-to-ground bond that is switched into the boat’s onboard AC system when the genset is running…

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And this slide shows requirements specific to inverters…

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The following slide moves to another very important safety issue. Rarely, it is possible to encounter a 120V dock power pedestal source in which the black (hot) and white (neutral) wires (or red and white) are physically reversed inside the pedestal or other location in the dock-side infrastructure. No, it should not happen. Yes, it should be found by the installing electrician before the circuit is put in service. But folks, it does happen (rarely, thankfully). I have seen it three times in 16 years of cruising.

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What’s particularly bad about a “reverse polarity” situation is that it can be present and also be entirely symptomless on the boat. Electrical equipment aboard the boat will work normally. But, touch potential shock hazards are likely. Because this condition is largely symptomless, it’s important to detect it and warn the boat operator of the potential life-safety issue. The “RP” warning lights (and/or audible alarms) are connected between the Safety Ground (green) and the Neutral (white) conductors on the boat. There should never normally be more than a volt or two between those conductors. Anyone who sees a ”Reverse Polarity” warning light(s) illuminated on their boat should immediately DISCONNECT (physically unplug) the shore power cord from the pedestal and report the condition to facility management. This can be a potentially lethal condition in the right (wrong!) circumstances.

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This slide shows “Reverse Polarity” warning lights wired between the safety ground and neutral conductors aboard Sanctuary.

Actually, Sanctuary has some duplication here. Our Generator Transfer Switch has Reverse Polarity indicators, as do both shore power distribution panels.
ABYC specifies the minimum impedance of RP detection devices must be ≥ 25kΩ. Since these devices are connected between the neutral and the safety ground, they are a possible path for small “ground fault” currents, and properly installed sensors on some boats can cause false trips of a dock-side or ELCI ground fault sensing device. This would be caused by either multiple sensors in combination or older incandescent sensors having too low an impedance, thus allowing too high a “ground fault leakage current.”
SUMMARY

The most current revision of the ABYC E11 Standard (July, 2018) as of this writing (April, 2020) is 67 pages of “shall” and “shall not” requirements, technical tables and example electrical drawings. Far more than I have covered here. Furthermore, there are several other ABYC Standards that apply to electrical subjects, such as A27, “Alternating Current Generators,” A28, “Galvanic Isolators,” A31, “Battery Chargers and Inverters,” E2, “Cathodic Protection” and E10, “Storage Batteries.”

These standards – and all ABYC Standards – make us all safer. They save property damage losses and they save lives. A marina fire is one of the most terrifying things any boater can ever experience, and there have been several this year alone (winter, 2019-20). When we aboard Sanctuary arrive at a marina, we must assume all of the boats that will be our new dock neighbors are safe. All of those boaters must also assume that we are safe. These standards are the reason we can all have some confidence in those forced assumptions. If there are condition(s) aboard your boat that you know need to come into compliance, please do so. The family you save may be your own!

For the record, I’m not much of a fan of covered slips, either. Those roofs help with UV damage and weather, but in a fire, heat arising from the fire’s origin is contained by the cover and spreads linearly along the dock until the cover finally burns through. This greatly foreshortens escape time; and, not a good thing for survivability of boats that were otherwise uninvolved in the first place. Always think fire safety and escape routes…

Nomad Portable AIS Transponder

In the Spring of 2019, I had the most fortuitous experience of being gifted a portable AIS transponder.  The unit is a Nomad,™ manufactured by Digital Yachts, Ltd.® in the UK.  This small, portable unit is a Class “B” transponder.  The manufacturer states the target market for the Nomad is “charter and delivery captains, pilots, tenders and back up for main systems.”

The Nomad comes with a short, non-removable power cord terminated in a USB connector, and a removable rubber-ducky VHF antenna on a 20′ length of coax terminated with a BNC connector.  The unit has a wi-fi interface, and a removable wi-fi antenna is included in the box.  The unit is designed to be portable, hence power is provided via a USB A/B-style connector.  Necessary product support software is downloadable from the Digital Yacht website.  Users will need this software to get the most from the unit.

The Nomad has an internal wi-fi access point supporting connection of up to 7 wi-fi client devices.  The wi-fi Access Point gateway IP address is not configurable, and the device cannot, itself, be used as a client on a local LAN.  The wi-fi interface supports access to two different types of data: internal performance data and AIS target data.  The AIS target data consists of NMEA0183 AIS sentences (!Axxx) destined to running on smart devices.  Any app on any operating system platform that can interpret NMEA0183 sentences can display the data (Aqua Maps®, Navionics®, SEAiq®, Coastal Explorer®, OpenCPN®, MacENC®, etc).

An application software package called “ProAIS2“ is available for Windows and Mac operating environments.  Via ProAIS2, the user performs initial configuration of the vessel name and MMSI number associated with the vessel, and re-programs the vessel identity information when the unit is relocated to a different boat.  Not counting download and installation time, initial programming of the Nomad is very straight-forward and takes less than 10 minutes.

An Android-only utility app called “AISConfig,” downloadable from the Google Play Store, allows the user to connect an Android® device to the Nomad via the wi-fi Access Point.  This utility displays key internal operating parameters. including internal operating voltage, VHF antenna Standing Wave Ratio (SWR), transmit and receive message counts, and status of the internal GPS receiver.  The app is useful in optimizing the location of the rubber-ducky VHF antenna on the host boat.

For convenience, click here for the Digital Yacht America download site.

(Note: in preparing this review, I found “AISConfig” in the Google Play Store with an update date of October, 2019.  The description suggests the app may now include the capabilities of ProAIS2, but that was not my experience in May, 2019.)

During the 2019 cruising season, Sanctuary and crew cruised round-trip from Charlotte Harbor, SW Florida, to Fairport, NY, on the Western Erie Canal.  That round trip gave me 3500 statute miles of experience observing Nomad performance on the Okeechobee Waterway, the A-ICW through the Port of Charleston, the Elizabeth River and the Port of Norfolk, the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, the Port of New York, the Hudson River and the Erie Canal.  Northbound, we were accompanied by my brother, who has an Android tablet on which we installed the DY “AISConfig” utility app.  Southbound, I did not have an Android device, so monitoring the internal operation of the transponder was not possible.   South-bound, we cruised with a companion boat from Baltimore, MD, through Myrtle Beach, SC.  Our companion’s boat was fit with a permanently-mounted competitor’s AIS transponder.   On this 3500 StM cruise, I feel we utilized our Nomad in much the way a charter or delivery captain might use it.

In my use, the Nomad portable AIS transponder performed quite well.  Although I did encounter certain limitations, the Nomad was completely adequate for providing Sanctuary’s visibility and separation safety in busy commercial marine traffic areas.  Southbound, I followed both Sanctuary and our companion’s boat on the iOS version of the MarineTraffic® app.  The Nomad VHF radio performed almost as well as the permanently-mounted unit on our companion’s boat.  The slight performance differences seem to be due to antenna gain and placement associated with our companion’s permanently-mounted AIS installation vs. the VHF rubber-ducky antenna we were using.

Figure 1, above, is a screenshot of the MarineTraffic app as Sanctuary transited Northbound from Isle of Hope, SC, in the lower left, across the Savannah River, through Calibogue Sound past Hilton Head Island, across Port Royal Sound and into Beaufort, SC, at the upper right.  I had limited previous experience with the MarineTraffic app.  From an understanding of the technology and modest prior experience, I knew the app isn’t reliable on “rural” waterways like the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and portions of U. S. Inland Rivers.  I was quite surprised at the number of coverage voids along the A-ICW.

Looking at the MarineTraffic screenshot, there are many obvious voids in our track.  Large bulk cargo ships and CNG tankers regularly use the Savannah River.  I expected better coverage from AIS land stations around this area, and in the vicinity of Parris Island, SC.

Figure 2, following, is a MarineTraffic screenshot as Sanctuary transited into and through the C&D Canal and down Delaware Bay.  In this screenshot, land station coverage in the region seems significantly better than in Figure 1, although there are still some void coverage areas.  Note that this screenshot shows the detail of our overnight stop in Delaware City.

Figure 3, following, shows two side-by-side screenshots in the area of the Neuse River and Adams Creek on the A-ICW in North Carolina.  The left hand view shows Sanctuary’s track as reported by our Nomad.  The right hand view shows the track reported via the permanently-mounted unit on our companion’s boat.  The permanently-mounted VHF antenna did somewhat better hitting land stations than we did with our rubber-ducky.  That said, it’s clear that the Nomad with the rubber-ducky antenna is perfectly adequate for purposes of safe on-water vessel separation.

Figure 4, following, shows two side-by-side screenshots of tracks transiting the A-ICW Southbound from Morehead City, NC, through Bogue Sound and Camp Lejeune, to an area south of New River Inlet.  The left hand view show’s Sanctuary’s track as reported by our Nomad.  The right hand view shows the track reported by the permanently-mounted AIS on our companion’s boat.  Our two AIS tracks appear on MarineTraffic as nearly identical.

Years before we installed our Nomad, Sanctuary had been fit with an Icom® MXA-5000™ AIS receiver.  The receiver is integrated into an NMEA0183 network aboard the boat.  Aboard Sanctuary, I have a multiplexer installed that allows my iGadget apps to see all NMEA0183 and N2K data aboard.  This includes AIS data from in-range AIS targets, HDG, COG, SOG, BTW, DTW, XTE, DPT, DBT and much more.  Since I had this solution installed and working long prior to installing the Nomad, I did not use the Nomad’s limited built-in wi-fi data feed to display AIS targets on my iPad™.  Instead, my Nomad appears to apps on our iPad to be just another nearby AIS target.

This arrangement actually worked for me as an alternative to having the AISConfig utility to monitor our Nomad.  We have been using our iPad as our primary navigation tool for several years.  First with SEAiq, and in the recent two years using Aqua Maps® U.S. & Canada™ with the Aqua Map “Master” extensions.  When my Nomad transmits a location datapoint, Aqua Maps running on my iPad shows me as a target 7 feet away.  As I continue to move, prior to the next position transmission, I see separation distance increase.  At the next Nomad position transmission, the target distance closes again.  More importantly, I know when Sanctuary’s name disappears from the display that the Nomad had stopped transmitting.  At that point, I can verify the LEDs, confirm an issue, and take corrective action.

The Nomad is a functional, cost-effective and easily transported tool appropriate to any charter or delivery captain’s portable toolkit, and certainly is an alternative for permanent installations.  However, all Class “B” AIS units share significant AIS Data Architecture protocol limitations, so If purchasing a new transponder for permanent installation aboard a pleasure craft, I recommend either a Class “A” or a Class “B+” transponder, depending on the buyer’s cost tolerance.  Class “A” is best, and Class “B+” is significantly better than Class “B.”

The Nomad product and the Nomad unit both had some usability limitations.  These were manageable inconveniences.

  1. A GPS receiver is built-into the Nomad.  The GPS antenna is located inside the unit, and the manufacturer’s instructions are to have that end facing the sky.  On large sounds and bays and other open waters – areas with a clear view of the sky – the unit functioned well when located tucked away inside our flybridge’s fiberglass console cabinet.  However on narrow waterways like the Hobucken Cut in NC (A-ICW MM155-MM158), the Rock Pile in SC (A-ICW MM353 – MM356), the Waccamaw River (A-ICW MM 367–385) and along much of the Erie Canal, the crown of the adjacent forest could and did block the weak GPS satellite radio signals.  This resulted in GPS dropout even when the Nomad was located out in the open atop our flybridge instrument console.  When GPS dropout does occur, there are no position transmissions.
  2. From the perspective of this iPad owner, a monitoring utility for the Nomad that runs on an Apple® iOS platform is missed.  I had start-up problems with my unit which required that we work with Digital Yacht Tech Support.  The problems I encountered were intermittent, and took several hours of runtime to expose themselves.  I do not have the space on my flybridge to mount and use a PC in a manner that provides physical security for my PC.  My Tech Support experience was excellent and responsive.  However without the coincidental availability of my brother’s Android tablet and the DY AISConfig app, it would have been more difficult to obtain the necessary diagnostic data.  The ProAIS2 configuration utility can collect the data, but in my use case, was not a practical alternative.  I am certainly not the only cruising boater who has only Apple® products, so I see this as a support gap which I hope Digital Yacht will address.
  3. The electronics of the Nomad’s internal VHF radio monitors the SWR of the VHF rubber-ducky.  When the SWR gets “too high,” the VHF radio quits transmitting.  Performance here was unpredictable and erratic.  Northbound, I could monitor SWR status via the Android AISConfig utility on my brother’s Android tablet.  Sanctuary’s flybridge is fit with a full enclosure supported by a Stainless Steel frame.  That frame seems to interact with the Nomad VHF antenna.  At times, a given antenna location on the flybridge showed a 1.2 SWR, which is quite good.  Other times, the same location showed a 2.0 SWR, which is quite bad.  Sometimes the unit would work fine with an SWR of 1.8, and sometimes it would not transmit with an SWR of 1.4.  By changing the location of the antenna, I could “get it to work,” but it took more attention to the device than I thought was appropriate, particularly on narrower sections of waterway.
  4. There are four colored LEDs on the Nomad related to AIS operation, and two LEDs related to wi-fi network operation.  The four AIS status LEDs are on one end of the unit and the two wi-fi network activity LEDs are on the other end.  Three of the operational status LEDs indicate fault conditions, and one – “Power” – indicates the unit is happy (and presumably transponding.)  The LEDs are in a place that can be hard to see.
  5. The internal power supply in the Nomad contains a buck-boost regulator that converts the 5v USB input voltage to >19v inside the Nomad, so that it has enough power to make its transmissions.   Some PC computer USB ports can provide sufficient power (Amps) to the Nomad, but some cannot.  The manufacturer recommends using a USB3 source rated at 2.4A.  Using my Macbook Pro with current-generation USB-C connectors to power the Nomad was not an option for us.  I tried multiple options to power my Nomad, including a 12v cigarette lighter adapter, with varying degrees of “success.”  The one that worked best for me was a 120V-to-USB “power brick” that comes with the newest version of the Apple iPad Pro (18 Watt).  That brick was able to provide sufficient power (Amps) at 5V for the Nomad unit to operate reliably.  I also verified that an Anker® 20100mAhr external LiON battery could reliably power the Nomad, but battery life limitations made that unsatisfactory as an all-day solution.  I found that if input power was marginal or inadequate, the unit experienced random GPS position errors and/or failed to transmit.  Charter and delivery captains need to plan carefully to provide an adequate 5V power source.

Finally, there are some legal considerations for Nomad users in the United States.  FCC regulation in the U.S. prohibits end users from editing the vessel identity information in DSC radios and AIS transponders.  U.S. Federal Agency (FCC) regulations have the force of law, so it’s “illegal” for U.S. users to program the vessel identity data in an AIS transponder.  Most of us never have a need to do that, but obviously charter and delivery captains were not taken into consideration when the regulations were developed.  Note: If the Nomad is not programmed with vessel identity information, it operates as an AIS receiver-only, not a transponder.

There is a disclaimer in the Digital Yacht ProAIS2 transponder configuration software reminding U.S. users of the FCC prohibition.  Users must “accept” the disclaimer to proceed.  A charter or delivery captain with a need to periodically re-program the unit will also need a “special code” from Digital Yacht to reset the unit once it is initially programmed.  The good news is, Digital Yacht does make the reset code available upon request.  The user accepts responsibility for their use in accordance with the laws of their nation.  My personal attitude is, as long as vessel identity data that legally corresponds with the host vessel is programmed into the unit, users are “in compliance” with the spirit and intent of the regulatory requirements.  That doesn’t make it “legal” to program the unit, but for some captains in some cases, it may make it risk-worthy for the potential safety advantage that AIS provides.

Figure 5, right, is a screenshot of the ProAIS2 utility running on Windows 10.  It shows the operational status of our Nomad  after being correctly configured with Vessel Name and MMSI Number.  The three red Xs indicate problems with the GPS receiver, the AIS transponder and the VHF antenna.  Note, this screenshot also shows the internal chipset voltage is low, at only 14.8v.  After correcting the low voltage, the red Xs were cleared.

 

Figure 6, left, shows a screenshot of the “AISConfig,” Android-only, utility app showing realtime Nomad internal performance and status data on an Android Tablet.  There is no way to obtain this data on an Apple iOS platform at this time.  The data can be extracted using the ProAIS2 utility on a Mac OSX or MS-Windows operating system platform.

The four status indicators shown on the app correspond to the physical operational LEDs on the Nomad device.  As above, when the unit is transponding normally, the “Power” LED is the only LED illuminated.  Observe also in this screenshot, the SWR being reported by the AISConfig utility is quite high at 2.0:1, yet the device appeared to be working normally at that time.  I cannot explain how this is engineered to work, but as reported above, the realtime behavior I experienced over 3500 StM was erratic in regard to SWR.

 

A personal disclaimer: I am generally not a fan of AIS transponder use on pleasure boats.  A great many pleasure boat “captains” do not understand the tool or the limitations of the underlying technology.  Many abuse the tool by leaving it “on” all the time.  I believe the tool creates a false sense of safety and security in/for many users.  That is especially true for Class “B” AIS transponders.  It remains my opinion that there are only 5 situations where AIS Transponders are appropriate for continuous use on pleasure boats (at least in the U.S., where AIS carriage on recreational vessels is NOT mandatory):

  1. any operations on the great inland rivers of the U.S.
  2. operations in conditions of reduced visibility (<1 NM in fog, t’storms, snow)
  3. offshore passage operations
  4. night operations
  5. vessel-not-under-command situations

Aboard a slow-moving trawler/cruiser/sailboat on the open sounds and bays of the US East Coast, other than the above five cruising situations, there is just no compelling safety need for an AIS transponder.  As required by USCG Navigation Rules, pilots at the helm of recreational craft should just keep a proper helm watch by looking out the windows.  In most of the U.S. Southeast, and in many densely populated pleasure boating areas everywhere, AIS “clutter” caused by owners leaving their units “on” and transmitting while the boat itself is safely secured at the dock completely obscures the chart plotter screens of those boats that are in transit in the area.  I recently heard it described as “looking like an active beehive.”  This makes it impossible to rely on a distance proximity alarm, and creates a huge distraction for a pilot at the helm of a transiting boat.  It’s often impossible to differentiate moving vessels from stationary vessels that should have AIS “off” anyway.

For those who choose to have AIS on their boats, I implore:  please, do not abuse AIS; turn it “off” when operating in clear conditions of visibility.  Turn it off when secured in a slip or on a mooring.

For navigation safety, keep a constant and competent visual watch.  In combination with the fact that the vast majority of recreational boats do not carry AIS at all, especially in congested areas, do not let the “glass helm” distract from what’s happening on the water around you.

Additional information on the technology of AIS can be found in an article on this website.

Electrical Behavior of a 208V/240V Boat

This article discusses the electrical behavior of the two 120V AC circuits on a boat that is natively wired for 125V/250V, 50A shore power service.  Topics include current flow (Amps) in the different appliance loads, power limitations when connected through a “Smart Splitter,” and the constraints and limitations encountered with the use of certain shore power transformers when powered from 208V dock utility voltages.

Use Case 1: a boat wired with a 125V/250V, 50A shore power cord, but not fit with 240V appliance loads.

Figure 1 is a generic wiring diagram illustrating this use case.  The system includes a genset and a Galvanic Isolator.  In Figure 1, the dock power source is on the far left and the boat’s appliance loads are on the far right.  Dockside 50A circuit breakers are omitted for simplicity.  The 50A shore power cord is highlighted in the red oval.  One 120V load (the heat pump) is highlighted in red.  Other 120V loads (house loads) are shown in black.  This boat DOES NOT have 240V loads.  This use case is a very common “50A” boat configuration.

Use Case 2: a boat wired with a 125V/250V, 50A shore power cord adapted to two 120V, 30A pedestal outlets to obtain limited 208V/240V power.

Figure 2 is a generic wiring diagram illustrating this use case.  Most commonly, a “Smart Wye” splitter adapter is used (ref: Appendix 1).  A “Smart Wye” splitter has two 30A twistlock plugs (NEMA L5-30P) and one 50A receptacle (NEMA SS2).  The two 30A receptacles (NEMA L5-30R) are on the dock pedestal.  The splitter and the 3-pole, 4-wire, 50A power cord are shown in the red ovals.  The rest of this system is identical to Figure 1.

Figure 3 applies to both Use Case 1 and Use Case 2 configurations.  Figure 3 shows logical blocks instead of actual circuit detail in order to make it easier to visualize the electrical behavior in this AC system.  In Figure 3, incoming power is shown as being derived from “any suitable 240V source.”  Electrically, we really don’t care how we get shore power as long as it’s “3-pole, 4-wire” of the right voltages.  In Figures 1 and 2, the loads were shown as they are wired, but Figure 3 shows them as they are logically arranged in the overall electrical circuit.  As the drawing shows, the red-highlighted 125V, L2 heat pump load is connected in series with the black-highlighted 125V, L1 appliance loads.  These two load groups share a common “Neutral” conductor.  The Neutral conductor anchors and maintains the midpoint voltage of the series connection under varying demand conditions.

Visualizing this electrical configuration in the mind’s eye as two 120V loads connected in series across a 240V source is the first key concept in this article.

Having identified the electrical arrangement if the two 120V appliance load groups of this 240V system, further analysis is on a) the voltages present, b) current flows, and c) power available to do work.

Figure 4 shows the two series load components of this boat’s 240V boat system, each with 120V across them.  The L2 load group is comprised of the boat’s heat pump(s) and raw water circulator.  The L1 load group is comprised of the hot water heater, fridge, battery charger(s) and multiple utility outlets.  Measuring across the L2 load between points A and B, there are 120V.  Measuring across the L1 load between points B and C, there are 120V.  The series pair receive the 240V mains supply voltage measured between points A and C.

Next, consider the electrical currents (measured in Amps) flowing through the two series load groups in a variety of specific but different load circumstances.  Understand that in the following analyses, different specific devices are “on” and others are “off” at any specific point in time.  Assume the following scenario: the boat’s owners have been away from their boat for a mid-summer week.  Upon late day arrival at the boat, outside air temperatures are in the mid-to-high 80s with 85% relative humidity.  Our boat owners will turn on some space lighting, and will immediately turn on the heat pump for air conditioning.  They will turn on the hot water heater and battery charger, stow fresh veggies, ice cream and adult beverages into the fridge, and perhaps turn on the DVR/TV.

Electrically, assume the heat pump draws 20A.  Also assume that house loads (hot water heater, battery charger, fridge, space lighting, computers and DVR/TV) add up to drawing 20A.

In Figure 5, the heavy red line represents this 20A flow of current (Amps).  This example is a special case called a “balanced-load” condition; that is, both of the 120V loads just happen to draw the same amount of current (20A).  The Amps flow from the dock pedestal into the loads on one of the energized line legs (L1), and flow back to the pedestal on the other energized line leg (L2).  In this balanced-load condition, no current flows in the neutral conductor (N).

Very importantly, notice that no more than 20A is flowing anywhere in this system. A double-pole 30A circuit breaker that serves the boat via a Smart Splitter at the dock pedestal sees 20A on both legs, L1 and L2.  Since there is no place in the system carrying more than 20A, the 30A pedestal circuit breaker is perfectly happy.  The second extremely key concept to take from this article is that the 20A flowing to power the heat pump circuit is the same 20A that flows through the House circuits to power the water heater, battery charger, fridge and utility outlets.

The word “power” is highlighted above to make the point that the same 20A flowing in the two 120V loads does useful work in both 120V load groups.  The basic formula for “Power” is P = Volts x Amps.  So in the heat pump load group, we have 120V * 20A = 2400 Watts.  In the house appliance load group, we also have 120V * 20A = 2400 Watts of power doing useful work.  In total, we have 4800 Watts of work being done at this time, in this system.

Up to 30A is available from a 30A shore power pedestal without exceeding the capacity of the circuit breakers.  The maximum power possible for each load is 120 * 30 = 3600 Watts.  Because the two load groups are in series, the maximum work that can be done by 30A, in total, is 7200 Watts.  If the boat had access to its design maximum of 125V/240V, 50A shore power, there would be the potential for 240 * 50 = 12000 Watts, total.  It quickly becomes clear why careful load management is necessary when running with two 30A cords feeding a 50A boat through a 30A Smart Splitter.

Following from our earlier scenario, after an hour or so, the hot water heater has done its water heating work, the fridge has done its cooling/freezing work, and the batteries are fully charged.  But, the heat pumps are still running to cool the boat.  Now, although we have 20A flowing in the heat pump load, current on the house side has dropped to 4A for the DVR/TV and space lighting.  Figure 6 shows what happens electrically.

The heavy red line represents the 20A needed by the heat pump.  But this time, there are only 4A needed by the house, represented by the thin red line continuing through the House circuit.  There is no longer a balanced-load.  The arithmetic difference between the heat pump demand and the house demand is 16A.  That 16A returns to the pedestal in the system’s neutral (N) conductor.  In this example, as before, there are 120 * 20 = 2400 Watts of work being done in the heat pump load group, and 120 * 4 = 480 Watts of work being done in the House load group.  There are never more than 20A flowing in any part of this system.  Neither the shore power pedestal breakers nor the Neutral conductor are overloaded.  All is safe and well within specifications.

At the end of the evening, when our sample boaters retire to bed, assume they turn off all of the house loads.  The hot water heater is satisfied, the battery charger is satisfied, the fridge is satisfied, the TV is “off,” the laptop and iGadget batteries are charged (and the screens have gone “dark”), and the space lighting is “off.”  Now, there is no current at all flowing in the House loads.  Ah, yes, but the air conditioning is still needed.

Figure 7 represents the electrical status in this case.  Since the heat pumps are still running, there are 20A flowing in the heat pump circuit.  Since there is nothing “on” in the House load group, the arithmetic difference is 20 amps, which returns on the neutral (N) conductor.  Again, no part of the circuit carries more than a total of 20A.

 

 

 

 

Use Case 3: a boat wired with a 125V/250V, 50A shore power cord, but fit with 240V appliance loads aboard.

Figure 8 shows the addition of pure 240V loads at the far right of the drawing.  Boats with 125V/250V, 50A shore power service which have both 120V and 240V appliance loads (hot water heater, cooktop, electric dryer, heat pump compressor) are electrically very similar to those without 240V appliances.  Very few “240V appliances” are “pure” 240V devices.  The only ones that come to mind are 2-pole, 240V deep well pumps and 2-pole, 240V hot water heaters.  Appliances like heat pumps, cook tops, ovens, clothes dryers and watermakers, are usually “hybrid devices;” ie, they need both 120V and 240V to operate.  The control circuits in hybrid appliances are generally 120V circuits.  In a dryer, for example, the heating elements are 240V but the motor that turns the drum and the clock timer circuit both require 120V.  Hot water heaters can be pure 240V-only loads which do not need or have a neutral conductor.

In Figure 8, the pure 240V appliance loads are electrically in parallel with the two 120V series loads, and the 240V loads add to the amps drawn in the 120V supply mains, L1 and L2.  So, if we had the 20A L2 load running a 120V heat pump, as has been the example throughout this article, and in addition, a 240V hot water heater simultaneously calling for 12A, the result would be a 32A total Amps in L2.  Attached to a 50A pedestal, all would be OK, but attached to a 30A splitter, the result would be a tripped 30A pedestal circuit breaker.  So again for emphasis, it is up to the boat owner/operator to understand load management and ensure that pedestal breaker capacity is not exceeded.

Potential Power Issues with Certain Shore Power Transformers

The utility power on docks can originate from two kinds of public utility sources.  “Single phase” sources will appear as conventional 120V/240V.  “Three phase” sources will appear as 120V/208V.  Because this electrical fact is a well-understood, and very common in boating, UL Marine certified electrical appliances are designed to accommodate the difference between 240V and 208V.  Residential appliances MAY NOT have have that same flexibility.

Shore Power transformers are available for both 125V-only and 125V/250V applications. Shore Power transformers for  125V/250V, 50A applications   are manufactured in three “flavors:”

  1. Basic, single input, single output, 240V transformer; least expensive flavor.
  2. Multiple, selectable input-voltage taps; manual switching allows the user to select back-and-forth between 208V input and 240V input to achieve a constant 240V output.
  3. High-end transformers; sense the input voltage to automatically maintain the desired 240V output voltage.   While this is the best choice for most boaters, it is also the most expensive, so is not usually found on spec-built boats.

Owners of boats fit with shore power transformers must be especially aware of their transformer’s construction.   Basic 125V/250V, 50A, single input, single output transformers are wound with a ratio of primary windings to secondary windings of one-to-one; written this way: “1:1.”   The input of this transformer (the primary) is a two-pole connection where there is no Neutral conductor.    The output of this transformer (the secondary) provides single phase, 3-pole, 4-wire power to the boat. In English, that means there is a conventional black, red, white and green output.    If the input voltage to a basic style transformer is 240V, the output will be 120V/240V.   But, if the input voltage to a basic style transformer is 208V, the output will be 104V/208V, which may be problematic with some 120V AC appliances.   With a 1:1 winding ratio, the leg-to-leg output voltage (secondary) would be 208V instead of 240V, and the leg-to-neutral voltage would be only 104V, instead of 120V.

One hundred four volts is a low utility outlet voltage, and although alarming to most users, it is NOT “too low” for most modern AC home appliances.  Modern TVs, DVRs, computers, SOHO wi-fi routers and entertainment systems should all run normally.  Microwaves will run but will take slightly longer to cook.   Coffee pots will perk, but will take slightly longer to perk.    Electric blankets will keep sleepers warm and cozy.   Water Heaters will heat water, but take slightly longer to reach target temperature.   Stovetop burners will heat, but not get as hot at the same setting.  Heat pump compressors and fans should all run, but some motors may overheat and cut out to protect themselves from damage.  Marine refrigerators have 12V DC compressors (or 24V DC compressors), and are unaffected by AC supply voltages, but household appliances (refrigerators, freezers, ice makers) used on boats may not be as flexible.   One hundred four volts is the low end of the “brownout tolerance” for AC appliances. Any marine appliance that would be damaged by, or fail to perform properly at, 104V should be designed to detect the condition, put up a power warning fault light, and self-disconnect.    Many mobile (marine, RV, emergency vehicle) inverters and inverter/chargers and newer marine heat pump designs do that.

WARNING:  if there is a 240V shore power supply voltage applied to a manual transformer set to a 208V input voltage, then the AC voltages aboard can get high enough to “damage” appliances.

Article Summary:

  1. When operating a 125V/250V, 50A boat which does not have 240V loads, total loads of up to 2 * 3600 Watts can be supported with two conventional 30A pedestal outlets.  In this case, neither the energized (hot) conductors nor the Neutral conductor are ever overloaded.  No individual circuit conductor ever conducts more than 30A.
  2. When operating a boat with pure 240V loads, the Amps required by the 240V loads add to the Amps needed in the 120V loads.  The owner/operator must monitor total amps drawn/power used to keep total power consumed below 3600 Watts per side.
  3. Some shore power circuit breakers are housed in inaccessible, locked locations ashore.  If a boater accidentally trips a shore power circuit breaker, particularly after hours, it may not be possible to gain access to it in order to reset it
  4. It is necessary for boat owner’s to closely monitor power usage and limit the amount of  current used to prevent tripping shore power circuit breakers.  Care must be exercised to not run high amp draw appliances (coffee pots, microwave ovens, inductive cookware, hair dryers, clothes washer/dryers and similar devices) at the same time.  Boats with multiple heat pumps will probably be unable to run all of them at the same time on 30A services.
  5. The examples in this article assume that the heat pump circuit is on one 30A load leg and house loads are on the other leg.  Obviously, some boats are wired differently. Systems with heat pumps and house loads distributed across both incoming energized 120V legs will have to monitor loads and current draws in the same manner, but the electrical principles discussed above remain the same.
  6. The specific balance of currents in the load one group and the load two group changes constantly.  L1, L2 and Neutral current (Amps) never exceeds 30A.

Appendix 1:

To the right is the electrical diagram of a typical “Smart Wye” splitter.  This Figure represents the electrical circuit detail of the splitter shown in Figure 2 in the earlier text.  Note that the splitter contains a relay – labeled “K” in the drawing.  The relay requires 208V or 240V to close.  Without at least 208V, the relay will not close and the splitter will not pass any power through to the boat.

Following is a link to my article describing Smart Splitters, and the receptacles required for their successful operation.

AC Electricity Fundamentals – Part 2: The Boat AC Electric System

Article posted: April 20, 2019
Added content: Shore Power Transformers; July 22, 2019
Added content: DC Electric Circuit “Wire” Naming and Identification; October 6,2020;
                            minor edits

About this article

The AC Electricity Fundamentals – Part 1 article precedes this article and discusses 1) the concepts, terminology, components and layout of National Power Grid generating equipment, 2) delivery of AC power into residential neighborhoods, and 3) the configuration of AC electrical systems within a residential building, all at an introductory level. An understanding of residential AC power systems is foundational to an understanding of AC power systems on boats.

The Part 1 article concluded by showing that the AC shore power system on boats is equivalent to a sub-panel in a terrestrial building. In the NEC architecture of terrestrial AC building systems, sub-panels are subordinate to the main service entrance panel of the building. In the same way, boats are subordinate to the shore power AC electrical infrastructure of a terrestrial facility.

This article focuses on the overall AC electric “platform” aboard cruising boats. On boats, shore power is only one component of a typical AC system “platform,” which can also include a mix of onboard generator(s), inverter(s) and in some cases, shore power transformer(s). This introductory Part 2 article will answer some questions, and will undoubtedly raise others. The goal of this article is to help readers understand AC electrical concepts and topics to be able to discuss questions, concerns, symptoms and options with marine-certified, professional electrical technicians.

Personal Safety

Virtually all electricity can be dangerous to property and life. Even de-energized electrical circuits can retain enough stored energy to create a life-threatening hazard. This is especially true of inverter-chargers. The large batteries found on boats can produce explosive gasses and store enough energy to start a large, damaging fire.

ALWAYS WEAR SAFETY GLASSES while working around electricity! Anyone working in noisy environments, with running engines or other loud machinery, MUST WEAR HEARING PROTECTION.

If you are not sure of what you’re doing…
If you are not comfortable with electrical safety procedures…
If you are not sure you have the right tools for a job…
If you are not sure you know how to use the tools you do have…
Well, then, LEAVE IT ALONE until you learn more!

Electrocution

Electrocution is a biological insult arising from an electric shock that paralyzes either the respiratory or cardiac functions of the body, or both. Electrocution results in death. Even very small electric currents, under the right circumstances, can result in electrocution. Obviously, electric shock can be a life threatening emergency.

If you are present and witness an electric shock or electrocution, in any locale around boats or water, there are several things that need to be done immediately. Remember, since the victim is not breathing, you’ll have 5 minutes or less to accomplish items 3 – 10, below:

  1. STAY CALM! You can not save someone else if you panic!
  2. Avoid becoming a victim yourself!  DO NOT TOUCH THE VICTIM, METAL MACHINERY OR NEARBY METAL OBJECTS IF POWER IS STILL PRESENT!
  3. SCREAM FOR HELP! ATTRACT ATTENTION! Point at the first person who’s attention you get and instruct them to “call 911 for an electrocution!”
  4. REMOVE THE POWER SOURCE FROM THE VICTIM BY DISCONNECTING THE ELECTRIC POWER at the pedestal.
  5. If the victim is in the water, KILL POWER TO THE ENTIRE DOCK.
  6. THROW LIFE RING TO VICTIM. DO NOT ENTER THE WATER YOURSELF!
  7. After power is removed, raise the face of an unconscious victim out of the water.
  8. After power is removed and the victim’s airway is secured above water, if help has not arrived, call 911 again! Two 911 calls are better than none.
  9. After power is removed, and with access to the victim, assess victim and initiate CPR as appropriate. CPR is often successful in reviving or saving electrocution victims who are otherwise healthy at the time of the accident.
  10. CONTINUE CPR UNTIL THE VICTIM REVIVES, UNTIL EMS ARRIVES TO RELIEVE YOU, OR UNTIL YOU ARE PHYSICALLY UNABLE TO CONTINUE!

Boat Electrical System – Scope

Viewing the shore power AC system of a boat as a residential sub-panel in a single family residence is simple and technically accurate, but the AC electrical system of a typical cruising boat is more than just shore power. A simple block diagram of a boat electrical platform can show the relationships among the various components of the boat’s AC (and DC) electrical systems. Sanctuary’s energy flow diagram is shown in Figure 1. This diagram shows Sanctuary as she is today. When we bought her, she did not have a genset, she did not have an inverter-charger, and she was fit with two inappropriate battery banks. She was less complex yet poorly designed for our intended use.

Figure 1 shows Sanctuary’s AC and DC electrical systems as a complete and integrated operational “platform.” From the platform perspective, owners can evaluate the impacts of contemplated alterations and upgrades. The diagram shows energy flow, not wiring detail.   Its simplicity allows one to visualize and understand both individual components and how components feed and are fed by one another. It is all too easy to add, remove and change system components without fully appreciating the impact(s) to the overall host electrical platform.

Sanctuary’s OEM factory configuration consisted of two 8D batteries, one dedicated to engine starting, and the other dedicated to modest OEM space and navigation lighting loads. An 8D was excessive and poorly utilized for engine starting, and inadequate for our house needs. The energy flow diagram gave us the ability to visualize the impacts of consolidating the two separate battery banks into a single bank.

Sanctuary’s OEM factory battery charger was an obsolete technology single-stage unit. We wanted AC power aboard without having to run our genset. We decided to change the battery charger to a fully automatic inverter-charger. This was a major upgrade that affected both the AC and DC electrical systems aboard. Mechanically, the upgrade was simple, but modification of branch circuit wiring to comply with the ABYC electrical standard was a big impact to our host AC electrical system.

Adding a new genset to a boat includes adding a Generator Transfer Switch and reworking the distribution wiring of the existing shore power circuits. Replacing an old-iron 60Hz AC genset with a new 60Hz AC genset would be relatively easy and non-disruptive. Converting to a DC genset (a diesel-driven DC battery charger) has very different implications. Cost, technical complexity and value of the alternatives can be compared and evaluated.

The energy flow diagram shows that Sanctuary is now fit with a single battery bank for both “engine start” and “house” support. Adding a wind generator or adding solar panels are energy management solutions that would have technical impacts to the existing system. Each can be evaluated from the perspective of our energy flow diagram. Boat owners are strongly encouraged to take a “platform view” as opposed to a “component view” of the electrical systems on their boats.

High Complexity Aboard Boats – Power Sources

What is immediately clear from Sanctuary’s energy flow diagram is that there are three entirely independent AC sources that can feed power to our onboard AC loads:
1. shore power (source ashore),
2. generator (source aboard),
3. inverter, (source aboard) and on some boats,
4. shore power transformers (source aboard)(not installed aboard Sanctuary.

DC Electric Circuit “Wire” Naming and Identification

In DC circuits on boats, the conductor carrying the positive charge is called “B+,” and also called the “plus” or “positive” conductor. By conventional agreement, the positive DC conductor is red in color. The conductor that returns current from the load to the source is called the “B-,” or “negative” conductor. By conventional agreement, the negative conductor (in 2020) is yellow in color. Until recent years, DC negative conductors on boats had black insulation, and many such systems are still in service today. In boats with both DC and AC systems installed, the black DC negative wire was easily confused with the black AC energized wire, so the ABYC color code for DC wiring was changed to yellow to eliminate the safety implications of confusing those two wires. In DC situations, the “negative,” or “B-” conductor is sometimes referred to as a “ground,” although that is usually (often) not technically correct, since “ground” wires are not intended to carry current. 

Key points from the Part 1 article to keep in mind on boats: In AC circuits, the conductors are alternately positive and negative, so the DC nomenclature “B+” and “B-” doesn’t work.  In single phase 120V circuits in North America, the two conductors are named for on their role in the circuit.  The conductor that is considered to be the energized (power suppling) conductor is called the “Ungrounded Conductor,” or “Line 1,” or the “hot” conductor.  By code and convention in North America, “L1” is black in color.  The other conductor in a 120V circuit is the return conductor.  It is called the “Grounded Conductor,” or the “Neutral Conductor,” or simple the “neutral,” and it is white in color.  

In single phase 120V/208V and 120V/240V circuits in North America, there are two “Ungrounded Conductors.”  They are commonly called “Line 1” and “Line 2.”  “L1” is black, and “L2” is red.  In these circuits, there is also a “Grounded Conductor,” always referred to as the “neutral,” and white in color.

Subtle take-away: the DC “negative” conductor has the same role in a DC circuit the the AC “neutral” conductor has in a residential/boat AC circuit.  That is, the DC “Negative” conductor returns current to the source.  In a “grounded DC electrical system” (very rare) the B- conductor is a “Current-Carrying”, “Grounded Conductor.”

Note: on some but not all boats built overseas, AC wire colors may be different than the ABYC Standard colors cited above. On some boats, like some Grand Banks trawlers, one 120V “hot” conductor (L1) is black, but the other (L2) is brown, not red; and the AC neutral conductors are blue, not white.  If “strange colors” are found aboard a boat, BE PARTICULARLY CAREFUL to determine what the colors mean to ensure ongoing equipment, fire and personal safety.  

Key Electrical Concepts For AC Services aboard Boats

Key points from the Part 1 article to keep in mind on boats:

  1. “Shore power” arises from the electrical system of a terrestrial facility, ashore, while AC power from a “generator,” “inverter,” and/or “shore power transformer” arises from equipment installed aboard the boat.
  2. The residential AC power standard in North America is a “Single Phase, Center Tapped, Three-Pole” grounded-neutral system. This definition broadly applies to all terrestrial buildings with which people interact, and includes boats.
  3. State/Province, county and municipal jurisdictions across North America adopt local statutes and codes-of-regulations that originate with the NEC/CSA to govern terrestrial building electrical installations.
  4. There are no statutory electrical codes for boats. The American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) provides voluntary standards to boat builders. ABYC electrical standards are fully compatible with NEC shore power, assuring safe, reliable inter-operability between terrestrial and boat-resident AC systems.

As discussed in the Part 1 article, an essential safety requirement of all of these standards and codes is that single phase electrical systems be “grounded” at their “derived source.” This brings us face-to-face with some core ABYC “recommendations” that govern switching of AC wiring for equipment installations on boats:

  1. only one source is allowed to power loads aboard boats at any one time,
  2. sources must be thoroughly and completely isolated from one another,
  3. a “grounded neutral system” is required:
    • when on shore power, the neutral-to-ground connection is provided to the boat through the shore power cord, (i.e., the neutral-to-ground connection is in the shore power infrastructure), and
    • when on generator or inverter power, or when shore power is received through an onboard shore power transformer, the neutral-to-ground connection is made at the onboard source.

High Complexity Aboard Boats – Ground

In a “Single Phase, Center Tapped, Three-Pole” grounded-neutral system, what does “grounded neutral” mean? Recall in the residential AC system model that three conductors arise from the utility power transformer at the street; two energized lines (“L1” and “L2”) and one neutral line (“N”). As these three lines emerge from the utility transformer in the street, 240V are present between “L1” and “L2,” and 120V between “L1” and “N” and between “L2” and “N,” but these voltages “float” with respect to their external environmental surroundings (recall the discussion of birds and squirrels on wires from Part 1). This situation is referred to as a “floating neutral.” To create a safe, known zero-volt system reference, copper rods are driven into the earth at the building’s service entrance location. Within the main service panel of the building, the utility-provided neutral conductor is connected (“bonded”) to this network of copper ground rods. The result is an earth-ground “grounded neutral” system.

Grounding the neutral is very straight-forward at buildings. Since there is only one place where utility power enters the building from the utility company’s electric meter, it’s easy to understand and visualize that entrance location as the “derived source” of the power. Electrician’s working in terrestrial buildings learn to mix neutral and safety ground conductors on the same buss bars in the main service panel. In one of the examples I showed in the Part 1 article, we saw that some main service panels are built with only one buss bar which serves to collect both neutrals and grounds.

Boats are different!  In the architecture of the North American power framework, boats are sub-panels to the shore power infrastructure, not main service panels. Furthermore, it is common to have more than one AC power source for the AC system platform on a boat, including as we saw in Figure 2, AC Shore Power connections, onboard generators, inverters or inverter-chargers, and maybe shore power transformers (isolation transformer, polarization transformer). All of these sources are AC “derived sources” within the definitions of the ABYC Electrical Standard, E-11.

The NEC requires the neutral-to-ground bond to be at the “newly derived source” of the terrestrial shore power system. The ABYC electrical standard complements and supports the NEC requirement for boats operating on shore power. For boats operating on shore power, neutral-to-ground connections are not permitted aboard the boat. Why? Follow this scenario:

  1. Start with the NEC-required neutral-to-ground bond being correctly installed at the terrestrial facility’s main service panel (derived source) .
  2. The shore power neutral-to-ground bond is carried aboard the boat via the shore power cord, per ABYC E-11,
  3. The intent of the safety ground is to provide a low resistance electrical path to disconnect power as close as possible to the source in an electrical emergency:
    • in a normal AC system, no power flows in the safety ground conductor,
    • but in the case of an electrical fault, current flows in the safety ground for the purpose of removing power (fault removal) by tripping the circuit breaker that feeds the faulting circuit),
  4. Because there is a neutral-to-ground bond in the shore power main service panel, if there were also a neutral-to-ground bond aboard the boat, the neutral and ground conductors between the shore infrastructure and the boat would be electrically in parallel with each other, enabling power to flow in the safety ground (by definition, a ground fault). This results in two issues for boaters:
    • constantly trips a dockside ground fault sensing circuit breaker, and
    • the AC safety ground would, itself, be energized, thus providing a path to the underwater metals of the boat, thus enabling AC power to escape the boat’s electrical system into the water.
  5. The above consequences of paralleling the neutral and the safety ground pose a shock and electrocution threat to people, pets and wildlife in the water.

So, now we understand why a neutral-to-ground bond is not permitted aboard the boat when connected to shore power. But, we also know that ABYC does require a neutral-to-ground bond for onboard generators, inverters operating in “invert” mode and shore power transformers; that is, ABYC requires a grounded-neutral AC system throughout the boat regardless of the source of AC power.

Summarizing the above:  Shore power can’t have a neutral-to-ground bond aboard the boat, but generators and inverters must have neutral-to-ground bonds at the respective equipment aboard the boat. Isn’t this an irreconcilable “Catch-22?” In a word, “no!” It is a complex wiring situation that does not occur in terrestrial buildings where only one power source is present. (It does apply in terrestrial buildings if an outdoor emergency generator installed, and it also occurs in terrestrial off-grid solar applications.)

The technical solution that allows compliance with these apparently self-contradictory ABYC configuration requirements involves complex switching solutions. When connected to shore power, onboard neutral-to-ground bond connections must be “switched out.” When running on an onboard generator or an inverter in “invert” mode, the neutral-to-ground bond connection must be “switched in.”

High Complexity Aboard Boats – Switching

Marine-certified AC disconnect circuit breakers are readily available in a variety of form factors to fit different power panels of different companies found on different boats. With 120VAC, 30A inlet circuits, “Double Pole” breakers disconnect the “L1” and “N” lines. With 240VAC, 50A inlet circuits, “Double Pole” breakers disconnect “L1 and “L2,” but not “N”. It is up to the installing electrical technician to ensure that the correct disconnect breakers are used in the correct application to maintain compliance with the ABYC electrical standard and compatibility with the shore power infrastructure.

Looking at Sanctuary’s energy flow diagram, Figure 1, we can see that the boat’s Generator Transfer Switch (GTS) is used to transfer the “load” (the “load” in this case is the boat’s entire AC electrical system) between one of two AC power sources (either shore power or the onboard generator). The GTS must be constructed in a way that it simultaneously transfers the load’s “hot” lines (“L1 and L2”) and the load’s “neutrals” “N.” Figure 3 shows the electrical diagram of Sanctuary’s physical GTS. “Source 1” and “Source 2” are our 120V, 30A shore power inlets. “Source 3” is our 240V, 50A generator input (happens to be the way our generator is configured). In order to comply with the neutral-to-ground bonding requirements of the NEC and ABYC, the GTS is built to switch the neutrals as well as the “hot” lines. In this way, the required neutral-to-ground bond can be installed at the generator, aboard the boat, and the entire platform remains compliant with the ABYC electrical standard and compatible with the NEC for shore power.

About Shore Power Transformers

Shore power transformers are expensive, large, heavy and require significant physical space surrounded by free-flowing air for ventilation. These transformers can suppress spikes and electrical noise from entering the boat from the shore power grid. Some transformer designs can automatically compensate for “low” dock voltage (shore power “brownout,” normal 208VAC). There are two shore power transformer wiring configurations: an “isolation configuration” and a “polarization configuration.” In both cases, the transformer is installed aboard the boat. The secondary winding of the shore power transformer is defined to be the “derived source” of AC power.

For a 30A, 120V isolation transformer, the primary requires a double pole breaker, preferably fit with ELCI, which breaks both “L1” and the neutral, “N.” The safety ground in the shore power cord is connected to an internal shield inside the transformer but does not continue to the external case of the transformer. The boat’s safety ground originates at the transformer’s external metal case. The transformer is the derived source, so the neutral and the safety ground are bonded together at the transformer. The boat’s physical safety ground network does not connect back to the shore power infrastructure. The secondary winding feeds onboard 120V branch circuits.

For a 50A, 240V isolation transformer, the “L1” and “L2” hot lines are brought aboard through a double pole disconnect breaker, preferably fit with ELCI. The pedestal neutral, N, is not brought aboard at all. The safety ground in the shore power cord is connected to an internal shield inside the transformer but does not continue to the external case of the transformer. The boat’s safety ground originates at the transformer’s external metal case. The transformer is the derived source, so the neutral and the safety ground are bonded together at the transformer. The boat’s physical safety ground network does not connect back to the shore power infrastructure. The secondary winding feeds onboard 120V/240V branch circuits.

The difference between “isolation” and “polarization” is the wiring configuration of the safety ground. With isolation transformers, the safety ground in the shore power cord terminates at a shield in the transformer. With polarization transformers, the safety ground of the shore power cord is connected to the boat’s safety ground buss, and is brought back to the shore power pedestal. With a polarization transformer, it is best practice to also install a Galvanic Isolator in the safety ground wire.

Shore Power transformers are available for both 125V-only and 125V/250V applications. Shore Power transformers for 125V/250V, 50A and 125V/250V, 100A applications  are manufactured in three “flavors:”

1. Basic, single input, single output, 240V transformer; least expensive flavor.
2. Multiple, selectable input-voltage taps; manual switching allows the user to select back-and-forth between 208V input and 240V input for 240V output.
3. High-end transformers; sense the input voltage to automatically maintain the desired 240V output voltage.  While this is the best choice for most boaters, it is also the most expensive, so is not usually found on spec-built boats.

Owners of boats fit with shore power transformers must be especially aware of their transformer’s construction.  Basic 125V/250V, 50A, single input, single output transformers are wound with a ratio of primary windings to secondary windings of one-to-one; written this way: “1:1.”  The input of this transformer (the primary) is a two-pole connection where there is no Neutral conductor.   The output of this transformer (the secondary) produces single phase, 3-pole, 4-wire output which powers the boat.   In English, that means there is a conventional black, red, white and green output.   If the input voltage to a basic style transformer is 240V, the output will be 120V/240V.  But, if the input voltage to a basic style transformer is 208V, the output will be 104V/208V, which may be problematic with some 120V AC appliances. With a 1:1 winding ratio, the leg-to-leg output voltage (secondary) would be 208V instead of 240V, and the leg-to-neutral voltage would be only 104V, instead of 120V.

One hundred four volts is a low utility outlet voltage, and although alarming to most users, it is NOT “too low” for most modern AC home appliances. Modern TVs, DVRs, computers, SOHO wi-fi routers and entertainment systems should all run normally.   Microwaves will run but will take longer to cook.  Coffee pots will perk, but will take longer to do their thing.   Electric blankets will keep sleepers warm and cozy.  Water Heaters will heat water, but take longer to reach target temperature.   Stovetop burners will heat, but not get as hot. Heat pump compressors and fans should all run, but some motors may overheat and cut out to protect themselves from damage; marine refrigerators have 12V DC compressors (or 24V DC compressors), and are unaffected by AC supply voltages, but household appliances (refrigerators, freezers, ice makers) used on boats may not be as flexible.  One hundred four volts is the low end of the “brownout tolerance” for AC appliances. Any marine appliance that would be damaged by, or fail to perform properly at, 104V “low voltage” should be designed to detect the condition, put up a power warning fault light, and self-disconnect.   Many mobile (marine, RV, emergency vehicle) inverters and inverter/chargers and newer 120V marine heat pumps do that.

About Generators

An AC generator is a mechanical machine consisting of a propulsion engine that drives an alternator. The machine must spin at a constant rotational speed to maintain the 60Hz output frequency. The waveform from a rotating genset is a pure sine wave. Although gensets are rarely actually run at their full load capacity, AC gensets must be rated for the largest electrical load they will ever have to support. Mechanical speed controls in these machines add to the requirement for a relatively great deal of preventive and corrective maintenance. Replacement parts are expensive and heavy. An AC generator can power all normal household appliances including heat pumps. Considering capital expense and lifetime fuel and maintenance costs, AC gensets are inherently expensive, per kW-h, to produce AC electricity on a boat.

A DC generator can be a practical alternative to an AC genset for most cruising boats.    DC gensets such as those made by Alten®, Hamilton-Ferris®, PolarPower® and ZRD® are essentially used aboard as “motor-driven battery chargers.”  The AC power used aboard the boat arises from the battery bank via inverter(s).  Multiple smaller inverters can provide for staged comfort and convenience options as well as systems redundancy.   Because batteries can supplement total power demand (Kirchhoff’s Laws), DC gensets do not have to be rated for max demand, as do AC gensets.  When onboard loads are light, the DC genset provides enough energy to power both the inverter(s) (for conversion to AC) and the battery bank (for battery charging).  When demand exceeds the generator output capacity, the batteries themselves make up the difference.  This means DC gensets can be of smaller capacity and can adjust to light loads more efficiently than AC gensets. Since DC gensets charge batteries, they do not need to spin at a regulated speed and are mechanically less complex.  AC generators are sensitive to rotational speed to keep the AC output frequency at 60Hz, +/- two Hz.  The DC machine has no such restriction, and so are much more fuel efficient. Boaters faced with installing a net new genset or replacing an old genset would do well to consider the DC genset option.

High Complexity Aboard Boats – Inverter

From the perspective of “electrical standards,” boats are a sub-class of a larger category of “mobile platforms.” Inverter and inverter-charger devices can be installed in many types of mobile platforms, including cars, trucks, ambulances, emergency vehicles, RVs and airplanes. All classes of “mobile platform” have identical shore power interface compatibility requirements, and very similar user safety requirements. Inverters installed in host AC systems on boats carry significant complexity.

About Inverter-Chargers

An “inverter-charger” is an electronic device that converts DC from batteries into 120V/240V, 50Hz/60Hz AC and ALSO uses 120V/240VAC, when available from external sources, to re-charge battery banks. The shape of the AC waveform from inverters can be a “modified sine wave” (MSW) or a “pure sine wave” (PSW). PSW devices dominate in the marketplace in 2019, and since some electronic appliances do not tolerate MSW well, are to be preferred aboard boats.

There are two installation use cases that apply to any discussion of inverter or inverter-charger installations on boats.

Use case one:  consists of a stand-alone inverter that powers dedicated AC utility outlets that are separate and apart from the wiring and outlets of the host boat’s main AC electrical system. To have AC power at those outlets, the inverter must be turned “on.” When the Inverter is turned “off,” AC power is “off.” The AC wiring attached to this inverter would be expected to comply to the normal requirements for all AC wiring aboard. There is no automatic power transfer switching. Ideally, an inverter used in this way would feed a distribution panel that would provide overload protection to branch circuit wiring. The manual nature of this use case is not considered “desirable” by boat designers and builders. Specific standards for this use case are not enumerated in the ABYC E-11 standard, AC and DC Electrical Systems on Boats.

Use case two: an inverter or inverter/charger that is fully integrated into, and functions as a part of, the host boat’s AC electrical system.   There are no separate or isolated utility outlets. All powered utility outlets are overload-protected by the host system’s branch circuit distribution panel. Branch circuit utility outlets and appliances either 1) receive externally-provided AC power “passed through” the inverter or 2) receive AC power from the inverter via the energy stored in the boat’s batteries.   The inverter senses loss of external power automatically, and switching from external power to battery power is likewise automatic. User safety and convenience is maximized. This use case is covered in detail by ABYC E-11, AC and DC Electrical Systems on Boats, and ABYC A-31, Battery Chargers and Inverters. ABYC specifies device compliance with UL458 to maintain compatibility with neutral-to-ground switching aboard the boat.
As shown in Figure 4, when either shore power or generator power is available, the inverter automatically switches to “standby mode.” In “standby mode,” the internal transfer relay is energized by the external power source. The internal transfer relay has two functions. One is to pass the external power through the inverter (“passthru”) to the boat’s power distribution panel (red arrow), and the other is to simultaneously remove the device’s internal neutral-to-ground bond (red oval). This second function maintains compliance with the ABYC neutral-to-ground bonding requirements for shore power.Later, when external power is no longer present, the device automatically switches from “standby mode” to “invert mode.” As shown in Figure 5, the internal transfer relay drops, and the inverter begins to generate AC power by drawing energy from the boat’s batteries (red arrow). When the transfer relay drops, it simultaneously establishes the required neutral-to-ground bond (red oval). Since the inverter in “invert mode” is now the “derived source” of AC power, grounding the neutral via the internal relay maintains compliance with the ABYC electrical standard, E-11.

Inverters – Installation Impacts

Referring again to Figure 1, the energy flow diagram for Sanctuary, it is apparent that the 120V feed of branch circuits 1 – 3 and 4 are powered from either shore power or generator power through the Generator Transfer Switch. When on shore power or generator power is present, the inverter operates in “standby mode,” and AC for branch circuits 5 – 8 “passes through” the power transfer relay of the inverter-charger to feed AC to those circuits. When the boat is under way, and external power is not present, the inverter switches to “invert mode.” In that case, branch circuits 5 – 8 are powered by the inverter-charger.

What is not obvious in the energy flow diagram is that, because the “hot” lines for circuits 5 – 8 originate at the inverter, the neutrals for circuits 5-8 must be separated from the neutrals of circuits 1-4. This is a manufacturer’s installation requirement for the inverter-charger device which has its origins in ABYC Standard, A-31, Battery Chargers and Inverters.

Inverters – Advanced Feature(s)

In 2019 in worldwide boating markets, Victron Energy B.V.® manufactures a series of inverter-chargers carrying the MultiPlus™ and Quattro™ brand names that have an advanced feature Victron® calls “Power Assist.” With this feature, the inverter is capable of “piggybacking” on top of a limited shore power source to boost the total amount of power available to power loads aboard the boat. Batteries are charged during periods of low demand, and support the inverter during periods of higher demand. Across a day of use, users must monitor the system to assure batteries are adequately charged.

A typical “Power Assist” scenario: assume a boat fit with one of these inverters visits a private residential dock, a public wall, or any similar location where only very limited AC shore power is available from a single 125V, 15A/20A residential outlet. Generally, 15A is not sufficient for powering boat loads by itself. That said, if the demand on the 15A circuit can be held below a level that causes the shore power overload circuit breaker to trip, convenience aboard the boat can be enhanced by the “Power Assist” feature. To ensure the inverter does not trip the shore power circuit breaker, assume the inverter’s shore power “Maximum Current” setting is 12A. As long as the “passthru” loads on the boat are less than 12A, the power for those loads comes entirely from the shore power outlet.  It is during these periods of light AC loads aboard the boat that house batteries are charged.

Later there may come a time that the load on the boat jumps up, perhaps because of a toaster, coffee pot, microwave or hair dryer. Assume that at some point the total AC load aboard the boat rises to – pick a number – 22A. Since the inverter-charger is limited to drawing 12A from the shore power outlet, the inverter itself jumps in to “assist” the shore power source with energy drawn from the boat’s batteries. The inverter will sync with the shore power sine wave, and 10A will be provided from the batteries by the inverter. Keep in mind that the inverter is designed to provide this assistance automatically, by monitoring passthru load and automatically jumping in to supplement loads that exceed the pre-set.

Functionally, the above is how the Victron® Power Assist feature works, and it has much user convenience appeal to boaters. However, there may also be an operational downside with the “Power Assist” feature. When this equipment attaches to the Electric Power Grid, it synchronizes it’s 60Hz power waveform with the power on the grid. Emerging experience suggests the synchronization process can cause out-of-phase currents that may trip dockside ground fault sensors.  Owners of these devices should be alert to nuisance trips when connecting to docks with ground fault sensors on pedestals.

Inverters without the “Power Assist” feature have an obvious “one-way” relationship with the Electric Power Grid; that is, they are loads that take power from the grid. Inverters with the “Power Assist” feature are electrically paralleled to the incoming shore power connection and can have a two-way interface with the incoming AC power grid. These two-way inverters are capable of delivering AC power backwards into the electric power grid to which they are attached. The ability to feed power backwards into the grid carries significant safety implications in certain fault scenarios.

“Distributed Energy Resources” (DERs) are AC electricity generating units, typically in the range of 3 kW to 50 mW, that are deployed across the power grid. DERs are installed close to loads, often on customer premises, often on the load side of the customer’s electric meter. DERs are designed to alternately draw power from and return power to the upstream hosting electrical power grid. Worldwide, DERs are a central concept to distributed solar and wind farm (“green energy”) production and to pumped-storage reservoir systems. DER technologies include 25kW to 500kW micro-turbines, 25kW to 250mW combustion turbines, 5kW to 7mW internal combustion engines, 1kW to 25kW Stirling engines, fuel cells, battery-based UPS systems, photovoltaic systems, and wind generation systems.

In the US, the NEC, state Public Utility Commissions, code enforcement Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), and the ABYC, have all recognized the safety implications related to DERs. While it would be rare – in 2019 – for power generated on a boat to be fed back into the local electric power grid, with a DER-capable inverter, it is possible. The “Power Assist” capability enhances living convenience for boaters as it does for land-based DER users, so its likely that inverter-type DER devices for applications aboard boats will only increase in availability in the future.

ABYC A-32, July 2017, is the most current electrical standard that governs the two-way interface of DER equipment when installed on boats. ABYC, A-32, AC Power Conversion Equipment and Systems, Diagram 1, is shown below. This diagram is the electrical “model” the ABYC has adopted for inverter-type DERs installed on boats. Referring to this diagram, the earlier discussion of neutral-to-ground bonding still applies. The relay that accomplishes that is shown in the green oval.

Inverter Safety – “Anti-Islanding”

In residential neighborhoods (and aboard boats), power arises from the local Electric Power Utility. If power is lost, the implication is that some part of the utility power grid failed. Causes can include electrical device failure, severe weather, floods, terrorism or severe mechanical insult (tree-fall on wires, vehicle into utility pole, hot air balloon into wires, etc). A loss-of-power event leaves some local geography without electricity; home(s), police/fire station, shopping center, hospital, farm, airport, etc., an entire neighborhood, a entire town, etc. Many affected entities have mission-critical needs for uninterrupted power, and use DERs to achieve that goal. The footprint of the area of lost power is referred to as an “Island;” that is, an area that is physically cut-off and isolated from the power grid.

For the safety of residents, rescue personnel and repair personnel working to restore power within the “island” of disruption, DER’s operating at the time of a power failure must immediately detect the loss of grid power and disconnect themselves to prevent back-feeding power into the “island.” Again referring to the ABYC diagram, the relay shown in the red oval is the means by which DER Inverters disconnect themselves from the grid. ABYC requires that the disconnect occur within 100mS of the loss of power. Note: the inverter may continue powering some or all of its attached loads, within the rated capacity of the inverter and the capability of the battery bank.

Boaters are NOT expected to understand or care how all this happens.  The net here is, boaters need to buy and install MARINE-CERTIFIED equipment for installation aboard their boats. Equipment from discounters like Harbor Freight does not meet these complex safety requirements.

Behind the words “MARINE-CERTIFIED” is a very complex series of electrical standards that spans the worldwide membership of the IEC. These standards define the mutually-cooperative manner in which DERs must interact with National Electric Power Grids. At the end of this article is “Addendum 1” that describes the safety and testing standards involved with DER equipment for those interested.

About Motors – Single-Phase

Single phase motors are more complicated than three-phase motors. Even small sized single-phase motors are more complicated – electrically and mechanically – than three-phase motors. The reason is that it is much more difficult to create a rotating magnetic field with just one, single-phase. The “natural” rotation of the phases of a three-phase machine does not exist in a single-phase machine.

There are several different techniques used to create a rotating magnetic field in a single phase motor. All of these motors have high inrush “surge” currents.

A shaded-pole induction motor is a relatively simple and inexpensive motor. There are no brushes. Starting torque is low, so these motors are used for fan and blower motors and other low-starting torque applications. Creation of the torque to start rotation is done by means of one or two turns of heavy copper wire around one corner of the field coil. When the field is energized, inrush current is induced in this heavy coil. This induced current is out-of-phase with the power line current. This results in a second, offset, magnetic field, which is enough to start motor rotation. These motors are generally made in fractional-horsepower sizes.

Where medium and medium-high starting torques are required, the split-phase induction motor is more appropriate. These motors also do not have brushes. Split-phase induction motors are built with two field windings. One of the windings is called the “start” winding and the other is called the “run” winding. One of the windings is fed with an out-of-phase current to create a rotating magnetic field. The out-of-phase current is commonly created by feeding the winding through a capacitor. A common variation of this design is a switch that disconnects the capacitor when the motor is up to operational speed. In this design, a centrifugal switch is internally mounted to the armature. The switch opens to disconnect the start capacitor when the rotor reaches operating speeds. Often in motors of this type, there is an audible click of the centrifugal switch transfer as it opens and closes. This is normal. In compressor applications, another variation is to have capacitors in both the start coil circuit and the run coil circuit. These alternatives involve complexity and cost.

In addition to a start/run capacitor, another way to achieve a rotating magnetic field is with a second field winding with significantly different values of inductance from the main winding.  This effectively results in an out-of-phase current in the second winding.

Where small physical size and high torques are needed, the Universal Motor is preferred. Universal motors are expensive to build and require periodic maintenance. These motors have carbon brushes and complex internal components that create a strong, consistent magnetic field at all rotational speeds. They can start to rotate against high stall loads. These are commonly used in handheld tools (drills, saws, etc.) and kitchen appliances like mixers and blenders. These motors often are not rated for continuous use, because they generate significant internal heat in operation.

About Motors – Three-Phase

Three-phase motors are very simple electrical machines. Recall that in a generator, there was a rotating magnetic field inside three fixed armature spaced at intervals of 120°. Three-phase motors have field coils that are physically mounted at intervals of 120°. The incoming three-phase power is connected to the windings of the motor’s field coils. As the voltage in the phases rises and falls, each in turn, in the 60Hz sinusoidal rhythm, a magnetic field strengthens and weakens around the field coils. An aggregate rotating magnetic field is produced by the rise and fall of current in the three individual field coils. That aggregate magnetic field rotates around the diameter of the machine’s field coils at a rate of 60 times per second. Reversing the connections of any two of the incoming three phases will reverse the direction of rotation of the magnetic field, and therefore, the direction of rotation of the motor itself.

A characteristic of motors is that they have high start-surge currents. At the moment when power is first applied to the machine, this surge is at its greatest. As the motor spins up to its running speed, the current settles down to its steady-state running level. Motors have separate ratings for start and run currents. Circuit designers need to allow for start-surge currents in selecting the gauge of wiring to the motor. Large horsepower motors have special controllers that limit inrush surge, but small frame motors found in boats generally do not need these sophisticated controllers. Because of the inrush surge, motor circuits are generally set up with slow-blow circuit protection.

The strength of the magnetic field determines the amount of torque the motor can deliver. The work will be to turn pumps, fans, windshield wipers, machine tools, refrigeration compressors, etc. Starting torque is large because of large start-surge currents. Running torque is the steady state torque the motor produces. Engineers select motors to match the torque required by the machinery the motor will drive.

About Motors – Raw Water Pumps

In motor-driven water pumps used in terrestrial applications – a residential hydronic heating systems, for example – an electric motor connects to the pump via a mechanical shaft. A rubber “lip seal” is used in the pump housing to prevent leaks at the shaft. This design has it’s limitations. Over time, the lip seal will harden, crack and fail and/or the shaft will become scored from mechanical wear, leading to leaks. Obviously, this design represents a future maintenance activity for the owner.

Boat raw water pumps are of different design. Instead of a mechanical shaft, the motor is fit to a strong permanent magnet. The pump impeller is also magnetic, and rotates on a shaft mounted inside a Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic (FRP) housing. The pump housing is designed so that when fit together with the motor, the magnet fits inside the metal-containing impeller’s housing. Since there is no shaft penetration through the housing, there is nothing to leak. As the motor spins, the magnetic field acts through the FRP housing and causes the impeller to spin. Good installation practice is for the assembled motor and pump be mounted vertically with the motor above the pump.

This design is leak free. The impeller can jam, but the pump motor will not overheat and will not be damaged if it does. These motors generally need little maintenance, but check the manufacturers instructions to verify the needs of your pump motor.

About Motors – Maintenance

Routine maintenance for electric motors includes, first and foremost, periodic lubrication of sleeve bearings. Use machine oil, not automotive motor oil. Most motors have lubricating ports – small holes – for applying machine oil. Use only a couple of drops of oil. Avoid the temptation to flood the bearing. If you do, the motor will just throw the excess all over the place.

If a “capacitor start” or a “capacitor start/capacitor run” motor will not start, check the capacitor. When a capacitor fails, the motor may overheat and either will not start or will not run correctly. Capacitors are physically located outside the frame of the motor, and are much less expensive to replace than the motor. This is particularly true if the motor is an air conditioning/heat pump compressor sealed into a refrigerant system.

Brushes wear in normal service and are normal maintenance parts. Replacements are available from the tool or appliance manufacturer. Typically, the motor will show symptoms of impending failure. Brushes wear in operation to the point where they no longer make good electrical contact. Often, a small external physical bump will cause the motor to start. That’s a sure sign that the brushes need replacing. Order replacement brushes when symptoms first appear, or the tool will surely fail when you most need it, before replacement brushes are on-hand.

Motors are very reliable devices. Motors will generally give many years of satisfactory performance. The down side of that is that your specific model may not be available when you do need to replace it. If a motor will not start due to internal failure, you do have options. I recently had occasion to help a friend with a blower motor for his onboard air conditioning unit. The manufacturer wanted over $400 for a replacement blower. Instead, we took the motor to a local motor refurbisher, and for $60, the refurbisher replaced the bearings and rebuilt the motor. Centrifugal switches are also replaceable. Electric motor refurbishers are available in most medium sized and larger communities across the country. Don’t overlook this option. Look under “Electric Motor – Repair” in the Yellow Pages! Yes, folks, I grew up using Yellow Pages.

Refrigeration compressors have built-in safety circuits. One is a thermally operated switch that’s mounted to the case of the compressor. It is designed to open and disconnect power to the compressor motor if the compressor case gets too hot. Another is a pressure operated switch that is designed to disconnect the motor if the refrigerant gas pressure gets too high. Some units can also detect low refrigerant pressures. These switches can fail, and their failure rate is higher than the failure rate of the compressor itself. If a compressor fails to run, check the safety switches before changing the compressor or changing the entire fridge or air conditioner/heat pump unit. Many an unsuspecting soul has paid to have a compressor replaced and only gotten a $20 switch for the money!

Qualifications of Personnel

The above discussions illustrate an important safety consideration which I know some will find restrictive and controversial. Simply stated, people who are not thoroughly familiar with marine electrical standards and requirements should not install or modify boat electrical systems! Many excellent residential electricians and many skilled DIY “practitioners” who learned terrestrial NEC compliance techniques in residential applications are simply not qualified to perform work on boats. Switching requirements are different on boats than they are on land, yet it is true that cheaper switches incorrectly selected for use on a boat may appear to work. The details of neutral-to-ground bonding are much more extensive on boats, yet man-made wiring errors may go hidden and without symptom for weeks, months or years. Work performed by one who is simply unaware of boat equipment requirements can lead to unintended but serious safety faults for friends and family to discover at some random future time.

The frustration of encountering a no-power situation because the boat trips a ground fault sensing pedestal breaker on a cruise is unwelcome for the boat owner, but is truly unsettling to the spouse and guests aboard. Diagnosing man-made wiring errors is expensive and frustrating by any definition. It is extremely important to know, understand and comply with the low-level details of the ABYC electrical standards. Boats in marinas are in very close proximity to their dock neighbors. All marina residents – whether longterm or transient – depend on the safety of neighboring boats. When hiring someone to do electrical work on your boat, make sure the person you hire is actually qualified by training and certification to perform marine installation, maintenance, troubleshooting and repair services.

Incidental Topic – Dockside Ground Fault Sensors

While not actually a boat-side AC electrical topic, GFIs on docks is a topic that does apply to any discussion of boat AC electrical systems. The problems that cause dockside ground fault sensors to trip are all caused by conditions that exist on the boat. Many (the great majority) of these issues were caused by unqualified but well-intended DIY practitioners who did the wrong things without realizing it. I have written in detail about dockside GFI problems and solutions. Articles on this website that discuss these issues include:

  1. Electric Shock Drowning
  2. Emerging AC Electrical Concern
  3. AC Safety Tests for Boats
  4. ELCI Primer
  5. Ground Faults and Ground Fault Sensors
  6. Ground Faults: Difficult to Hire Skilled Troubleshooter

Incidental Topic – Galvanic Corrosion

Also not an AC electrical topic, this heading is included because the Galvanic Isolator
is fit into the main safety ground conductor of the boat. The submerged metal parts of boats are comprised of a mix of dissimilar types of metals. Boats commonly have
stainless steel drive shafts and rudders, bronze propellers, struts, rudders and thruhulls, and Aluminum trim-tabs. When immersed in sea water, these different metals and metal alloys follow the same laws of electrochemistry as found in a battery, albeit not optimized in construction and materials purity as they would be in a made-for-purpose battery. The action of this electrochemistry results in “metal wasting” corrosion of some of the underwater metals.

Another very common form of galvanic corrosion is “single-metal” corrosion (ex: “rust”
in iron-containing metals, “poultice corrosion” in aluminum, “pitting corrosion” and
“Crevice corrosion” in Stainless Steels). A serious and often unrecognized form of
single-metal corrosion occurs in the all too common brass plumbing fittings bought in
big box and hardware stores, and even in some marine chandleries. Brass is a metal
alloy containing primarily copper and zinc. We know zinc is a galvanically active metal
(anodic) that will sacrifice itself to protect more noble metals (cathodic). Brass fittings
flooded in sea water suffer from a phenomena called “Dezincification.” The zinc
wastes away, leaving the remaining metal structure of the brass alloy porous, with a
pink appearance, and physically very weak.  WARNING: never use brass fittings
below the waterline or in raw water circuits used by heat pumps aboard the boat.
“Sacrificial anodes” of zinc, aluminum and magnesium are usually attached to valuable underwater metals to protect the more valuable metals from galvanic corrosion wasting damage. Zincs are most effective if electrically located on the metals they protect.  Zincs waste away as they give up positive ions to the electrolyte of the galvanic cell.An “Impressed Current Cathodic Protection” (ICCP) device is an electronic approach to
managing galvanic corrosion on boats built with metal hulls (steel, aluminum). An
ICCP is able to protect the relatively very larger surface areas of metal hulls than can
be done effectively with individual sacrificial anodes.

About – Galvanic Isolation

The ABYC recommends some form of galvanic corrosion control on boats. Aside from
the active electronics of an ICCP, there are three passive ways to achieve this control.
One modifies the electrical makeup of the underwater collection of metals. The other
two act by disrupting the flow of the small but destructive DC galvanic currents. The
latter two approaches impact upon the design of the boat’s shore power safety ground.

The first and most common approach to reduce galvanic wasting is with the use of
sacrificial anodes. These anodes modify the makeup of the underwater metals in a
way that makes them waste, rather than more valuable metals.

The second approach is with the use if a Galvanic Isolator (GI), which eliminates the
electrical path for galvanic currents to use. Electrically, this device is placed in the
main safety ground wire where the ground conductor enters/exits the boat; that is,
electrically at the shore power inlet(s). The newest generation of GI is the “Fail Safe”
device. It consists of a solid state, full wave, bridge rectifier and a large capacitor. This device will allow AC fault currents to flow normally in the safety ground, should
that need ever arise. The physics of the diode junction effectively blocks the small DC
voltage that drives the flow of galvanic currents. Without a galvanic isolator, zincs can
be consumed in weeks. With a galvanic isolator, zincs should last many months.

The third approach to interrupting the flow of galvanic currents is by installing an
onboard AC “shore power transformer.” An Isolation configuration eliminates the path
from the boat’s grounding network to shore. A polarization configuration keeps the
shore path, so should include a Galvanic Isolator. There are subtle pros and cons to
this choice. This author prefers the polarization configuration for maximum safety.

Electrical Emergencies

True electrical emergencies are rare. Electrical emergency situations will always
become less dangerous if power is quickly disconnected.

Be wary and suspicious of unfamiliar, unpleasant or pungent odors. Transformers,
motors and many other electrical devices that are in the process of failing often
overheat and cause insulating materials to emit strong, pungent odors. TURN OFF
POWER and use your nose to track down the source. Turning power off will also
shut down air circulating blowers that circulate odors and make locating their origin
difficult. Treat strong odors as an pre-emergent true emergency. The goal is to
find the offending device before it ignites! Turning off the power will stop the self destructive process and allow the failing device to cool off. Do not re-start a device
that has overheated in operation to the point of emitting strong odors! This type of
over-heating often causes secondary internal damage that you cannot see.

In an emergency, the most important commodity you can have is time! Time to
think and act. To buy time, install smoke detectors. Install smoke detectors that
have dual mode incipient gas sensors as well as visible smoke sensors. Install a
model that communicates with other units so that when one alarms, they all alarm. I
placed a dual-mode smoke detector on the overhead of my electrical locker. That
locker is a small, closed space behind my AC and DC branch circuit panels, and is
where the shore power inlets and the Generator Transfer Switch are located. That is a
good place to install a smoke detector, placed there in order to buy me some time.

Emergencies – Avoidance

When working around electricity, use insulated tools, especially when working around batteries. Batteries contain enormous amounts of stored energy. A metal tool across the terminals of a battery may actually weld the tool metal to the battery terminals. If this happens, the tool metal will become extremely hot. Whenever you plan to work around a battery, pre-plan to have a two foot piece of 2”x2” wood stock, or a wood handled carpenter’s hammer, readily at hand. If the worst should happen, use the wooden 2”x4” as a mallet to forcefully knock the tool away from the battery terminals. Once this cascade of events starts, the only way to stop it is to break the tool free of the battery terminals. Act quickly. The battery can get hot enough to melt and start a fire.

Many electrical emergencies are avoidable. Always comply with standard electrical
safety rules and practices. This is not a exhaustive list. As you plan your projects,
plan for safety.

    1. Never work on live electrical circuits. Turn power “off” before accessing.
    2. Never work alone; always have someone with you who can disconnect power
      and call for help in an emergency.
    3. Never wear watches or jewelry when performing electrical work.
    4. Never parallel multiple small gauge wires to achieve a larger current carrying
      capacity (“ampacity”). That virtually guarantees trouble in the future.
    5. Install protective insulation and safety covers to prevent accidental contact with
      bare electrical connections and terminals.
    6. Periodically, go on an “inspection tour” of the boat’s electrical system; make this
      a part of your scheduled preventive maintenance checklist. Specifically,
  • Screws work loose over time; with power off, periodically go through the boat
    and tighten electrical connections.
  • Crimp connections corrode and loosen over time; avoid crimp connections
    wherever possible; given the choice to splice an existing wire or run a new
    wire, run the new wire; with power off, check crimps by firmly pulling on the
    wire at the crimp. Replace any connections that show any signs of heating
    or of being or becoming loose!
  • Secure loose or dangling wires.
  • Check wiring bundles where they ride over or round obstructions or through
    bulkheads. Vibration injures insulation and wiring, so support and insulate
    bundles in these areas to prevent wear spots.
  • Leave adequate slack in wire runs so they are not under tension.
  • Repair cuts, cracks or gouges in insulation immediately. Don’t wait.

In Case Of Fire

“Experts” all agree, in any fire on a boat, 1) there is very little time to act, and 2)
the odds of successfully fighting a fire are against you from the beginning.

If there is any doubt about being successful at extinguishing a fire aboard, use the
precious little time available to get your crew and yourself safely away from the fire.

    1. Alert your crew:
      • If you decide to fight a fire, do not use water! Water can conduct electricity,
        and you may wind up with both fire and electrocution emergencies. To fight
        an electrical fire, use a dry-chemical extinguisher rated for “Type ABC” fires.
      • Crew calls “m’aidez” (“May Day”) via VHF-16, or 911 via telephone. Do not
        hang up the phone until the 911 dispatcher tells you to.
    2. Disconnect Power:
      • If on shore power, turn power “off” at the pedestal!
      • If on genset, shut down the machine!
      • Shut down DC power to any inverter or inverter/charger!
      • Disconnect the main battery bank!
    3. Once the fire is extinguished, monitor the involved area to be sure it’s cool
      enough that it will not self re-ignite.
    4. Make repairs before re-applying power.

Appendix 1

The following is more in depth than I usually write, and will be of interest to advanced
DIY practitioners and electrical professionals interested in how electrical safety and
testing codes are applied. This material adds to what has been presented above, but
is not necessary to understanding.

Acronyms and Abbreviations

ANSI – American National Standards Institute
AHJ – Authority Having Jurisdiction
CSA – Canadian Standards Association
DER – Distributed Energy Resources
DOE – United States Department of Energy
EPS – Electric Power System
ETL – Intertek® registered testing mark (Electrical Testing Laboratories)
IEC – International Electrotechnical Commission
IEEE – Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
NEC – National Electric Code (United States)
NREL – National Renewable Energy Laboratory
PUC – Public Utility Commission
REPC – Rural Electric Power Conference
SGIRM – Smart Grid Interoperability Reference Model
UL/ULc – Underwriters Laboratories® testing mark

ABYC A-32, AC Power Conversion Equipment and Systems

All ABYC Standards follow a common layout format (“boilerplate”). Following is an
excerpt from the “References” section of ABYC A-32, July, 2017:
32.3 – References
The following references form a part of this standard. Unless otherwise noted the
latest version of the referenced standard shall apply.
32.3.1 – refers to several other ABYC standards
32.3.2 – IEC 62116 Test procedure of islanding protection measures for utility interconnected photovoltiac inverters (IEC 62116 is a European standard)
32.3.3 – IEEE 1547 Standard for Interconnecting Distributed Resources with the
Electric Power Grid (IEEE 1547 is a US ANSI Standard (North America power grid))

Author’s note: emphasis and comments added for clarification.

Relationship of IEEE 1547 and UL 1741

Safety Standards define minimum feature and function capabilities for the design of a
particular class of equipment; in this case an inverter-charger DER. Testing Standards
define test specifications that a device must meet in order for the manufacturer to claim
compliance to the design standard. This leads to some very complex relationships
between different national regulatory authorities and between and among multiple
independent, private enterprise businesses. Following is a pictorial that shows the
relationship of the safety and testing standards that define the INTERFACE between
devices in the class of DERs to the North American Electric Power Grid as deployed in
the United States:

In the above Figure 6, the IEEE 1547 Standard defines the minimum design
requirements of DER equipment. IEEE 1547.1 and UL 1741 together define the
minimum test conditions that the completed device must meet. In addition, ABYC A32,
32.9.2 calls for disconnect protection in less than 100 mS after loss of incoming AC
power. The NEC, Article 705, defines what the National Electric Power Grid is
expecting.

Compliance

Figure 7 shows the Certificate of Conformity for the Victron® MultiPlus™ device family.  At the bottom of the Certificate, readers can see that the device complies to UL 1741-2016 (2nd Edition) and the Canadian National Standard, CAN/CSA 22.2, No. 107.1-16, (4th Edition).

Summary

  1. Victron® MultiPlus™ and Quattro™ inverter-chargers are grid-attached DERs,
    even though their purpose when installed on boats is not to supply power
    backwards onto the grid.
  2. ABYC Standard A-32 incorporates the requirements of IEEE1547. All of the
    ABYC standards operate in the same way, by including (incorporating) other
    relevant IEC, EN and IEEE standards into themselves.
  3. IEEE 1547 has been adopted as an American National Standard by the
    American National Standards Institute. IEEE1547 and subs (1547.1 through
    1547.8) state the design and testing requirements that DERs used in the US
    must meet; in this case, we are specifically interested in the Victron® MultiPlus™
    and Quattro™ inverter/charger devices. Victron® complies to UL1741, which is
    compatible with the NEC in the US.
  4. At this writing, I am still investigating, but I believe it is true that when UL 1741 applies to a device, that certification supersedes UL 458. UL458 compliant
    devices disconnect the incoming mains when the device is operating in “invert”
    mode. UL1741 compliant devices do the same thing, but for a broader set of
    considerations.
  5. Per Victron®*, “…we disconnect/get isolated from the AC source within 20mS.”
    That is well within the July 2017, ABYC A-32 requirement of 100mS.

* email to the author dated 3/15/2019, signed:

Mr. Justin Larrabee
Sales Manager
Victron Energy
70 Water Street
Thomaston, ME 04861

Portable Generators – NOT For Boats

Not all portable generators have the same sales features or have the same electrical configurations.  Electrically, some come fit with internal neutral-to-ground bonds and some do not.  Some come fit with GFCI output circuit breaker protection and some do not.  They come in an array of size and power capabilities, fuel capacities and starting options.

In general, the safety risks of portable generators on boats fall into 3 categories:

  1. Electrical System risks
  2. Fuel System risks
  3. Exhaust risks 

Let’s look at the risks, one at a time:

Electrical System Risks:

The potential list of electrical hazards varies with the specific generator design and the specific use case.  All failure scenarios are complicated, involving many possible combinations of equipment and circuit variables and faults.  Changing one variable can greatly affect the probability and impacts of any particular safety outcome.  Ships sink.  There is never just one cause.  It’s always a constellation of cascading negative events and poor decisions.  The same thing is true here.

Despite USCG and other advice to the contrary, the manner in which most people use portable generators on boats is to connect them to the boat’s shore power inlet to charge permanently-mounted batteries, make coffee or run air conditioners.  Attached to the boat in that way, the generator looks like shore power to the boat’s electrical system.  At least, that’s the intent, if not the reality.

Many small portable generators do not have neutral-to-ground bonds.  In a properly wired boat, there should not be a neutral-to-ground bond(s) in any part of the shore power electrical system aboard the boat.  The shore power neutral-to-ground bond is in the shore power infrastructure, ashore, and comes aboard through the shore power cord.  But with a portable genset, if there is no ground at the generator, there is no known, fixed output polarity to the generated voltage.  There is 120V between the receptacle pins of the current-carrying conductors, but this is a “floating neutral” system.  What can happen in a floating neutral system is not always entirely predictable.  Floating neutral systems were what we had in homes in North America prior to the 1950s. The electrical dangers of these systems lead to the National Electric Code and the grounded neutral systems we have today.

ABYC-recommended Reverse Polarity indicators on 120V boat circuits measure the voltage across the neutral and ground conductors. In a floating-neutral system, Reverse Polarity indicators may not properly indicate reverse polarity. Surge suppressors in consumer electronics can’t work, since there’s no path to ground. But these are not the most serious of the possible range of issues.

Picture a group of boats rafted together enjoying a leisurely weekend cruise.  However unusual it might be, consider the possibility that two adjacent boats in the raft are running floating-neutral portable generators at 07h30 to charge batteries and make coffee. One of the two has installed an “Edison plug.”  If the handrails of these boats are bonded, there is a possible shock hazard between the two boats.  And, that shock hazard is likely worse in salt water than fresh water because of the better conductivity between the two hulls.

If there is no neutral-to-ground bond in the electrical system, there is no fault-clearing path in the event of a ground fault, which is all by itself a serious fire and shock hazard.

If a portable genset is placed in the woods and an extension cord is run from the genset to the boat, any fault onboard can dump power into the water and the fault current will flow through the water back to the portable genset.  That is a threat of variable, unknown and unknowable potential impact with a floating-neutral system.  It is also more dangerous to people, pets, farm animals and wildlife in fresh water than in salt water.

Above, we considered what can happen in a system with no neutral-to-ground bond. Now, consider the result of having more than one neutral-to-ground bond in a system. Even though ABYC requires no neutral-to-ground bonds aboard the boat when running on shore power, we know from experience with the rollout of ground fault sensors on docks that as many as 50% of recreational boats do have them.  That’s one of the most common reasons that some boats trip the new ground fault sensors.  So now take the situation of a boater who uses an “Edison plug” with his portable generator. Now we have the generator circuit’s ground conductor paralleled with the ship’s ground which in turn is cross-connected to the ship’s neutral. Now we have a path for power to escape the generator’s intended neutral return circuit and a generator equipped with output GFCI breakers will trip power “off.” Continuously. Not only is there no power, but the cause is “obscure” at best. Is the generator broken, or just misused? Who ever asks that question?

On land, the National Electric Code is adopted by statute (and administered as regulatory codes) in all 50 states.  For boats, there is no such “law” (“lawless”); there is only the ABYC and the NMMA. The ABYC Standards are “voluntary recommendations,” only loosely, unpredictably and inconsistently “enforced” through the efforts of individual surveyors and the marine insurance industry.  But the truth is, no one can actually stop a boat owner from doing something unsafe on their own boat.  I have personally witnessed boat fires caused by people who did their own thing because they thought they understood the risks they were taking.

On land, in similar manner to the NEC, the use of portable generators in commercial job sites is regulated by OSHA (through regulatory code).  OSHA does not allow “Edison Plugs” on a portable genset on a job site.  In fact, OSHA requires a Generator Transfer Switch in a specific configuration if a building system is to be powered by the generator.

In a construction site situation, the option of a floating-neutral does have its appropriate purpose; it eliminates the potential of a worker being shocked by contacting a hot output conductor and the generator frame at the same time, which can occur if an electrical device such as a hand held tool suffered an internal short circuit.

Fuel System Risks

Portable generators are typically not ignition protected.  They can produce a spark, such that if gasoline fumes were present, those fumes could ignite.  ABYC requires that all electrical equipment on a permanently installed gasoline-powered generator must be ignition protected.

Gasoline-based fuel tanks, hoses and fuel fittings on portable generators do not meet ABYC requirements for materials used in fuel systems on boats.  If a fuel leak were to develop, the potential for a fire is not insignificant.  If there were a fire originating from another source, the tank, hose and fittings on the portable would not have the fire resistance that is required of permanently installed gasoline engines.

The vast majority of portable generators are located on the deck of the boat, resting on their own vibration-damping feet. There is no fuel retention tray that would capture an accidental fuel leak or spill.

Handling and storage of gasoline fuel on boats is always a concern

Someplace in this discussion I need to comment on electric-start units. Batteries and the wiring of batteries to portable generator starter motors are a source of safety concern. This must be done in a way that ensures ignition protection and overload protection.

Exhaust Risks

Carbon Monoxide in significant concentrations can kill in an amazingly short period of time; just a few breaths. Carbon Monoxide will collect in the eddies of air currents flowing across a boat. In most cases, the boat is anchored at the bow, so CO frequently concentrates in eddies at the stern. Trawlers and cruisers offer large, flat vertical elevations at the stern for this to happen. Boaters who swim off the stern of a boat, or who’s children or grandchildren swim off the stern, are at high risk.

Nearby boats are, of course, also at risk. If air currents are right, a boat running a gasoline generator can flood a nearby neighbor with CO.

From the USCG <http://uscgboating.org/recreational-boaters/carbon-monoxide-acummulate.php>

And I would presume to add one more item to this list.  Sanctuary is a slow trawler.  From time to time when moving at the same speed and in the same direction as the prevailing breeze, we can smell our own diesel exhaust.  The same thing can occur with generator exhaust.  Diesel exhaust has very little CO, but the odor always requires that we take action to increase ventilation.

Summary

Moving on from theory to reality, big numbers of people do use portable generators on boats, and they mostly get away with it.  The vast majority of them get away with it through blind luck. All of these scenarios require multiple simultaneous failures for the real risks to actually be realized.  But none of these risks are present with a permanent generator installed to ABYC standards.  To quote the title character in the 1971 movie, Dirty Harry, “do you feel lucky? Well, do you…..?” Well, do you?

There is a reason portable generators are less expensive than made-for-purpose marine generators.  Portable generators are not intended for use on boats.  They do not meet marine standards.  Manufacturers state that these products do not meet electrical codes. They are not warranted for use on boats.  No acknowledged boating safety expert or organization suggests, recommends of approves their use on boats.  Knowing these facts, we are all left do whatever we think is best.