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

Article posted: April 20, 2019

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.

Key Electrical Concepts For 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.

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

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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.

AC Electricity Fundamentals – Part 1

About this article

Initial post: 2/14/2019

This article discusses the concepts and terminology of AC electricity at an introductory level. The scope of the article is limited to the AC power systems found in North and Central America. In Part 1 (this part; already plenty long enough), I will discuss the basics of AC power generation and the delivery of AC power to single-family residential neighborhoods and homes. In the Part 2 article,  I present a discussion of the AC power systems focused on cruising boats.

I chose this two part approach for two reasons. First, almost all homeowners have some familiarity with household AC electricity. At the very least, most homeowners can find the circuit breaker panel and reset tripped breakers. Second, and more important, boat AC electrical systems are just a specific subset of what is found in a single-family residential AC installation. Boat AC systems are equivalent to sub-panels in a residence. Sub-panels are subordinate to the main service disconnect panel in a residential building, and in the same way, boats are subordinate to the AC electrical infrastructure of a marina. A basic understanding of household AC electrical systems puts boaters 75% of the way towards understanding boat AC electrical systems. Where boats differ from land-based residential buildings, the reasons are based on specific safety issues that emerge in, and are unique to, the marine environment. Boat AC electrical systems are significantly more complex than single family residences.

This article will assist readers in having confidence when talking about electrical topics with a professional, marine-certified, electrical technician, either designer or tradesman.

Safety

There is one absolute, always rule whenever you must deal with electricity. VIRTUALLY ALL ELECTRICIY CAN BE DANGEROUS TO PROPERTY AND LIFE. Even de-energized electrical circuits can retain enough stored energy to create a life-threatening hazard.  The large batteries found on boats can produce explosive gasses and store enough energy to easily start a large, damaging fire.

ALWAYS WEAR SAFETY GLASSES while working around electricity! If you will be working in noisy environments, with running engines or other loud machinery, 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!

The rule is, “if you aren’t sure what to do and how to do it, stop. Don’t do anything until you’re sure of the “what,” “how” and “why!”

Electrocution

Electrocution is a biological insult that starts with 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 electrocution, there are several things to do 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!

Basic Electrical Working Concepts  – Volts/Amps/Ohms

Like gravity, electricity is invisible. A common analogy used to explain electrical concepts is to liken an electric system to a community water system. Consider the familiar garden hose fit with a nozzle. In the garden hose, when the nozzle is opened, “pressure” in the system makes water flow.

In this analogy, the water in the hose is analogous to electrons in a wire. “Voltage” is the “propulsive energy,” or “pressure,” that makes electrons flow through the wire. The greater the water pressure, the more water flows per unit time. Similarly, the more voltage that is present across a circuit, the more electrons will flow through the circuit per unit time. The amount of water that comes out of the hose is measured in “gallons.” The flow of electrons through wire is measured in “amperes,” or “amps.”

In a water hose, the nozzle restricts the flow of water through the hose. The flow of electrons is restricted in electrical circuits by the electrical property of “resistance.” All materials that conduct electricity have some amount of resistance. Silver and gold have little resistance per unit length. Pure copper has only slightly more, and aluminum has slightly more again. Even the small resistance of a copper wire is extremely important in power distribution applications. Electrical “resistance” is measured in “Ohms.”

Assume we have a 3” diameter water hose and a 1/2” diameter water hose, both attached to the same water source. Only so many molecules of water can fit through the small hose in a minute, but many more molecules of water can fit through the large hose. This concept is called “carrying capacity.” Only so many electrons can “fit” through a wire per unit time.  The larger the wire, the more electrons.  Electrical “carrying capacity” is called “ampacity.” “Ampacity” is a rating assigned to wires.  Wires of the same metal, of different sizes and covered by insulation with different thermal and chemical properties, have different rated “ampacities.” The ampacity rating is the safe maximum current the wire can carry within the temperature rating of the wire’s insulation. Ampacity tables are widely available on the Internet.

Ohm’s Law – Memory Aid

The mathematical relationship between voltage, current, resistance and power is defined by “Ohm’s Law.” Ohm’s Law is probably the most fundamental relationship there is in the entire realm of electricity.  Folks who deal with electricity regularly have this relationship emblazoned in their brains, but for the rest of us, this “memory aid” is  extremely helpful! First, decide what variable you want to calculate. It’s unusual not to know at least two of the necessary variables. For example, today I saw a TV advertisement for a small, portable, plug-in electric space heater. The device plugs into a 120V outlet, so we know E = 120V. I went to the website and found that the unit is rated at 600 Watts, so we know P = 600. For use on the boat, I wondered how much current the device would draw. From the two known variables, we can calculate that the unit will draw about 5 Amps of AC current, which indeed may be OK for some uses on a boat. We also know the unit’s equivalent resistance is 24 Ω (“Ω” is the Greek Letter “Omega,” and is used as shorthand for “Ohms.”)

Ground

The Earth – the crust of our beloved home planet – is electrically conductive. It has many minerals and mineral salts which provide “free electrons.” In the presence of a voltage, electrons flow from point-to-point around and within the earth’s crust. By far the most dramatic example of this is the natural phenomena called “lightening.”

The electrical potential of the earth is defined to be “zero” volts. It is the standard reference point for shock and electrocution safety. In order to connect a residential electrical system to “earth ground,” one or more interconnected rods of copper are driven into the ground. The neutral return point of the residence’s electrical system is physically connected to the network of copper grounding rods.

The concept of “earth ground” is absolutely essential for the safety of people, pets, farm animals and wildlife.  The entire electric distribution grid of the country is connected at innumerable points to rods driven into the earth (the “electric grid” is a “multi-earthed system”).  Every residential property has an “earthing” connection at the service entrance to the home.

The essential point here is that “earth ground” is a universally understood reference point for all power distribution systems. It represents the presence of “zero” electrical potential, or stated in the negative, the total absence of any voltage.  We will return to this concept over and over as we proceed in our discussion.

Circuit Common/“Common”

The concept of “earth ground” is essential for electrical safety, but an earth ground is not necessary for electric circuits to operate. The term “common” is useful in electrical design. It is used among power distribution engineers and craftsmen to reference the conductor that returns current flowing in a circuit from the load to the source.  This is the purpose of the “neutral conductor” in AC electric systems. This conductor does not have to be “0” volts with respect to ground. The “common return” is a “free-floating” conductor. It is extremely important to understand the difference between the concepts of “ground” and “common.”

The term “common” or “circuit common” is not often used in routine conversation.   The common return of a circuit is frequently – colloquially – called its “ground.”  The most appropriate term in household electrical systems is “neutral.”  “Neutral” is a specific term that refers to the current-carrying return conductor of residential AC circuits, but it is not a specific reference to “earth ground.”

Direct contact with energized high voltage is completely safe as long as you are not “across” two or more electrical conductors. For current to flow, there must be a connection between two conductors where there is a voltage difference between them (that is, “across a voltage”). Consider, birds sitting on high tension transmission lines, or squirrels running along neighborhood overhead wires. They are safe because they are on, but not across, a voltage. The animal’s entire little body is raised to the voltage of the wire upon which they sit, yet they are perfectly safe because there is no path for current to flow THROUGH the body. The electrical activity of their brains and hearts is not affected. But, a human being on a wet concrete floor wearing leather shoes best not come into contact with a “hot” wire. That concrete floor is made with salt-containing minerals, and most definitely is electrically conductive, especially when wet. A person standing on that floor and simultaneously touching an energized wire is “across” an electric voltage. That is a shocking experience!  Maybe, a fatal, shocking experience.

“Conventions” vs. Facts

Within the study of electricity as a science, there are hard electrochemical and materials facts, and then there are shorthand ways people talk to each other about complex concepts.  This happens in all professions, of course.  It’s all fine until the terminology confuses an understanding of the true concepts.  Some examples:

  1. It is a fact of physics that electrons carry a negative electrical charge, which means electrons flow from a more negative voltage in a circuit to a more positive voltage.  However, by universal agreement, or “by convention,” the entire practice of electricity and electronics treats current as flowing from positive to negative.  The direction of electron flow has no practical importance, but to properly interpret electrical diagrams, you need to understand the conventional way current flow gets represented by arrow-containing symbols.
  2. The symbols on electrical drawings are all agreed by “convention,” or “working agreement.”  Industry-specific symbols are agreed by international standards organizations.  Where there are symbol differences, their meaning is often obvious.  Some differences occur across international boundaries.  The power industry uses different symbols than are used in the electronics industry.
  3. The “single phase, center tapped, three wire” service is the residential standard in use, by convention, all across North and Central America.  It is institutionalized in the National Electric Code of the US and The Canadian Electric Code in Canada.  Completely different systems are used in other parts of the world, including Europe, Asia, Oceania and southern South America.
  4. The insulation used to coat electrical conductors is colored.  The colors, by convention, identify the use to which wires are put.  Understanding the color schema for wires is essential to electrical safety.  Mistakes here can be fatal.  The meaning of colors vary from country to country.  There are numerous differences between the United States and the nations of the European Economic Community and Oceania.  For those interested, tables are available on the Internet that document color meanings.

Science and Craftsmanship

The laboratory study of “electrical energy” is a theoretical and conceptual science.
Electrical craftsmanship is practical.  I will discuss only a tiny subset of the technical terms and concepts that are necessary to understanding low voltage AC as found in residential and boat applications.  Craftsmanship involves selecting materials, employing fabrication techniques, installing and maintaining electrical equipment, all with the goal of accomplishing some intended design purpose.  Craftsmanship is performed by electricians or electrical technicians and governed by formal regulatory controls called “electrical building codes.”

I view craftsmanship in two stages, which can be sequential or iterative.  If you have ever done an electrical project, you’ve performed both of these functions.

The first stage is the domain of the “circuit designer;”  i.e., the person who designs a branch circuit for installing a ceiling fan with a single switch to turn the fan “on” and “off.”  Or a slightly more complex branch circuit with three switches to turn a light “on” and “off” from different locations.  Or a much more complex array of multiple branch circuits to power a “man cave” or “she shed.”  Or the system for an entire home.  The designer must have solid knowledge of the National Electrical Code (NEC).  Electrical designers for boating applications must be thoroughly familiar with the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) electrical standards.  The NEC and ABYC standards have as their purpose avoiding or minimizing present and future loss of life or damages to property.  The work product of the designer is a system drawing that defines the purpose of a circuit and the manner in which that purpose will be achieved through the use of electrical equipment, components and materials.  The work product includes a the bill-of-materials of the components required to implement the project.  For most projects, a reliable cost estimate can be produced at this stage.

The second craftsmanship stage is the domain of the skilled technician who is charged with the doing of the thing.  This craftsman must know how to use and interpret the designer’s drawings and how to use an enormous array of electrical meters and mechanical tools in the safe fabrication, construction, installation and maintenance of electrical circuits.  This craftsman must understand current assembly techniques, materials and supplies, and must understand and deeply respect industry safety practices.  Safety practice involves knowing when to and when not to work around, and with, energized electrical circuits.  On boats, because of the special safety implications of an electrical system on a floating structure, this craftsman must understand not only what to do and how to do it, but in fact, why things are done as they are, in making an electrical installation safe.

Key Concepts and Terms

  1. Ohm’s law – describes the mathematical relationship between voltage, current, resistance and power.
  2. voltage – (Volt) the quantification of “Electromotive Force” (EMF) (“propulsive energy”) that acts on a circuit to force electrons to flow.  Electromotive Force is measured across two points in a circuit.
  3. current – (ampere; amp) a quantification of the number of electrons flowing through a circuit at any one time.
  4. resistance – (Ohm) a characteristic of an electrically conductive material that tends to retard or impede the flow of electrons through it.
  5. power – (elect: Watt; Joule) (mechanical: inch-pounds, foot-pounds) elect: the amount of “work” that electricity performs in its application.  In purely resistive applications, light or heat.  In turning a motor, torque.
  6. frequency – (Hertz) the number of times a wave goes through a complete cycle in a standard measurement time interval, usually one second.
  7. ampacity – (Amp) a rating of the ability of a conductor of given material, diameter and insulation properties to conduct an electric current within the temperature limit established by the properties of the wire’s insulation characteristics.  (current: amperes; amps) (temperature: degrees Centigrade)
  8. source – the origin from which AC power emerges to energize a circuit.
  9. load – the components of an electric circuit where energy is consumed to do useful work; “useful work” includes production of heat, light, or torque via a motor.
  10. common – a portion of a circuit connection or set of connections that creates a direct return path for electrons flowing in an electric circuit.
  11. neutral – a special case in an AC circuit of a non-ground return path for electrons flowing in a North American standard residential electrical service.
  12. ground – a universal  standard earth reference voltage of “0” volts.
  13. fault current – an abnormal path for current flow, usually to ground.  Fault currents represent potentially dangerous conditions.
  14. short circuit – a specific category of electrical fault resulting from an unintentional direct connection of an energized conductor to either a return circuit or an earth ground.  This low-resistance, unintentional connection results in the flow of extremely large fault currents, and causes overload protection devices (fuses, circuit breakers) to open in order to disconnect the energized power source.
  15. GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) – an anti-shock safety device that senses leakage currents and disconnects the energized power source.
  16. AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) – a fire protection safety device that senses lose connections and disconnects the energized power source.
  17. GFP/EPD/ELCI (Ground Fault Protection/Equipment Protective Device/Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter) – similar to GFCI, but higher disconnect specifications.
  18. chase, raceway, conduit, “emt” – enclosed containment spaces in a building or a boat through which wires are run to achieve access to distant locations or to protect wiring from accidental physical damage.
  19. Field Coil – the rotating part of one design of AC generator; this coil can be a DC permanent magnet (typical in small machines), or a DC electromagnet.
  20. Voltage Regulator – the device that determines the strength of the magnetic field in an AC genset by adjusting DC current flowing in the spinning field coil.
  21. Stator – the fixed coils of one design of AC generator, from which sine waves of AC power emerge.
  22. Armature – the power-producing component of a generator; the rotating part of a DC generator; the fixed coils (Stator) in one design of AC generator.
  23. switchgear – a generic term for all disconnecting devices (fuses, circuit breakers, switches, power panels).  This term is used across the electrical power industry, from generating station to transformer yards to residential locations.
  24. Inductance (Ohm)/capacitance (Farad)/Power Factor (unitless) – technical characteristics common to the behavior of AC electricity in circuits that significantly affect large motor driven appliances and all electronic devices.  These become increasingly important as voltages, frequencies and power consumption rise.
  25. Managing the collapse of a magnetic field – a design consideration of any magnetically operated electrical devices (motor, generator, relay, etc), and many solid state devices.  A significant safety consideration for maintenance craftsmen.  When a magnetic field collapses, it creates a very high energy spike, which sometimes includes an electric arc.
  26. ABYC – American Boat and Yacht Council, Annapolis, MD.  This organization produces a very comprehensive set of electrical standards applicable to boat manufacturers, the marine insurance industry and boat owners.
  27. NFPA – National Fire Protection Association; owner/creator of the NEC.
  28. NEC/CEC – National Electric Code (USA), Canada Electric Code (Canada).  electrical design standards for political subdivisions and the construction industry.  Ranges from codes for residential housing, light commercial and industrial buildings, elevators, hospitals, airports, and heavy industry.

 

Generation (Source) and Consumption (Load)

There are three primary divisions of all electrical power distribution systems, including the global system we call the “nationwide electrical power grid.”  They are 1) the source of the electrical power, 2) the transmission system, or interconnecting wires and switches that carry power from the source to the point where it is consumed, and 3) the load, or the part of the system where the electrical energy is transformed into useful work.

At the level of the US national electric power grid, the source of AC electric power is one or more generating machines located in one or more generating stations.  Often, the term “alternator” is used interchangeably with the term “generator.”  These generating stations range in size from enormous, industrial-sized installations to small rural hydroelectric dams to units suitable for individual residential applications.

The substations, switchgear and wiring that connects sources of power to load centers are extremely complex, involving may hundreds of miles of high tension power lines, enormous transformers and highly complex switches.  Transmission equipment  can also be as simple as an extension cord run from the garage to the hedge clipper.

Electrical loads fall into the entire range of electrical equipment, from the largest commercial synchronous motors to the smallest and most humble LED electric clock.

About AC Generators

Typical AC electric generators have a rotating magnet (imagine the big bar magnet you played with in grade school science) which has a north pole and a south pole.  That magnet may be driven by a belt, wind or water turbine or direct drive, but ultimately, it’s a spinning magnet mounted on a shaft.  The north and south poles of the spinning magnet travel in a circular path.  A pick-up coil is positioned just outside the edge of the circle.   As the magnet spins on it’s shaft, the poles of the magnet approach the fixed pick-up coil, producing an electric voltage at the pick-up coil.

As the spinning magnetic pole gets physically nearer to the pick-up coil, the voltage at the pick-up coil gets progressively larger.  Once the magnetic pole moves past and away from the pick-up coil, the voltage at the pick-up coil gets progressively smaller again. When the north and south poles of the magnet are both equally distant from the conductors of the pick-up coil, no voltage is produced at the pick-up coil.

The voltage induced in the pick-up coil by the passage of the north magnetic pole is equal in magnitude and opposite in polarity from the voltage induced by the passage of the south magnetic pole.  One pair of north and south magnetic poles that sequentially rotate past the pick-up coil produce one cycle of AC voltage at the pick-up coil on each revolution. The speed, in revolutions per minute (RPM), of the spinning magnet determines the frequency (Hz) of the generated voltage.  The resulting AC wave form is called a “sine wave,” which is centered around “0” volts.  Sine waves rise and fall in smooth, graceful fashion with no sharp transitions in the shape of the wave.

In the preceding diagram, there is a geometrically balanced arrangement of a spinning magnet and a geometrically balanced arrangement of pick-up coils.  The output power of the generator is directly proportional to the strength of the magnetic field, up to the limits of its materials and mechanical design.  The output consists of two wires, and is referred to as “Single Phase” AC.

Many physical arrangements of the magnet poles and pick-up coils are possible, but the basic principle is the same for all AC generators.  To produce 60Hz AC, a single phase, two-pole, gasoline-driven, big box store genset (2500W to 6kW) typically spins at 3600 rpm; a single phase four-pole Marine genset (7.5kW to 25kW) typically spins at 1800 rpm. Because of the enormous weight and mechanical forces involved, multi-megawatt commercial generators may have 24 poles and spin at 200 rpm.

The rotating magnet in an AC generator is called the “field coil.”  The field coil is just a spinning DC electromagnet.  DC is fed to the field coil via slip rings and brushes on the spinning shaft.  The fixed pick-up coil in an AC generator is called the “stator coil.”  It is wrapped around iron support columns that are fixed in position around the perimeter of the frame of the machine.

Occasionally, the term “armature” may be heard; an “armature” is defined as the power-producing component of a generator.  In a DC machine, it is the armature that spins, with field coils stationary in the frame of the machine.  Fixed field coils with a spinning armature is a construction alternative for small frame AC alternators (<25kW).  This is both more costly to build and much more complex mechanically, so not common in the generator sizes found in the consumer retail market.

The amount of power that a generator can produce depends on many aspects of the physical construction of the machine, the amount of energy available from the driving motive source, the size of the internal conductors and underlying metal components, the strength of the internal magnetic field, and many other factors.

“Single-Phase” and “Three-Phase Power”

In reading through questions and discussions on various Internet boating bulletin boards , the differences between “single phase” AC and “three-phase” AC is often a point of confusion.  Three-phase power is extremely rare in residential settings, and few people have any life experience with it.

Consider the above preceding description of generator concepts.  Commercial power plants are fit with enormously large and heavy generators.  For several reasons, it is advantageous for these very large machines to spin slowly.  These generators are built with a large number of physical pick-up coils.  These pick-up coils are arranged as pairs in sets of three.  Logically – not physically – the machine appears as shown in this diagram.  These sets of pick-up coils are placed around the perimeter of the circle of the rotating magnet, at geometric intervals of 120° around the 360° circle.

As the bar magnet spins, the voltage in each of the pick-up coils rises to its positive maximum, falls back to zero, then rises to its negative maximum, and falls back to zero. This happens in each set of coils, in turn.  The result is three sinusoidal waveforms being produced by the same rotating magnet (“field”).  The three wave forms are displaced in time by 1/3 of a cycle (120°) of rotation of the rotor.  Enter here, the short-cut language the electrical industry has for this: “three-phase AC,” often shown on electrical diagrams written as “3-ϕ” or “3-phase.”

For commercial power plant operators and distributors, three-phase power is far more economical to generate than single-phase power.  Worldwide, all commercial electric power is created in generators configured as 3-ϕ machines.  The phases are designated as “Phase-1,” “Phase-2,” and “Phase 3;” this terminology can also be “Phase-A,” “Phase-B,” and “Phase C.”  Three-phase derived power is of special interest for boaters with 120V/240V, 50A shore power connections since it results in 120V/208V voltages.  More details in the section on “Special Situations.”

Single-phase AC is the type of electric service found in virtually all single family residential applications because it is easily derived from three-phase distribution systems, in two ways.  The first is to connect a load between any one of the phases of a three-phase service and a suitable electrical return point, usually the common of a 3-phase wye configuration.  This is how residential neighborhoods are serviced.  The second way to obtain single phase AC is to connect the load between any two phases of the 3-phase distribution system.  This is common in commercial applications and in apartment and condo buildings, but not in single family residential services.

Residential Neighborhood

For simplicity, I started with power as delivered to single family suburban homes excluding light commercial buildings.  Light commercial buildings (condos, townhouses, apartments, offices, stores, and marinas) can all be served with single phase AC electric service, just as single family residences are, but more commonly, they are served by 3-phase utility service.  I will talk about these buildings later in the section on “Special Situations.”

Utility company power transformers have input sides, called the “primary,” and output sides, called the “secondary.”  Physically, both the primary and the secondary coils of the transformer are independent windings of wire wound around an internal metal core.  The windings are electrically isolated from each other; i.e., “insulated” from each other, but are “coupled” to each other by a shared magnetic field.  As the incoming primary voltage rises and falls, the magnetic field in the metal core strengthens and weakens.  As that magnetic field strengthens and weakens, voltage appears at the secondary.

Residential Single Phase :Street” Transformer (Typical)

The “load” for the transformer outside your house usually consists of four or so residential homes.  Throughout North and Central America the transformer is matched to the primary voltage to produce 120V/240V at the secondary.  The utility company transformer reduces the primary voltage to the residential requirement.  The range of transmission system primary voltages in a three-phase grounded wye configuration include; 34,500/19,900 volts; 22,900/13,200 volts; 13,200/7,620 volts; 12,470/7,200 volts; and, 4,160/2,400.  The first number in these number pairs represents the phase-to-phase voltage; the second number represents the phase to neutral voltage.  A single phase primary in a residential neighborhood is most commonly 7,200 volts, measured phase-to-neutral.  In rural residential primaries, 13,200 volts is common.

Transformer coils can be built with one or more “taps” on both the primary and secondary windings (coils).   The secondary winding of a residential power transformer is built with a single tap at the electrical midpoint of the coil.  This configuration is called a “center-tap.”  The three wires that come to a single-family residential  home from the utility pole are the two end-points of the secondary coil and the center-tap.  That center-tap conductor becomes the “neutral” within the building’s distribution wiring.

In the world of the electrical craftsman (electrician), it is desirable practice in a residential building or boat to have about ½ of the total household load attached to each side of the service transformer.  This practice balances the load on the secondary windings of the transformer on the street, and balances the concentration of heat that builds up within the windings and metal core of the transformer.  Transformers are oil cooled, and under heavy loads, they can get very hot.  Thus, balancing heat dissipation is crucially important in periods of very high electrical demand.  Days that are 104°F on the Chesapeake Bay or -30°F at International Falls are not times you’d want the transformer that serves your home to fail!

The definition of a North American residential standard power distribution system is a “single-phase, center-tapped, three-wire” service (alternatively, “single-phase, center-tapped, three-pole” service; in this case, the term “pole” represents a current carrying conductor.  Other common terms for this systems include “grounded neutral” and “split phase.”  The three parts of this definition are:

  1. single phase
  2. center-tap (gives rise to the system “neutral;” “grounded neutral”)
  3. three wires (two “hot” and one “neutral”)

From time-to-time, professional electricians and DIY lay technicians incorrectly refer to the residential “single phase, center tapped, three-wire” configuration as consisting of two phases.   The “evidence” is that one leg, “L1,” is 180° out-of-phase with the other leg, “L2.”  While “true,” this misleading factoid is a measurement curiosity caused by performing the electrical measurement from an inappropriate reference point.  Voltages from the two halves of our residential service will appear to be out-of-phase if measured with an oscilloscope from Neutral to “L1” and then from Neutral to “L2.”  The false appearance is the result of looking at the secondary of the transformer with reference to its center tap rather than across the entire winding.  This measurement curiosity is not present if the secondary is measured from “L1” to “L2” (or vice versa).  Think of it this way.  There is only one magnetic field alternately rising and falling in the transformer, driven by the rise and fall of the single-phase input at the primary.  That is the defining characteristic of “single-phase” equipment.  In a three phase device, there are three independent magnetic fields rising and falling within the equipment.  That is the defining characteristic of 3-phase equipment.  This distinction becomes extremely important when describing rotational torque in a 3-phase motor.

The above discussion is somewhat of a “technicality” issue, which has no practical importance in real life, and can safely be ignored!  When I was a pup, and first worked for an electrician in the early 1960s, I learned to refer to the two residential “hot” lines as “legs” instead of “phases.”  Doing so distinguishes the in-residence wiring from the conductors of the utility distribution system.  Frankly, except for the concepts involved, it’s really not important how you refer to this as long as you don’t let it confuse you!

Service Entrance – Single Family Residence

So now we understand that the electrical service entering a single family residence is a “single-phase, center tap, three-wire” service.  In our single family residence, if there are overhead wires and utility poles in the street, the three wires coming from the transformer are routed to a weather head or anchorage on the home, where they are spliced to wires leading to the electric meter.  In most jurisdictions in the US, the wires coming from the street are owned by the utility company.  The weather head, meter box and the wires from the “street splice” to the meter box are customer-owned.  The meter itself is owned by the utility company.

The customer-owned wire to the electric meter and from the meter to the main disconnect panel inside the building is comprised of two insulated wires (usually black) surrounded by a wrapping of bare wire strands.  This entire cable assembly is insulated as a single triplex unit.  This cable has a flat rectangular cross-section and is known as “Type SE,” or “Service Entrance” cable.  The two hot lines are routed to the input side of the “main” circuit breaker in the main disconnect panel.  The uninsulated neutral wire of the Service Entrance cable is routed to the neutral buss bar in the main panel.  The neutral buss bar is insulated from everything else in the service disconnect box, including the metal of the box enclosure, itself.  If the residence has an underground service, wires from a transformer located on a ground-level concrete pad will all be individually insulated wires rather than a triplex assembly.  They will be routed through underground conduit into the electric meter and then to the service disconnect panel.

The output side of the main circuit breaker in the disconnect panel is attached directly to metal “buss bars,” to which individual branch circuit breakers are fitted.  These buss bars are referred to as “L1” and “L2,” because they are on the overload-protected load side of the panel’s main circuit breaker.  The input side of the main disconnect breaker is referred to as the “Line” side and the output side is referred to as the “Load” side.

What we have not yet discussed is the “safety ground” that is required throughout the residence by the National Electric Code.  This safety ground attaches to every outlet, switch plate, ceiling fan, luminary fixture and appliance in the residence.  In a residential application, there are one or more copper rods driven into the ground outside the building.  The grounding wire is usually of bare #6 or #4 AWG stranded copper wire, and is routed from the buried ground rod(s) to a buss bar located in the service disconnect panel.  That buss bar is physically mounted on, and electrically connected to, the service disconnect panel’s metal box enclosure.  All of the ground wires that come from outlets and appliances everywhere in the building will be routed to this buss bar.

Main Service Disconnect Panel

We know from earlier discussion that the “neutral” in the building is a free-floating return line for power that arrives from the transformer hot lines.  But a free-floating return point is unlikely to be at “zero” volts, which is required to avoid electric shock in the home.  The NEC requires that the neutral line in a residence be bonded to earth ground “at the derived source of the electricity.”  For a home, the “derived source” is defined to be the main service disconnect panel.

In one design of main service disconnect panel, there is a buss bar dedicated to collecting branch circuit neutral conductors and a physically separate buss bar dedicated to collecting safety ground conductors.  In this style panel, there is a screw – usually dyed green in color – in the neutral buss bar. That screw is the “system bonding jumper,” or “bonding screw.”  This design allows the panel to be used either as a main disconnect panel or as a sub-panel.

If the disconnect panel is to be used as the Main Disconnect Panel, the bonding screw must be seated into the panel’s metal enclosure housing to electrically “bond” the “neutral” buss bar to the “safety ground” buss bar.  That screw is not for any mechanical purpose; it is the electrical bridge that make the “neutral” to “earth ground” connection.  THIS IS A CRITICALLY IMPORTANT SAFETY FEATURE.  NEVER OMIT OR REMOVE THE BONDING SCREW!

Sub-panel(s)

Sub-panels, a special case of residential switchgear, are used for several reasons:

  1. reduce the number of wire runs from the main service disconnect panel,
  2. manage the round trip length for long branch circuit wiring runs,
  3. manage the number of wires run in hidden chases/raceways/conduits, and
  4. reduce the cost of the installation.

The NEC does not limit the number of sub-panels that may be installed in a residential electrical system. Larger residential systems may have sub-panels located in several places around the home; ex: attached or detached garage, detached “guest quarters,” workshop, greenhouse or yard shed, pool house, Man Cave, She Shed, attic-space mechanical service (air conditioning compressor or attic vent fans), etc.  To install a sub-panel in residential applications, a single, appropriately sized 4-conductor cable, “Type SER,” is run from the main service entrance panel to the sub-panel (red arrow, below).  This 4-wire configuration carries “L1,” “L2,” “N” and “G” to the sub-panel switch box.  Because the sub-panel is subordinate to the main disconnect panel, the neutral-to-ground bonding screw is NEVER used in any sub-panel switch box.  By definition, the sub-panel is not the “source” for these branch circuits.  The main disconnect panel remains the “defined source” of the circuit.

The configuration of sub-panels in a residence is exactly analogous to the configuration of a boat attached to a marina shore power pedestal.  Notice the 240V, 3-pole, 4-wire feeder (red arrow) that connects the residential Main Disconnect Panel to the remote sub-panel.  This feeder is exactly analogous to the 240V/50A shore power cord of a boat.  The sub-panel “feeder cable” is “Type SER.”  It contains three current-carrying conductors and a safety ground.  Rather than the flat, rectangular cross-section of “Type SE,” “Type SER” cable features a round cross-section.  A boat’s “feeder cable” (shore power cord) is “Type SO” or “Type SOW,” which are very flexible cords.  Net: a boat looks like a sub-panel to the marina’s shore power system, and that is why the ABYC electrical standard seems so closely aligned with the requirements of the NEC.  Notice also in the drawing that the sub-panel safety ground leads back to the neutral buss in the main panel.  The neutral-to-ground bond is made only at the “derived source,” which is the Main Disconnect Panel.   Likewise, on a boat connected to shore power, there should never be a neutral-to-ground connection anywhere on the boat.  In both cases, the neutral-to-ground connection is made at the “derived source,” which is the main distribution panel in a residence, analogous to the marina shore power system for a boat.

Note: This main disconnect panel drawing shows a single buss bar which is shared by the neutrals and the grounds of branch circuits.  This arrangement is an NEC-compliant variation in a main disconnect panel.  Many main disconnect panels and all sub-panels will have physically separate busses for the neutrals and the grounds.

Branch Circuits

Branch circuits are where useful work gets done in the home.  There are three use cases:

  1. Between legs “L1” and “L2” alone, without “N,” we can power 240VAC, two-wire (two-pole) appliances; for example, the 240V motor of a deep-well pump, 240V baseboard electric heat radiator(s), or a 240V hot water heater.
  2. With “L1,” “L2” and “N,” we can power 240V, three-pole appliances; these appliances require 240V for some internal functions and 120V for other internal functions; for example, an electric dryer, range cooktop or oven; all of these appliances require 240V for the heating elements, but 120V for the motor and control circuits.  Or, central air conditioning system, which requires 240V for the compressor, but only 120V for the control circuits.
  3. Finally, with either “L1” or “L2” alone, and “N,” we can power the entire panoply of 120V, two-pole household loads; oil or gas furnace, dishwasher, incandescent and florescent lighting, computers, printers, routers, wireless telephones, TVs, VCRs, stereo, refrigerator, freezer, microwave oven, coffee maker, toaster, crock pot, waffle iron, blender, mixer, hair dryer, steam iron, battery chargers, shop tools, CPAP, oxygen concentrator, etc; you get the idea!

Branch circuits originate at a circuit breaker located in either the main service panel or a subordinate sub-panel.  Branch circuits feed either convenience outlets or feed into the attachment enclosure of a permanently installed appliance.  For convenience of installation and maintenance, the individual black, red, white and bare wires of a branch circuit are packaged together within a sheath of plastic outer insulation.  Most residential wire sold in big box, hardware stores and home centers is “Type NM,” meaning “non-metallic.” This is often called “Romex.”  “Type NM” intended to power 120V circuits is called “two-wire with ground,” or “two-pole, three-wire.”  “Type NM” intended to power 240V circuits is called “three-wire with ground,” or “three-pole, four wire.”    Another common residential wire is “Type AC.”  “Type AC” has an armored metallic sheath around the individual colored conductors instead of a plastic outer sheath.  “Type AC” is used for furnace controls for LPG and oil burners, hot water heaters and other appliance in an equipment room or basement, as well as when installed in areas exposed to being physically disturbed or damaged, such as workshops or garages.  Carefully match the wire you buy to the application you have, based on NEC and local electrical codes.

In the U. S., the color of the insulation on individual wires is important; “L1” is black, “L2” is red, “N” is white and “G” is uninsulated copper in convenience and appliance circuits, but can be green or green with a yellow tracer when insulated.

Occasionally, you may encounter a wire in a service disconnect panel or a junction box that has a piece of electrical tape of another color  conspicuously wound around it near its connecting end.  In a residential building, you may see red or black electrical tape wound on a white insulated wire, or you may see a piece or white electrical tape wound on red or black insulated wires.

Do not remove these pieces of tape; they are not an accidental left-over!  It means the installing electrician has “changed” the meaning of the base color of the insulation of the wire.  In residences, the most common place to find it is in wall boxes containing switches that control lighting or fans from multiple doorway locations, or wall boxes at the top and bottom of staircases.   If you ever see this, always triple-verify how the wire is actually being used before proceeding or disturbing the connection.

I have spent a lot of time talking about the current that arrives at the load in one of the energized conductors, “L1” and/or “L2,” and returns to the source in the neutral, “N.”  I have not discussed the use of the green ground wire, “G.”  In a correctly wired, normally operating home or boat AC electrical system, the ground wire should never have any current flowing in it.  The purpose of the safety ground wire is to provide an emergency path for current in order to trip the supplying circuit breaker to remove power from a faulting circuit.  By definition, current flowing in a safety ground is symptomatic of an electrical fault condition.  Fault currents originate from the hot line(s), but return to the source in the safety ground instead of the neutral.  This condition is also known as a “ground fault.”  Never use wire covered with green insulation as a current-carrying conductor.

Circuit Breakers

Contrary to popular belief, circuit breakers/fuses do not protect attached loads!  Circuit breakers do not protect TVs, entertainment systems, computers, microwaves, coffee pots, pumps or compressors.  CIRCUIT BREAKERS/FUSES PROTECT THE POWER-CARRYING WIRING THAT IS HIDDEN IN WALLS AND/OR ENCLOSED IN CHASES, RACEWAYS AND CONDUIT THROUGHOUT YOUR HOME OR BOAT!  They protect the WIRING of your home/boat.  This is a critically key concept.

When wires overheat, their colored insulation can melt, exposing the live conductor.  At that point, energized conductors can touch other now uninsulated conductors, and sparks can fly.  Wires in closed spaces, unusually warm spaces, or chases/raceways/conduits warm up more than wires in un-congested, cool, spaces where there is plenty of air circulation. Overheating softens the insulation.  Wires can get so hot that they will literally melt and can weld themselves together.  This process can cause adjacent nearby wood and composite building materials to burst into flame.  So, circuit breakers protect wires from overload, and therefore, protect the insulation from overheating, melting, failing and causing fires.

There are several common types of circuit breakers, and several manufacturers of circuit breakers and compatible service disconnect panels.  Circuit Breakers for 120V circuits are singe-wide; for 240VAC, they are “stacked” or “doublewide.”  Doublewide breakers have mechanically linked operating levers, and must be doublewide so that they can be physically installed in a service panel in a way that allows them to mate to both the “L1” and the “L2” buss bars at the same time.   If one leg of a 240V circuit – say, “L1” – develops a fault that causes the circuit breaker to trip, the mechanical link causes the other leg – in this example, “L2” – to also be disconnected from it’s source.  Never remove the mechanical linkage between doublewide breaker operating levers.

Switchgear on Boats – Residential vs. Marine-certified

Circuit Breakers should be selected based on the size of the wire they protect.  A 15A circuit breaker protects #14 AWG, Type NM cable; a 20A breaker protects #12 AWG Type NM, and a 30A breaker protects#10 AWG Type NM.  These numbers are based on the 60℃ temperature rating of “Type NM” wire.  Wire ampacities are higher with the 105℃ temperature rating of “Type BC5W2” boat cable.

Circuit breakers used for “over-current protection” (OCP) have rating of 15A, 20A, 30A or 50A.  That said, modern, sophisticated circuit breakers actually carry several ratings.  In a true short circuit, an over-current fault can instantaneously be as high as several hundreds of amps.  By arcing, that extreme amount of current can weld the contacts closed and permanently damage the circuit breaker’s contact points, rendering the breaker inoperable.  Circuit breakers and all switching devices carry an “Ampere Interrupt Capacity” (AIC) rating.  AIC is the amount of current the device can interrupt without being damaged by arcing.

Modern circuit breakers can also have multiple purposes.  Besides OCP, one added purpose is “Ground Fault Protection” (GFP) and another purpose is “Arc Fault Protection” (AFP).  GFP breakers contain a circuit that compares the amount of current being delivered in the hot wire(s) to the amount of current returning in the neutral.  Any difference in outgoing and returning current is a “ground fault.”  Household “Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter” (GFCI) breakers are designed to trip “off” if the difference between supplied and returned current is as little as 4mA – 6mA.  “Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupters” (ELCI) onboard boats – and Equipment Protective Devices (EPD) on dockside pedestals – protect the whole boat, as a sub-panel.  ELCI/EPD are designed to trip “off” in less than 100 mS if the difference between supplied and returning current exceeds 30mA.

Finally, for use on gasoline powered boats and environments of potentially explosive gas, circuit breakers (and other electrical switching devices) must be rated as “ignition protected.”  This means that any internal arcing (sparking) caused by the contacts opening under load must not be able to come into contact with any airspace outside the breaker’s enclosure.  If explosive gasses were able to infiltrate the breaker’s enclosure, the vapors would be able to cause an explosion.  Of course, common residential circuit breakers are not made to the standard of “ignition protected” devices.

In general, in my opinion, it is bad practice to use “big box” and hardware store electrical switchgear equipment, circuit breakers or wire made for residential applications on a boat.  Residential switchgear is not made to withstand humid, salt-containing air, is not suited to the materials properties required by ABYC, and is not equivalent in temperature ratings for the ampacities of given conductor sizes.  NEVER, NEVER use solid core household wire on boats.

Aggregate Electrical Load – Residential Building

“How  much electrical “stuff” can we run “all at once” in our single family residential home?”  This is a key question for both residential applications and boats.  For boaters, it relates directly to discussions about 30A and 50A shore power cords and inlet wiring sizes.

Today, if you have a home of 2000 ft2 or more with an oil or gas-fired furnace, you’ll have a service entrance with at least a 200 amp service capacity.  If your home has electric baseboard heating and/or central air conditioning, it’ll probably have a 400 amp capacity. In the 1960s, we simply didn’t have as much “electrical stuff.”

What does it mean to “have a 400 amp capacity electrical service?”  In a moderate-sized residential building, if the individual capacities of all of the branch circuit breakers in your residential service disconnect panel were added up, there would probably be between 500 and 800 amps of distribution capacity.  For example:

8 – 30 amp double pole breakers for baseboard heating
1 – 50 amp double pole breaker for the range/oven
3 – 20 amp single pole breakers for the dishwasher, washer, and microwave
1 – 30 amp double pole breaker for the clothes dryer
1 – 40 amp double pole breaker for the hot water heater
1 – 40 amp single pole breaker for that great air compressor in the garage
20 or more – 15 or 20 amp single pole breakers for convenience outlets
1 – 50 amp double pole breaker for the air conditioning compressor

Hmmm…   Adds up to 810 amps (+/-) of branch circuit distribution capacity.  Take out the baseboard heating and you still have 570 amps.  However, that service panel is not expected to run all of the branch circuits at the same time, nor is it expected that branch circuits will actually run at maximum breaker capacities.  Remember, breakers protect wires, so the individual breaker capacity is to protect the wire, not the attachment.  What happens if you exceed the capacity of the 200A/400A main breaker?  Well, in that case you’d blow the main breaker, but without blowing any of the individual branch circuit breakers.  Hmmm…

So to the question, “what does it mean to have a 200A or 400A electrical service?”  A “200 amp service” means that the installed utility-owned drop from the street, the conductors of the ”Type SE,” 3-wire service entrance cable to the electric meter housing, the conductors from the electric meter to the service disconnect panel, the service disconnect panel itself, and the earth ground connection are all sized and designed to operate in a safe manner when handling up to 200 amps for a 200A service, or up to 400A for a 400A service. If you exceed that capacity, that set of essentially unprotected electrical components may fail.  In effect, 200A/400A is the “ampacity” of the unfused and unprotected service entrance feed components.  So even though you have 500 to 800 amps of branch circuit load attachments, if you never exceed a combined aggregate load of 200 total amps, the distribution box will serve you just fine.  If every you do blow the main 200A/400A breaker in the home, have the cause determined by a qualified electrical professional!

Aggregate Electrical Load – Boat

The previous analysis of loading a residence main disconnect panel applies in exactly the same way to boats.  Most cruising-sized boats with 30A shore power will have well in excess of 30A of branch circuit capacity; likewise, boats with 50A shore power will have proportionally more branch circuit capacity.  That power is delivered onto the boat through a (30A)(50A) onboard main disconnect breaker, or compatible ELCI.  As with the residence case, the service distribution panel is not expected to run all of the branch circuits at the same time, nor is it expected that branch circuits will actually run at their maximum breaker capacities.  If you exceed the maximum main breaker capacity, you blow either the main disconnect breaker, or the Shore Power pedestal breaker, generally without blowing any of the individual branch circuit breakers.

The ABYC requires an AC Main Disconnect Circuit Breaker within 10 feet of the shore power inlet.  Nothing is allowed to be connected ahead of that main disconnect breaker except the actual shore power inlet connector.  Recall, the purpose of circuit breakers is to protect wiring, and in particular, wiring hidden from view, and away from reasonably easy access, and running through spaces containing combustable materials.  The AC Main Disconnect Breaker protects the boat’s main inlet wiring (the boat’s “service entrance cable,” if you will) up to the main distribution panel that serves the boat’s individual branch circuits. Remember, the ampere rating of the disconnect breaker must be matched to the ampacity of the wiring between the power inlet plug and the main disconnect panel on the boat.  In the case of boats, the wiring installed by the boat manufacturer should reflect what the naval architect sped’ed for the boat.  Remember, the wires we’re talking about provide power to the AC circuit breaker panel of the boat, and carry the total aggregate current load for the whole boat.  Sizing shore power cords smaller than necessary could be dangerous.

AFCI and GFCI-protected Protection

Since 2008, the NEC has constantly extended the AFCI requirement to now include all habitable areas of a home, including kitchens, family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sunrooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways, laundry areas, and similar places.  Some states have modified these requirements when adopting the NEC as statewide regulatory code (building codes of all kinds are done on a County-by-County basis in Maryland).  Check local building codes before proceeding.

Since 1971, the NEC has continually expanded the coverage requirements for GFCI protection. Today, GFCI protection is required in all “wet” locations in residential buildings, which includes bathrooms, outdoors locations, rooftops, crawl spaces, unfinished basements, kitchen countertop areas, sinks, laundry areas, bathtub/shower stall areas, boathouses, locker rooms, pool areas: you get the idea.  On boats, the ABYC requires GFCI-protected outlets in heads, galley, machinery spaces and everywhere on the weatherdeck.

Should you wish to retrofit AFCI and GFCI-compliance into an older home (a good idea), a reasonable approach is to replace the conventional circuit breakers in the main  disconnect panel or sub-panel that serves affected branch circuits with combination AFCI/GFCI-protective circuit breakers.  That way, all outlets served by that circuit breaker are AFCI-protected and GFCI-protected.  Combination breakers are available from many manufacturers for about $35 – $45 apiece (as of January, 2018).  Discounts are available for volume purchases.   On the boat, physically compatible GFCI-breakers are not generally available, so GFCI-protected outlets are recommended.

GFCI-protected devices do present some unintended consequences.  A common scenario is for boaters to use adapters to enable a 30A or 50A shore power cord to use a standard 15A or 20A, 120V GFCI-protected utility outlet on a dock.  This provides power for a fridge, a battery charger, and maybe a reading lamp, for a night or two.

In the case of deteriorated, cracked insulation on a shore power cord lying in the water, a ground fault current could easily be large enough to trip a GFCI breaker, and that fault would not go away over time.  That condition is a true ground fault.  Not all trips are caused by true faults.  Sometimes, electronic components (capacitors and inductors) within the familiar portable computer “power bricks” can cause “momentary” surge currents that can trip sensitive GFCI protection devices.  Insulation breakdown on blower motors, pumps  and air conditioning compressors, as well as aging hot water heater elements, can cause transient power leaks.  Power spikes on power lines can trip GFCI devices.  All GFCI implementations are exposed to false faults resulting in “nuisance” trips.  When attaching to GFCI-protected outlets, it’s a good idea to set all AC breakers “off” first, then plug in, then turn branch circuits “on” one at a time.

For marinas and boatyards, starting in 2011, the NEC has required ground fault protection on new construction docks (except residential, single family docks until 2017).  These devices are called Equipment Protective Devices (EPD), and are also subject to “nuisance trips.”  To reduce the incidence of nuisance trips, the NEC has adopted two accommodations to lessen the occurrence of false trips on docks.  First, the size of the leakage current – 30mA – that would cause a marine pedestal EPD to trip “off” is greater than (less sensitive than) a 15A/20A GFCI convenience outlet.   Second, the length of time (duration of) the leakage current needs to be present – up to 100mS – has been made longer.  Since 2011, the rollout of these EPD sensors at marinas has been slow, but they are beginning to appear in greater numbers, and all boaters should expect to see EPD protection of marine outlets on docks with increasing frequency over the next few years.  The electrical knowledge and skills found among dock staff are unlikely to resolve problems for those who do experience nuisance trips at a marina.  Particularly on holidays, weekends and off-hours, high-school and college summer help are not likely to be able to assist transient boaters.

“Nuisance trips” may or may not mean you have wiring errors or equipment faults on your boat, but the fact is, many boats do have wiring errors and equipment faults that until recently have been silent and non-symptomatic.  Obviously, “troubleshooting” this scenario could be very complicated and time consuming.  If you have the skills to do it yourself, it’ll cost lots of time.  If you hire a marine electrician to do it for you, it’ll cost lots of money.  Either way, it won’t be easy or inexpensive.  It may well be that you just have older switchgear equipment, like a reverse polarity light with a filament that provides a “leakage path” from “neutral” to “safety ground.”  This is not an unsafe condition, but it will trip some EPD devices.  What is nasty about this is that “your boat is at fault,” and that’s precisely what you’ll get from the marina operator.

Special Situations – Life’s Little Complications

There are two types of three-phase wiring configurations: “wye” (or “star”) and “delta.” Three-phase distribution systems are used in commercial facilities and larger industrial facilities.  Within this category, I include condos, townhouses, strip mall offices, shopping centers, marinas and boatyards.  So, consider for example the case of three-phase distribution systems feeding end-user attachments in a condo or apartment.

In our “single family suburban residence” model, we learned the US standard voltages of a “single phase, center tapped, three wire” service entrance would be 240VAC/120VAC.  For many technical and economic reasons, light commercial and multi-family residential buildings are supplied from a three-phase, wye-connected service.  In a wye configuration, a 4-pole, 4-wire distribution system comprised of  “ϕ-1,” “ϕ-2,” “ϕ-3” and “N” is delivered into the building.  What is finally delivered, in turn, to the individual occupancy units is a 3-pole, 3-wire feeder analogous to the single phase street feed.  It is not, however, derived from the secondary of a single phase transformer.  Rather, it consists of any two of the three phases that came into the building, together with wye’s “N.”  As an example, suite 100 may receive “ϕ-1,” “ϕ-3” and “N,” and suite 102 may receive “ϕ-2,” “ϕ-3” and “N,” and so forth.

In the wye configuration, the voltages delivered to individual occupancy suites are not the standard 240VAC/120VAC.  Between “N” and any of the phases, the suite would see 120VAC. But between the two phases, the suite would see only 208VAC.  This service is written on paper as “208V/120V Y,” to indicate the phase-to-phase voltage, “208V,” the phase-to-neutral voltage, “120V,” and the fact that the configuration is a wye connection, “Y.”  This practice is common enough in the US that household appliances built for 208VAC/120VAC are commonly available in retail outlets for condo and townhouse dwellers.

Fortunately, 240VAC/120VAC appliances connected to 208V/120V Y services will usually work. Many are made to tolerate the lower line-to-line voltage.  The downside is, appliance efficiency may be reduced.  The power available across the “L1” and “L2” lines of phase-to-phase connection service will electrically be only 85% of the power available from the full design voltage.  As boaters, we need to be aware that many marinas are configured in this way.  If a boat has 240VAC appliances aboard – air conditioning, hot water heater, range/oven, washer/dryer, etc. – those appliances will receive “low voltage” if the marina is configured to provide “208V/120V Y.”

The most significant impact might be to 240VAC pump and compressor motors.  With a low voltage on the appliance, efficiency will be compromised, and motor overheating might occur.  Three phase “Y” distribution configurations are common in marina’s.  Boats with one or two, 2-pole, 30A shore power connections would not be affected.  Those connections are 120VAC.  Those with two 30A shore power cords connected to a “Y” adapter into a 50A outlet on a pedestal are also unaffected.  That’s because even though you are bringing the two different phase lines aboard, your boat does not have any 208V/240V appliances, so nothing aboard is affected.  Boats that connect to shore power with 3-pole, 50A shore power cord are potentially affected, as that 3-pole, 4-wire connector provides 240VAC with the expectation that it will be used on the boat.  Without 240V appliances, there is no affect.

The only thing you, as a boat owner/operator, can do to protect your appliances is to measure, with your onboard volt meter(s), the line voltages (2xxVAC/120VAC) provided by the shore power pedestal, each and every time you hook up.  In this way, you will know what the marina is delivering.  I recommend you become meticulous about this.  If you are not receiving 240VAC – if you are receiving only 208VAC – you will have to make decisions about what to do next.  Do not expect the dock hands that help you tie up to know what they have. Some may, but I would assume many would not.  Frankly, even the marina manager may not know.

DC Electricity On Boats

About This Article

This Article discusses DC Electricity concepts and terminology at an introductory level.  There are always discussions on boating bulletin boards relating to DC power systems on boats.  This article is intended to help those with little or no background or training in electrical systems to understand those discussions.  I have included the most important sub-topics related to 12V and 24V “low-voltage” DC power distribution systems encountered by typical cruising boat owners.

Electrical Safety

There is one, and only one, absolute when dealing with electricity.  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.   The large batteries and large banks of batteries found on boats can produce explosive gasses and store enough energy to easily start a large, fatal fire.

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

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 test equipment and tools for a job…
If you are not sure you know how to use the test equipment and tools you do have…
Well, then, LEAVE IT ALONE until you do!

USE INSULATED TOOLS when working around electricity, and especially around batteries.   Batteries contain enormous amounts of stored energy.  Accidental contact of a metal tool across the terminals of a battery is an emergency situation.  The tool can actually weld to the battery terminals and be both too hot to touch and impossible to remove without external mechanical force. Whenever working around a battery, pre-plan to have a two foot piece of 2”x4” readily available at hand.  If the worst should happen, use the wooden 2”x4” to knock the metal tool away from the battery terminals.  DO NOT TOUCH the tool; assume it will be far too hot to handle with bare hands!  Once this cascade of events has started, the only way to stop it is to break the tool free of the battery terminals.  Otherwise, the battery will get so hot it will melt and may start a fire.

Be very wary of unfamiliar, pungent odors.  Transformers, motors and most electrical and electronic devices that are in the process of failing often heat up and cause insulating or potting materials to give off strong, pungent odors. TURN OFF POWER and use your nose to track down the source.  Treat this as a true emergency.  If you can find the offending device before it bursts into flame, you’re way ahead of the game!  Turning off the power will usually allow the device to cool off.  Do not restart the device!  Excessive over-heating often causes secondary internal damage that you cannot see.

What Is DC Electricity?

DC voltages at their source are characterized by 1) a stable voltage amplitude of 2) unchanging polarity; i.e., the polarity of the voltage between the supply and return terminals never changes.  One battery terminal is considered “positive” and marked with a “+” sign, and one battery terminal is considered “negative” and marked with a “-” sign.  Terminals are either “positive” or “negative” with respect to each other, nit the external world.  The “positive” terminal is positive with respect to the “negative” terminal; the “negative” terminal is negative with respect to the “positive” terminal.  This distinction is important in using a voltmeter to measure voltages.  A DC voltmeter will provide both the amplitude of the voltage that’s present and the polarity of the conductors or components between which the meter is attached.   The amplitude of the voltage can vary somewhat over time, as over the period of time that a battery discharges, but the polarity of that voltage between battery terminals does not change.  This is the fundamental difference between AC and DC electricity, and that difference leads to all of the technical advantages and disadvantages the different electricity technologies offer to users.

Key Electrical Concepts and Terms

The following are some terms regularly used in listserv posts and widely encountered in discussions of electrical systems and circuits.  Boaters will do themselves a great favor by learning these terms and understanding the concepts these terms represent.

  1. Source – Point-of-origin of an electric current.  Typically for DC systems, a battery or bank of batteries.  Electrical sources are “balanced systems,” in that whatever current leaves must return to the source on a one-for-one basis.  If a return path is not available, current cannot flow and useful work cannot be performed.
  2. Load – The components within an electrical system that consume electrical energy to operate; ex: lights, heating elements, motors and electronics.
  3. Circuit – a network of conductors and components carrying electric current from the source to the load, distributing current throughout the load, and returning current to the source from the load.  Circuits are always closed loops that originate AND terminate at the power source.
  4. Supply (or “B+”) – the current-carrying conductor that transports electric current from the source to the load where power is consumed.  In “negative ground” DC systems as required on boats, often called “B+.”
  5. Return (or “B-”) – the current-carrying conductor that returns power from the load back to the source.  In negative-ground DC systems as required by ABYC on boats, often called “B-.”  Analogous the the “neutral” conductor in AC circuits.
  6. Voltage/Volt – the unit of quantification of “Electromotive Force” (“propulsive energy”) that acts on a circuit to force electrons to flow.  Electromotive force is measure across two points in a circuit.  (Volt, millivolts)
  7. Ampere/Amp – the unit of quantification of current flowing through a particular point in an electric circuit.  (Amps, milliamps)
  8. Current – the flow of electrons through a conductor, or the flow of ions through a liquid medium such as salt water; electric current is what performs “work,” i.e., fulfills the purpose of a circuit.  (Ampere; Amp)
  9. Resistance – physical property of all electrically conductive media that acts to retard or impede the flow of electrons through it.  All conductors have resistance. (Ohm)
  10. Conductor (lead, line, cable) – circuit device that transports electric currents.
  11. Ohm’s Law – Mathematical formula that describes the relationships between voltage (V), current (I), resistance (R) and power (P) in a circuit.
  12. Power – the quantification of the amount of “work” that electric current performs in its application.  In purely resistive applications, this will be light or heat.  In turning a motor, this will be the amount of electrical energy consumed in creating torque.  (Watt) (appropriate torque unit)
  13. Ground – a) a universal standard earth reference voltage of “0” volts; b) conversationally, the portion of an electrical circuit to which all other parts are referenced.
  14. Common – any interconnected portions of circuit to which many other parts of an electrical system are also connected.  If reference is specifically to “ground,” this term references a “return” return path shared by many separate portions of an electrical system.  Example: the  positive and return conductors to flybridge nav instruments may be supplied by a “common” B+ power feed conductor (red) and wired with a “common” B- return (yellow) conductor.  Analogies: “ground,” “B+,” “B-” “buss.”  Opposite: “home run.”
  15. Neutral – a non-ground, normally current-carrying return path for electric currents; customarily used in the context of AC circuits.  In DC applications, B- conductors are analogous to the AC neutral.
  16. Fault current – a current flow that follows an abnormal and unexpected path from its source to its return point.
  17. Short circuit – an electrical fault condition resulting from the unintentional connection of a source directly to a return circuit or earth ground.  This unintentional connection often results in the flow of extremely large fault currents. The electrical system should be designed in such a way that fault currents are automatically interrupted by circuit breakers of fuses.  This condition may not cause overload protection devices (circuit breaker) to disconnect the source of power in “ungrounded” systems..
  18. Chase – enclosed spaces in a building or a boat through which wires are run to achieve access to remote locations
  19. Raceway, Conduit, Spiral Wire Wrap, Split Wrap – varieties of supplemental physical enclosure intended to protect electrical conductors from accidental physical damage, excessive ambient temperatures and vibration.
  20. Switchgear – a generic term for all equipment housings in which fuses or circuit breakers and similar disconnecting or switching devices are mounted.  This term is used across the electrical power industry, from generating stations to transformer yards to neighborhood distribution yards to commercial and residential locations.
  21. ABYCAmerican Boat and Yacht Council, Annapolis, MD.  An organization that produces a comprehensive set of safety standards applicable to boats and boat manufacturers, the marine insurance industry, surveyors, attorneys involved in litigation and boat owners.
  22. NECNational Electric Code; United States electrical design standards for Power Generating and Distribution Systems, state, county and community code regulations  and the electrical construction industry.
  23. NFPANational Fire Protection Association; organization that creates and maintains the NEC.

DC Circuits

Fundamental Concept

The essential components of all electrical circuits are:

  1. a source of electrical energy,
  2. a conductor that transports electric current from the energy source to a load,
  3. an electrical load, where useful “work” results when an electric current flows, and
  4. a conductor that transports the electric current back from the load to the energy source.

By definition, an electrical “circuit” must contain all four of the above elements.  All electrical circuits (DC or AC) originate as a pair of electrical terminals that are connected to power-consuming load devices by conductors (wires) of one type or another.  Electric current flows through a circuit.  If a complete electrically-conductive loop is not available from “source” through “return,” an electrical current cannot flow.  Switches, fuses and/or circuit breakers are used to create an incomplete electrical path from the source to the load.

An electric current is the aggregate of millions of migrating electrons (and ions in liquid media).  In DC circuits, it is “convention” to think of the electric current flowing from positive to negative.  This “convention” Is a “working agreement” across all electrical standards bodies, trades and professions.  By mutual agreement, all electrical diagrams of DC circuits and electronics circuits are shown with symbols that assume current flows from positive to negative.  It is a fact of atomic physics that electrons carry a negative electrical charge, so migrate from a more negative place to a more positive place.  As in most “conventional agreements,” as long as the convention is agreed and understood, the pesky facts of atomic physics can be overlooked and left to scientists.

Circuit “Common” Reference(s)

The term “common” applies broadly to circuit elements that are shared among all of the broader network of electrical attachments in a installed electrical system.  The supply buss (“hot, B+”) and the negative return buss (“B-”) are examples of common circuit elements.

Virtually all DC systems encountered by the general public are low-voltage circuits, generally 12-volts, occasionally 24V or 32V.  Examples are 12-volt motor cycle, automobile, light truck, lawn tractor, residential emergency generator, snow thrower or all-terrain vehicle starting batteries, and similar yard and garden devices.  Other low-voltage battery-operated devices include fire/burglar alarms, Uninterrupted Power Supplies (UPS) for computers and data networks, hand-held spot lights, wireless telephone systems and a very wide variety of portable tools.

For applications in the automobile, truck, and outdoor equipment sectors, the return terminal of the battery is typically attached to the metal frame of the vehicle/equipment upon which the  battery is mounted.  The frame is the “common” return path for all sub-circuits.  Electrical components (starter motors, blowers, horns, light sockets, solenoids, sensors, gauges, electronics, etc) have internal electrical return connections that attach to the vehicle’s frame.  The electrical connection is created when the component is bolted to the chassis of the vehicle.  No discrete return conductor is needed because the metal vehicle chassis is the common electrical return path.  This approach simplifies wiring and mechanical design, reduces component design complexity, reduces material and labor cost, and eliminates wiring and connector materials and weight.  The metal frame of a vehicle is perhaps the most obvious place where the term “common” would describe a broadly-shared circuit component.

There are several factors that affect the preceding discussion as it applies to boats:

  1. most small and mid-sized pleasure craft are wired with 12-volt DC systems; 24-volt and 32-volt DC systems are sometimes used;
  2. some medium and large-sized boats have hybrid DC systems of mixed 12V, 24V and 32V systems;
  3. fiberglass (fiberglass reinforced plastic, FRP) does not conduct electricity, so fiberglass boat construction does not provide a functional “chassis,” or “vehicle frame,” return path; and,
  4. electric currents of even the smallest magnitude flowing in metal hulls, metal stringers and/or metal frame members lead to corrosion of the metals, and are always undesirable on boats.

Electrical appliances and utility attachments intended for marine DC applications are designed to have at least two wires; one for the supply of current that originates in the source (B+), and one for the explicit return of that current back into the source (B-).

Ground

In all of the preceding discussion, I’ve intentionally referred to the “electrical return path” using that specific term.  In ordinary conversation, the term “ground” is often used to describe the return path of a DC circuit.  This is a technical “liberty” of conversation, since DC return paths are often not actually connected to earth ground.  “Ground” in this context is a term of convenience and convention.  The return path from a low-voltage DC load to its source (B-) is not inherently at zero volts with respect to its surroundings.  A battery held in hand or sitting in a dock cart has two terminals, but neither is referenced to it’s surrounding environment.

Consider a bird sitting on a high-voltage overhead wire in a residential neighborhood.  The wire is at thousands of volts with respect to the earth, and so is the bird’s body and all of it’s little body parts.  But, the bird is safe, the tiny electric currents that make the bird’s heart beat still work, because there is no return path from the bird’s body to enable a disruptive external current to flow.  As soon as the bird flies off, the voltage is gone.  The bird’s body voltage changes, but the bird’s heart still beats normally, and the bird survives, completely unaffected for the contact with that man-made high voltage.

Consider a car, then, that is mounted on rubber tires.  Since rubber is a fairly good insulator, it would be possible for a DC voltage to exist between the earth and the frame of the car.  Normally small, this voltage can be thousands of volts.  Readers who have ever visited or lived in cold climates are undoubtedly familiar with the static shock that can happen when exiting a the car.  That static shock was a blast of high voltage DC caused by the transfer of accumulated charge from the vehicle, through the body, to the earth.  (Well, for purists, electrons flow from the earth, through the body, to the vehicle, but to the shockee, that detail is uninteresting.)  Static electricity and lightening are the same phenomenon, only on a much different scale!  The possibility of static shock is why every gasoline dispensary in the country instructs drivers to remove portable gas cans from cars and place them on the ground before filling them.  Grounding the container disburses any static charge.

It is technically non-trivial to create a reliable earth ground on a car.  Some readers may have seen ground straps dangling from trucks and some cars.  Used mostly on trucks, those straps are intended to protect toll takers and others who might come into contact with the vehicle from static shocks and to provide a safe path to ground static charges.  It is obviously difficult to create a reliable earth ground on a boat, impossible on an airplane.  Historically, earth grounding was not regarded as an important design goal for DC electric circuits.  And of course, experience with low voltage DC equipment generally bears out that assumption.  We get shocks from the build-up of static, but we don’t get shocks when we step off the garden tractor or use the snow blower.  Who among us has never disconnected a car battery when standing on the ground, and that was not a shocking experience.

What this all implies is that, even though the DC return circuit may not actually always be at the electrical potential of earth ground, the DC return circuit in all of our familiar yard equipment, cars and SUVs is referred to in ordinary discussion as the circuit’s  “ground”.  This use of the term “ground” refers to the functional return path ground, not a safety ground.

Safety Ground

As society gained experience with electricity in the early and mid-20th century, it became obvious that there had to be a way to ensure the return path is always at “earth ground” potential in order to  avoid the possibility of personal harm or property damage resulting from accidental contact with electric power.  A safety ground is not required for a circuit to operate correctly, but it does provide other compelling benefits.

Consider a fiberglass boat.  Aboard, there are many parallel DC sub-circuits.  Water pumps, space and nav lighting, nav and entertainment electronics, windlass, thruster, the propulsion engine, etc.  They are all at distances from one another, and the fiberglass frame of the boat is non-conductive.  A safety ground in a DC system (if present) interconnects the external frames and metal cases of equipment, appliances and utility attachments (light switches, outlets, motors, electrical equipment, radios, etc.) to a known point of common potential.  That common point is always the negative terminal of the battery, and under some specific conditions, the water in which the boat floats or the earth itself.  A safety ground is separate from the functional return circuit, and always involves the installation of it’s own individual electrical conductors.

In service, a “safety ground” is never intended to carry current in normal operation.  However, in a circuit containing an electrical fault condition, a safety ground is intended to prevent a personal shock hazard or mitigate property damage risk by ensuring the electrical potential is at earth ground potential.  It is the “safety ground” that provides an emergency path that allows a circuit breaker to function and disconnect power.

Consider, for example, a bow thruster or an anchor windlass.  We would expect to have a battery positive connection to the positive (B+) terminal of the device’s motor solenoid, and a battery negative connection to the negative (B-) terminal of the device’s motor solenoid.  The motor would then be expected to operate correctly with just these two battery connections.   If we also had a separate conductor from the mounting frame of the device to the vessel’s bonding system, that would be considered the “safety ground.”  The thruster would run just fine without the safety ground, but the device could malfunction and place the frame at some non-zero electrical potential.

Vessel Design – “Grounded” vs “Ungrounded”

Designers of DC electrical distribution systems refer to them as either “grounded” or “ungrounded” systems.  The terms “grounded” and “ungrounded” refer to the presence or absence of a safety ground, not the functional return circuit.  A return path of electrons to their source is always required, but that return path is not always referenced to anything else!

There is valid debate among experts as to whether 12-volt, 24-volt and 32-volt boat DC systems can be of the “ungrounded” design or should be of the “grounded” design.  Today, DC grounded systems are not common.  However, new and emerging vessel propulsion systems containing large-horsepower (hP) diesel-driven DC generators and large-horsepower DC motors (systems analogous to diesel-electric train locomotives) are definitely high voltage applications (often between 600VDC and 1000VDC).  Faced with the emerging presence of true medium and high-voltage DC equipment on pleasure craft, this safety ground design choice is now specifically being re-evaluated in the American Boat and Yacht Council’s (ABYC) Electrical Technical Committee.  We await that outcome.

It is to the advantage of boat buyers and all boat owners to understand the low-voltage DC electrical distribution system.  It’s also an obligation of the buyer/owner to understand whether or not a medium or high voltage DC system is also present.  In the majority of fiberglass-hulled boats, it would be unusual to have a separate DC safety grounding circuit installed.  On some boats, nevertheless, one could encounter one of several possibilities.  The electrical system installation on any individual boat depends on:

  1. the prevailing electrical construction standards at the time of OEM fabrication, often related to prevailing standards of the international geography where the boat was built,
  2. how many people may have added to, or otherwise modified, the system over time, and
  3. the electrical skills those individuals who have performed electrical work in the highly specialized marine environment.

The possibilities aboard a vessel include:

  1. no low-voltage DC safety ground at all (most typical today),
  2. partial DC safety grounding on some parts of the system (not recommended; considered technically inadequate), and
  3. full DC safety grounding, vessel-wide.

The ABYC does not require that low-voltage DC distribution systems have a safety ground, but it does make “recommendations” as to how “grounded” and “ungrounded” systems must be interconnected with the vessel’s bonding system.

Polarity  – “Negative Ground” vs “Positive Ground”

Earlier, I pointed out that a battery held in hand or sitting in a dock cart has two terminals, but neither is necessarily referenced to ground.  All that can be said is there is a fixed voltage between the two battery terminals.  Whichever battery terminal is connected to the vehicle frame determines the polarity reference for that DC system.  If the negative battery terminal is connected to the vehicle chassis, the system is considered to be a “negative ground” system.  If the positive terminal is connected to the vehicle frame, the system is considered to be a “positive ground” system.  With the emergence of solid state electronics and economic pressure to reduce manufacturing cost by sharing components across brands, models and manufacturers, the modern automobile industry world-wide (at least since the 1980s) has standardized around negative ground systems.

The ABYC-approved, and by far the most common, DC systems found on pleasure craft in North America are “negative-ground” systems.  On a boat with other than negative-ground DC distribution system, the panels throughout the boat should be clearly marked to identify the manner of connection.  If there is any doubt, always use a voltmeter to confirm the configuration before disconnecting or otherwise making modifications to the system.

Fuel Tank Replacement

This article applies to replacement of  diesel fuel tanks aboard a boat fit with a diesel propulsion engine and a diesel generator.  This article DOES NOT apply to gasoline fuel systems, which carry different risks, and different handling and construction considerations.

There are several choices for dealing with diesel fuel tank leaks.  Most if not all Taiwan built boats have tanks made of “mild steel.”  Also called “black iron,” these tanks are well known to develop leaks at welds and often, on the tops of the tanks.  A common cause of tank top failure is rainwater which leaks through deck fill openings and lies on the top of the tank in the area of the fill tube.

Some tank leaks can be plugged with sealants and/or adhesives, and while that may save up-front costs, it undoubtedly delays the inevitable and impairs the resale value of the boat.  Sanctuary developed a leak that could not be accessed for simple, external remediation.  After careful review of my options, and in consideration of the age of the boat, I chose to physically replace my OEM tanks.  I did this replacement as two completely independent projects, the first being replacement of the STBD tank (2017) that was leaking and could not be used.  The second project was replacement of the PORT tank (2018) as “predictive maintenance.”  This article documents my approach to the tank replacement project.

The major steps of the project plan for replacement of a diesel fuel tank include:

  1. Assess the extent of personal involvement to be invested in this project, based on personal preference, personal skills and boat configuration.
  2. If professional help will be hired, define the scope of the work to be contracted.
  3. Settle on design of the replacement tank solution.
  4. Contract/hire professional assistance.
  5. Empty the tank to be replaced.
  6. Gain physical access to the tank to be replaced.
  7. Perform demolition and removal of OEM/old tank.
  8. Qualify and hire fabricator for new tank.
  9. Wait patiently for the fabricator to complete tank build.
  10. Receive and place new tanks.
  11. Restore disrupted fuel and vent plumbing
  12. Restore vessel infrastructure and any disrupted electrical wiring and plumbing.
  13. Fill and calibrate new tank.
  14. Celebrate completion!

Because I have the necessary skills and tools, I decided to handle many parts of the project work myself.  However, I also decided I would hire a mechanic to cut out the OEM tanks and install the replacement tanks.  Tasks I took on myself included gaining access to the tanks so the mechanic could come in and begin to cut.  The mechanic would manage removal and disposal of the old tank, transport the replacement tanks from the fabricator to the boat, prepare the install location, move the replacement tanks into place, mechanically secure the tanks in place, and re-plumb the tanks.  I would then take over to button-up the work once the new tanks were secured in place, and replace disrupted electrical wiring and fuel system plumbing.  This approach worked well for me, and saved many thousands of dollars of professional hourly-billing labor time.

Aboard Sanctuary, the OEM configuration consisted of two, one-piece tank units of 160 gallon capacity, each, located athwartships in the hull, in a “saddle tank” configuration.  The OEM tanks were placed into the hull before the deck was installed, so physical clearance limitations made it impossible to install a single replacement tank of the OEM dimensions. The OEM tanks were 48” long, with a baffle at the lengthwise midline. It would have been possible to reduce the height of the OEM tank by 3”, but physical placement of a 48”, one-piece tank would have required removal of the engine to gain the needed clearance. Since we live aboard, removal of the engine was a significant impediment. However, two 24” tanks could be fit without engine removal, so two side-by-side 24” tanks became the design point I adopted. This approach also provided equivalence with the midline baffle of the OEM tank.

Using Lotus FreeLance drawing software, I created an engineering drawing for my replacement design, as shown in Figure 1 for my STBD side project.

Fig 1

Figure 1: Design of Replacement Tankage

The complete drawing set for the OEM tank, STBD and PORT replacement units and fabrication notes is here: 20180506_Monk_Fuel_Tank.

Between the mechanic and myself, it was agreed that I would do the site preparation work to gain physical access to the tank. On the STBD side, that involved total removal of the DC electrical system and batteries, relocation of AC distribution wiring to the aft half of the boat, and removal of a non-structural bulkhead covered with soundproofing tiles. Gaining access to the PORT tank involved removal of the main fuel supply rail and primary filter plumbing and removal of the control unit and hydraulic pump for our hydraulic thruster system.  On  the STBD side, the house batteries needed to be removed from the boat, so I used the genset start battery to power the house water pump and the waste macerators for the duration of that project.  Because the OEM STBD tank had leaked fuel, it was already empty.  On the PORT side, I pumped fuel from the OEM PORT tank to the newly replaced STBD tank to empty the PORT tank.

I recommend that frequent photographs be taken at many points as any complex project proceeds. It’s amazing how these photos help at assembly/re-assembly time. Figure 2 is a picture of the wiring of Sanctuary’s main battery box. Figure 3 shows the DC distribution wiring before the start of the project.  This distribution wiring is located on the bulkhead that covers the OEM STBD fuel tank:

Fig 2

Figure 2: Battery Box 1.

Fig 3

Figure 3: DC Distribution Wiring at the Start of the Project

After removal of the DC distribution wiring and temporary relocation of aft-running AC wiring, the soundproofing and bulkhead could be removed. That was a destructive process. The OEM bulkhead was 5/16” plywood – well, since Sanctuary was built in Taiwan, probably 8mm plywood – but non-structural. Figure 4 shows the OEM tank with access gained. At that point, an angle grinder was used to cut out the OEM mild steel (black iron) tank. Careful examination reveals two structural angle iron retainers holding the OEM tank in place. These angle iron retainers were re-installed after the new tanks were placed. Figure 5 shows the hull space, frames exposed, after the OEM tank was cut out:

Fig 4

Figure 4: OEM tank exposed

Fig 5

Figure 5: Tank location showing support frames

The replacement tanks were fabricated of 1/8″ (0.125″ ) Grade 5062 Aluminum.  The work was done by a local SW Florida metals shop. The fabricator pressure tested and certified the tanks. The individual tanks are light enough that they could be handled by one man (a younger, stronger man than I, however). Figure 6 shows the tanks staged on the dock, and Figure 7 shows them in their installed location with the angle iron retainers in place:

Fig 6

Figure 6: New aluminum tanks

Fig 7

Figure 7: New tanks in place

Note the length of fuel hose that interconnects the two tanks at the bottom. That hose is continuously filled with diesel fuel. Use USCG Type A1 fuel hose for that application. USCG Type A2 fuel hose is appropriate for the tank fill hose. Type A2 hose is rated for fuel, but not for applications that are continuously immersed in fuel. Note also that both tanks need to have a vent. Consider the drawing in Figure 1: fuel enters the “A” tank via the fuel fill in the deck, but then fills the “B” tank from the bottom up. The “B” tank must be able to vent captive air or that tank cannot fill. Likewise, for fuel to leave the “B” tank as it is consumed, air must be able to enter the void above the fuel in order for the tank to empty. In our case, the two vents from the “A” and “B” tanks tee into a single vent, which is mounted to an overboard vent fitting in the hullside. Finally, the tanks, the deck fill fitting and the vent thruhull fitting should be electrically bonded to the vessel’s bonding system, if equipped, to dissipate static electricity and prevent galvanic corrosion.

Fuel plumbing also merits special mention. The fuel valves used in diesel fuel systems are commonly made of naval bronze, which is galvanically active in direct contact with aluminum. To minimize galvanic corrosion at the tank fittings, use a 300-series (316L) stainless steel nipple or bushing (adapter) to isolate the anodic and cathodic metals of the bronze valve and the aluminum tank fittings. Bond the tanks to the vessel’s bonding system, if equipped.

With the tanks installed and secured in place, the bulkhead and the vessel’s wiring can be reinstalled. Figure 8 shows the replacement bulkhead in place, with an inspection port that allows access to the interconnecting fuel hose and it’s hose clamps. The temporarily relocated overhead electrical wiring is still evident in this picture. Figure 9 shows the batteries and finished DC electrical distribution system in their restored position.

Fig 8

Figure 8: Bulkhead with inspection port

Fig 9

Figure 9: Electrical Systems re-installed

When filling the new tank for the first time, I put in 10 gallons of diesel fuel at a time, and marked the sight glass meniscus as a fuel level reference. I find this simple calibration of the tank capacity to be extremely helpful in judging my cruising options as I travel.

The loss of 3” in height resulted in a loss of about 25 gallons of total tank capacity. Each boat is different. Each tank replacement project is different. For what I’ve described above, I spent $1750 to have the STBD tanks fabricated, pressure tested and certified. Labor and miscellaneous materials – like the A1 and A2 fuel hose, hose clamps and new fuel valves – was $1800. I invested at least 30 hours of my personal DIY labor doing demo, site prep and re-install work, so for those who choose to contract this total project, consider what that would add in billable cost if performed by a paid professional.  There were efficiencies gained in doing the STBD tank.  The fabrication cost of the PORT replacement tanks was only $1570, and the professional labor component was $1260.

There is no question, this is a major project. With the work done, don’t forget to celebrate.

Polybutylene (PB) Plumbing in Drinking Water Systems

Cruising south in 2017, I became aware that my house water pump was cycling on and off at random intervals.   I proceeded to change our water pump head/valve assembly, but that repair action attempt left the symptom unaffected.  After a period of vigorous self-denial, I had no choice but to accept that I must have had a slow leak somewhere in the house potable water system.

Sanctuary is a 1988 Taiwan-built trawler.  Many boats built in the period were fit with polybutylene (PB) plumbing and PB plumbing fittings.  PB water line “pipes” are gray in color, somewhat flexible, and the fitting are gray plastic.  Our PB system was marketed under the trade name of “Qest.”  Aboard Sanctuary, our potable water plumbing is 3/8” diameter tubing, which means 3/8” ID (inside diameter) and 1/2” OD (outside diameter).  The system fittings are, therefore, either  3/8” by 1/2” MPT (Male Pipe Thread) or 3/8” by 1/2” FPT (Female Pipe Thread).

In the 70s through early 90s, PB systems were used in many building, RV and boat applications.  When it became clear that PB fittings failed as they aged, there was a Class Action lawsuit settlement called COX v. Shell Oil et al.  to compensate PB installation failures in installations between January 1, 1978 through July 31, 1995.  The defective PB fittings were discontinued and the product removed from the market.  Today, replacement Qest fittings of “better” materials are available as replacement parts from a variety of sources, including big box stores, ACE Hdwr and many Internet vendors.

My leak was in the cold water feed to our galley and aft cabin shower, in a predictably inaccessible location.   In my search for the leak, I furthermore identified two non-leaking fittings with visible cracks in the body of the compression nut.  The leakeI had planned to replace two nuts and have some spares.  I wound up using five of those six nuts as I worked on the system.

PB-Nut1

PB-Nut2

Anyone with PB plumbing aboard should check it at least once a year for these kinds of failure.

DO NOT OVER-TIGHTEN THESE NUTS; no more than one-quarter turn past hand tight.

Navigation Via PC or Tablet Computer

A long-time cruising friend recently asked: “I’ve been researching a replacement for my circa 2000 RayMarine navigation system.  Clearly, there are any number of commercial systems that integrate chart/radar/depth, etc.  However, I’ve been looking at PC or laptop alternatives.  I’m curious as to what folks may be using out there, i.e., iNavx, etc.”

There are three mix-‘n’match categories of “navigation equipment” that combine into solutions that address this question:

  1. a full suite of made-for-purpose navigation equipment sourced from a major manufacturer of marine products (ComNav, Furuno , Garmin, Lowrance, Raymarine, Simrad, Sitex, etc.), or
  2. a network-connected combination of selected made-for-purpose marine navigation equipment and general purpose PC/tablet computing equipment running navigation software, or
  3. stand-alone PC/tablet computing equipment running navigation software (apps).

In 2017, all three alternatives are possible.  Options are listed above from most expensive to least expensive.  Items 1 and 2 are equally functional for navigation and piloting today.   Item 3 has feature-set limitations because some features are not available in the PC market, (RADAR scanners, AIS transponders, Autopilots, etc) and these features are unlikely to appear in that market in the reasonable future.  There is no “one-size-fits-all” right answer.  This article examines some of the pros and cons.

The value proposition:

Reality: All made-for-purpose marine equipment solutions and PC/tablet solutions have some limitations.

Traditional made-for-purpose marine equipment: is expensive to buy, often requires expensive professional installation, obsoletes quickly (resulting in a short feature-set lifespan), is constrained in its versatility, often requires expensive and/or proprietary charts, is relatively difficult/complex to upgrade and backup, and doesn’t always play well on boats fit with equipment from multiple manufacturers.  On the other hand, made-for-purpose equipment is rugged, weather-resistant,  viewable in bright sunshine, and (because of it’s limited feature-set) has a somewhat simpler learning curve for the end user.  These factors combine to produce a limited value calculation.

General purpose computing devices, including the navigation software applications necessary to run on them: are relatively inexpensive, utilize free NOAA (ENC) and USACE (IENC) navigation charts, are easily replaceable, are light and portable, are easily upgradable (so have a longer feature-set lifespan), and are extremely versatile through the many software applications that are available today.  The user interface for PCs and tablet client devices are based on the operating system they use (Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OSX, Apple iOS, Google Android), but most operating systems are generally familiar to most people from other life learning and experience.  On the other hand, these devices are generally not made for outdoor use, may be difficult to view in bright daylight, and can be sensitive to over-heating in direct sunlight.  Overall, even with the negatives, this equipment can offer a very attractive value calculation.

There are significant learning curves associated with all marine equipment and general purpose computing products.   The learning curve can be challenging and intimidating for many users.  Some manufacturer’s user interfaces are more intuitive than others.  Personal preference and past experience with technology equipment has a significant effect on both choice and success.

Aboard Sanctuary:

For navigation and piloting aboard Sanctuary, I personally depend on a hybrid solution consisting of a combination of made-for-purpose marine equipment and PC/tablet computing equipment with appropriate software apps (alternative #2, above).  Today, the flow of data in marine data networks is mostly one way, with data traveling from the marine equipment to the PC equipment, via a multiplexor.  (See my article on Marine Data Networks on this site, here: https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/boat-technical-topics/computing-aboard/marine-data-networks/)   Aboard Sanctuary, this arrangement allows us to utilize made-for-purpose equipment in a way that lengthens the service life (obsolescence) of it’s aging feature set.  We use it to do the core work of the helm; i.e., run routes via the autopilot and watch for obstructions and marine hazards using RADAR and an AIS receiver.

We pre-plan our routes on our PC before day-of-travel.  When on-the-water, I rely primarily on our Apple iPad for piloting, risk management and risk avoidance operations.  We use our Macbook Pro laptop running Rosepoint’s Coastal Explorer 2011 for route pre-planning.  We rely on our iPad tablet running SEAiq, Navionics, Ayetides, Anchor Watch and various weather apps for general navigation and piloting decisions.  Due to their vintage, our made-for-purpose chart plotters do not support Active Captain.  I rely on iPad apps for ActiveCaptain anchorage and location reviews and marina contact information.  (And yes, my email and Peg’s Facebook are also available via the iPad, even while the nav app “stands watch.”)

Background:

Aboard Sanctuary, we have a now-obsolete Raymarine DX500s Fishfinder which serves as our primary depth sounder.  At the time of writing this article, the screen appears to be dying, but the internal electronics and NMEA0183 data network are operational for actual depth measurement.  Because of the capabilities of the iPad app (SEAiq), I don’t need visibility to the depth sounder’s screen.  I’m stuck with the DS500x for now because the Airmar sonar transducer is not compatible with newer versions of depth sounder, so I basically can’t upgrade the device without upgrading the transducer (a “project” to be faced in the months ahead).

I have a now-obsolete two-plotter Raymarine RL70CRC/RN300 GPS/chart plotter system that serves our salon and flybridge.  For cartography, this equipment uses expensive C-MAP chip cartography which I already own, but is prohibitively expensive to update or extend.  The C-MAP cartography works fine, but we very rarely use it anymore, since the SEAiq app on out iPad duplicates it’s capabilities at no cost.  Our Raymarine system has an integrated RADAR scanner.  The RADAR is not up to the capabilities of newer digital HD RADAR, but it is “adequate to the task.”  We occasionally use RADAR for MARPA, but mostly for tracking nearby heavy weather.  All of this is an old technology that continues to work acceptably well for us.

We have full chart redundancy via our made-for-purpose Garmin GPSmap 547xs chart plotter.  The 547xs has a diminutive screen size with tiny text, which limits it’s usefulness.  We use the 547xs almost exclusively for “driving” routes via our Garmin GHP10 autopilot.   The GPSmap 547xs does have modern CHIRP sonar sounder capability, as yet not installed.  The GPSmap 547xs also monitors our ICOM MXA5000 AIS receiver, which the Raymarine chart plotter cannot.  (I recommend AIS transponders be used ONLY for poor visibility, night operations, offshore operations and all operations on the US Inland Rivers.  Otherwise, AIS transponders are not necessary on pleasure craft on the US East Coast, and generally serve to create a false sense of security among users who generally do not understand the limitations of the underlying technology.)

In August, 2013, I installed a DMK 11A “multiplexor.”  The inputs to the multiplexor are our collection of NMEA0183 and NMEA2000 data networks serving our onboard marine equipment (five NMEA0183 networks, one NMEA2000 network and one Raymarine SeaTalk network).  The multiplexor re-formats the data into standard Ethernet data packets, and pumps the data out over wi-fi.  The multiplexor’s wi-fi interface is linked to our onboard Cradlepoint router, to which the multiplexor is just another ordinary client device.  Software apps that can interpret the data and run on any PC or tablet computer allow that computer to become a fully-portable wireless nav station.

I use the multiplexor’s wi-fi feed with Rosepoint’s Coastal Explorer 2011 on the MS-Windows side of my Macbook Pro.  That provides complete navigation redundancy in our salon.  I also use SEAiq Pilot and OpenCPN on the OSX side of my Macbook Pro.  One of the greatest advantages of SEAiq is that the user interface is identical across operating system platforms (iOS, Android, OSX and Windows versions), so regardless of the mix of operating systems, there is only one learning curve for the user of the software.  I use “SEAiq International” on our iPad (iOS).  The iPad version of SEAiq Pilot is professional-quality app that is used by working professional Chesapeake Bay pilots and Harbor pilots worldwide on large ships.   When my brother is aboard, he runs SEAiq on his VerizonWireless Android tablet.   With our multiplexor and suitable software apps that can interpret and display the data, our PC/tablet/smartphone equipment becomes a fully capable, wireless, fully portable chart plotter console.

With the above equipment platform, we have used our iPad since 2013 as our primary navigation device – the device from which our navigation and safety decisions are made.  Our Garmin and Raymarine chart plotters provide redundancy.  An Android tablet with suitable software apps can do what our iPad does, but just as Windows PCs are made by many manufacturers, Android hardware is “versionized” by several different manufacturers.  Depending upon the particular hardware customization, Android software can be finicky to configure and support.   The iPad-based stuff “just works.”

Transit Planning and Cruising:

I have used Coastal Explorer since 2006.  By way of that prior experience, I continue now to create detailed transit routes on my laptop using Coastal Explorer.   I load my routes into our Garmin GPSmap 547xs chart plotter.   Today, we need the Garmin chart plotter to “drive” the autopilot via our NMEA200 data network.  Our multiplexor passes along compass data (HDG), GPS and route data (lat/lon, SOG, COG, DTW, BTW, XTE, etc), sounder data (DPT, DBT, MTW), and all flavors of AIS data (!A).  All of that data is displayed by SEAiq on my iPad.   SEAiq uses the free NOAA and USACE charts, both raster and vector.   I update the charts at my convenience, usually when at a marina that provides reliable and fast wi-fi access to the Internet.   We maintain all of the US ENC charts for the US East Coast from Maine to Texas, the Great Lakes and the IENC charts of the Inland Rivers from Lake Michigan to Mobile and NOLA.   We don’t bother with Puerto Rico, the US West Coast, Hawaii or Alaska because I have no need for them, but they are all available, free.   SEAiq International is about $40, and SEAiq Pilot is about $200.  There are several multiplexor device alternatives; the  DMK11A was $400 from Amazon.com.

Below are links to several articles on my website that describe all this in more detail.

  1. https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/boat-technical-topics/computing-aboard/internet-connectivity/ describes my Cradlepoint SOHO router configuration and Internet connectivity alternatives that I use on the boat.
  2. https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/boat-technical-topics/computing-aboard/seaiq-nav-app-on-ipad/ is a somewhat dated product description of SEAiq, but it will make the point.
  3. https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/boat-technical-topics/computing-aboard/marine-data-networks/  is a description of NMEA0183, N2K and Ethernet networks, and the role of hardware and software apps that are needed to make up a functional system.

Return on Investment Considerations:

Yes, I use, and rely upon, our iPad for on-water piloting and navigation.

A new Garmin 7212 (now obsolete and no longer in production) would be $3000 or more, without charts.   Current-generation made-for-purpose systems would far exceed that.  Then, absent DIY installation skills, add the cost of professional installation.  A new iPad, app software and a multiplexor together would cost around $1400.   To me, the iPad is a simple, elegant, solution at a price-point that is at least 1/3 the cost of made-for-purpose marine hardware.  The iPad solution is reliable, and easily replaced almost everywhere if something bad were to happen.   Tablets need power to keep batteries charged, but are otherwise fully portable.   Tablets can be hard to see and can be subject to over-heating in direct sunlight, so care in handling is required.   Even considering these limitations, I find my iPad to be a great value proposition!

Specific to the Apple iPad, in the US, FCC regulation requires cell phones to have E911 capability, which means the ability to provide lat/lon location when a caller dials “911” from a cellular telephone.  In the iPad, to meet that requirement, a GPS receiver is built on the cellular telephone chip.   The GPS “comes with” the cellular telephone capability.   Therefore, iPads used for navigation should have cellular telephone capability.   It is not necessary to activate a cellular account in order to use the GPS.   The iPad’s GPS is fast and accurate.  It provides redundancy for position data should the multiplexor ever fail (it never has)…

As described above, I decided on SEAiq for our navigation needs, but other iPad apps are available.  Garmin BlueChart Mobile is a very basic, free navigation app that requires proprietary for-fee charts and bi-annual updates.   BCM includes Active Captain data, which I consider a “must have” in today’s world.  Navionics is similarly basic, also free, also requires proprietary fee charts, but does not provide Active Captain data.  Lack of ActiveCaptain data is offset by two features that people find useful and that I feel give Navionics a slight edge over BCM.   Navionics contains sounding data on the Inland Rivers, useful if cruising the Inland Rivers.   It also has a feature called “Sonar” Charts.   Dozens of cruising boats submit their own actual tracks, and Navionics develops current realtime sounding data in areas of shallow water.   That can be very useful in shallow areas, like SW Florida, the US East Coast ICW, or narrow passes into shallow anchorages on the A-ICW, Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere.   For both BCM and Navionics, chart subscriptions are annual recurring charges, and some features of Navionics, like that sonar feature, turn into a pumpkin at the end of an un-renewed annual subscription period.   The beauty of running these apps on an iPad is that if a user prefers Navionics, but also wants ActiveCaptain data, it’s easy to add an app that shows ActiveCaptain data.  That versatility is simply not possible (today) with made-for-purpose marine devices.  Note: in November, 2017, Farmin bought Navionics.  Garmin also withdrew BCM from the Apple Store.  These events put into question the future of both BCM and Navionics.

Note: In 4Q2017, Garmin discontinued their BlueChart Mobile app, and it is no longer available from the Apple app store.  Garmin replaced BCM with a successor “ActiveCaptain” app.  The ActiveCaptain app consists of the predecessor BCM features and facilities, but adds the capability to communicate with “compatible” Garmin Chart Plotters and share up-to-date cartography back and forth.  The app remains very basic.  It works and, in BCM-mode, will look familiar to previous users of the BCM app.  The advanced features that are new to the ActiveCaptain app are very welcome.  Garmin continues to make these capabilities available only on a proprietary basis with their own branded equipment, but for those with Garmin equipment, the app seems worth having.  Garmin has also purchased Navionics.  The future of that app is unknown at this writing (December, 2017).

If choosing made-for-purpose marine equipment, I recommend that buyers add new equipment made by the same manufacturer as any equipment that is already in place.  This recommendation is largely based on technical design choices manufacturers make having to do with the use of proprietary data.  I consider the “core components” of a navigation system to be the autopilot and the GPS/chart plotter, since more than other devices, these two devices MUST work well together; especially so for Position (lat/lon), course-over-ground (COG), course-made-good (CMG), bearing-to-waypoint (BTW), distance-to-waypoint (DTW) and cross-track-error (XTE).   Other system components should be of the same manufacturer where reasonable, affordable and possible, including depth sounders.  For weather instrumentation, AIS receiver/transponders, VHF radio DSC interface, and some other devices, which are all quite standardized, mixing manufacturer’s may be OK.

Not specific to Raymarine or Garmin, but generally across the marine electronics industry, manufacturers are moving at a very fast pace (Moore’s Law) to implement ever-increasing processor chip speeds, ever larger internal memory capacities, and ever expanding internal software (firmware) capabilities.   The rate at which new function becomes available and old equipment becomes obsolete is very rapid.  That leads to large capital expense outlays for buyers who try to “stay current.”   My personal observation is, the marine equipment manufacturer’s intentionally do not design for “downward compatibility.”  During my career in a fortune’s 10 computer company, one of the critical design issues for new products was “downward compatibility” (“backwards compatibility”) with existing customer equipment.  That was a critical customer requirement necessary 1) to protect the customer’s pre-existing investment base and 2) to allow for a reasonable and minimally-disruptive upgrade path. The same issues are painfully obvious to all of us as boat owners.  As described earlier, I face that issue today with my depth sounder transducer.

The ability of a manufacturer to offer an expanding feature-set is a function of processor chip speed and internal memory capacity.  Chart plotters and depth sounders are really just specialty computers, after all.  But, improvements in the features of marine equipment that are available to users arise from the software (firmware) capability built-in to the equipment, and software requires memory and chip speed.  Upgrading the physical hardware of made-for-purpose marine equipment is not an activity that is supported by the manufacturers, and certainly not a DIY activity.   Upgrades to firmware are limited to what the manufacturer makes available, and are generally not automatic or simple to accomplish.   By contrast, upgrading PC and tablet hardware is usually quite easy and relatively inexpensive.  Upgrading/adding software apps on PCs, tablets and smart phones is both routine and automatic.  This means that new software capability rolls out in tablet apps and PC software at the same rate and pace and at much lesser retail cost than with made-for-purpose hardware.

Finally, none of the marine manufacturer’s do a good job of standing behind their obsolete equipment.  I found a firmware design error in my Raymarine DS500x Fishfinder in the construction of the $SDDPT NMEA0183 sentence.   I reported that to Raymarine via their user’s web support forum.   After some back-and-forth based on the assumption that I had to be wrong (what could an end-user possibly know?) I was finally able to get grudging agreement from Raymarine that I had proved there was an bug in their device firmware.   The conclusion: “Have a nice life, Jim!   The box is out-of-production.”  No matter that the problem was a Raymarine product defect.  There was no way to upgrade the software in the field anyway, so therefore, apparently no need to fix it.  So, I live with it to this day, and every day I reconcile to never again trust Raymarine as my preferred equipment vendor.  That said, who knows if another vendor would actually be any better?

When the end-user posts a problem or a query to the Raymarine support forum, that often draws a lot of potential hints from other Raymarine equipment users.  Sometimes, that is helpful.   But the actual “experts” from Raymarine rarely “jump in” until there as been some largely wasted back-and-forth.  Does the forum work?   For user issues, yes; usually.   For real engineering issues, it depends on how hard you, as a user, push the gorilla to get a satisfactory answer.   If you get tired of the back-and-forth before the gorilla gets tired, you’ll go away empty-handed and frustrated.

Then there is support for the current line of equipment.   Generally, I find Tech Support is not set up to deal with a knowledgeable user.   I am a reasonably knowledgeable (if I say so myself) DIY user.  When I call Garmin, or write to Raymarine, for tech support, I have a problem that I have already researched, both on the Internet and in the manufacturer’s proprietary website support section.  When I call, I can clearly define and clearly explain the issue (or at least I can explain what it is not).  When I call, I have already updated the firmware, and I have done the basic power and wiring checks.   When I call, I am at the point where I know what I need and I know the information is not available elsewhere.   (By the way, the support section of the Garmin website is poor.   I find it largely unusable, with poor search capabilities, many, many hits that are not applicable to the search, and many distractions.)

The initial contact with Garmin tech support is to take callers through the “re-boot,” “re-calibrate” and “update the firmware,” steps before they take you seriously.   That can result in a lot of wasted time and frustration in back-and-forth exchanges, especially of you call from a location that is NOT the boat.   I personally suspect a lot of people just give up.   (But then, I know that many owners can’t operate the advanced functions of their equipment, including such safety items as DSC on VHF radios.)

I experienced an incident with my Garmin then GPSmap 540 chart plotter related to uploading routes.  With two or three routes to upload, the result was a “Route Truncated” error.   That incident lasted across multiple complimentary hardware upgrades and across more than two calendar years.   Very few people are stubborn enough to pursue that.  Indeed, maybe I’m nuts (none other than Jeff Siegel told me I was), but the failure was in a feature I really wanted to work, and the capability was within the published specifications for the device I bought.  But, every time I called Garmin tech support, I got a different technician.   It became impossible to take a technician new to the problem through the long and detailed pre-existing history of that very complex call.   It was a huge usability problem with Garmin tech support.  It took two escalation-to-management calls to get a senior technician assigned to my case and with whom I could just email status, questions, requests for additional data and case progress back-and-forth.   It was not until I got that done that I even began to make progress.

It’s undeniable that general purpose computing devices have their own “usability issues,” of which screen brightness and battery life are two.   But, most functional improvements come from improvements in software capability.   The commercial software applications available today for tablets and PCs are amazingly feature-rich.  In inclement weather, I keep my iPad safe by putting it in a one-gallon Ziploc bag.   Works just fine that way.   I have several different navigation apps loaded there which provide alternatives if needed.

Conclusion:

As to the value proposition for all this, I would assume for all of us, boating is a discretionary expense.  Even though I may want the new gee-wiz function a manufacturer has developed, like HD RADAR, I do not want to have to spend thousands of dollars every 2-1/2 to 3 years to upgrade my navigation electronics suite just to be able to take advantage of the emerging features.   When we bought Sanctuary in 2004, there wasn’t a PC/tablet alternative to marine equipment.  I installed the then-current Raymarine chart plotter and RADAR system.   In the ensuing 12 years, that 2004 equipment investment has become several “generations” of Raymarine equipment releases obsolete.  To stay current with Raymarine’s pace of feature development, I would have had to upgrade my equipment three times at a minimum DIY cost approaching $5K each time.   In a word, “horsepucky” to that.   I am reluctant to invest in my system at all any more, because I feel like made-for-purpose equipment is an almost valueless upgrade to the base value of the boat.   Any future buyer of any boat with any navigation system older than a couple of years is buying an obsolete system, and will probably want to upgrade anyway.  There’s no value in making that upgrade for the current owner.

So, there isn’t a clear yes/no to the basic question of PC navigation; just a collection of pros and cons. Both types of solutions have merits, both are completely feasible, and both have limitations.   A very great deal will depend on personal preferences and personal self-confidence.   With the advent of made-for-purpose offerings like the new Furuno 1st Watch wireless RADAR unit (only power required; no signal cable up the mast, app on a tablet to display the RADAR image), PC and tablet solutions become more and more viable for more and more true navigation uses.   Watch this space as it evolves into the [near] future!

Choosing a PC/Tablet App for Cruising: following, I have created a template example of some (but NOT all) navigation application software products and some (but NOT all) factors that cruisers might like to have available.  The matrix, when complete, helps in selecting apps that will work for the personal preferences and navigational needs of different boats and different captains.  There is a great deal of Internet folklore associated with all of these apps.  Some are excellent for beginning cruisers, and some are capable of supporting advanced user requirements.   By way of illustration, I have populated some (but NOT all) specific detail for products I personally own and have personally used.  It’s clear that the matrix can provide a helpful visual means to screen products for personal suitability.  app_matrix

Hardware Considerations: in evaluating one’s interest in PC/tablet navigation solutions, consider the available hardware solutions as well as the navigation apps:

PC/Tablet hardware choice:

  1. cost
  2. network support requirements (NMEA0183, NMEA2000, multiplexor, Ethernet, Bluetooth)
  3. mechanical mounting requirements
  4. contains internal GPS vs requires external GPS
  5. screen visibility in bright sunlight
  6. overheating in direct sunlight
  7. weather resistance
  8. battery life
  9. has data back-up tools
  10. ease of replacement
  11. manufacturer provides good technical support (operating system & applications)

Made-for-Purpose marine hardware products:

  1. cost (product plus installation)
  2. network support (NMEA0183, NMEA2000, Ethernet)
  3. Ethernet interfaces provide for end-user data transfer, not just proprietary manufacturer use
  4. mixed-manufacturer compatibility
  5. time to expected obsolescence (expected feature-set lifespan)
  6. portability limitations
  7. versatility (weather, ActiveCaptain, tides ‘n currents, anchor watch, cruising guides, social media, email)
  8. speed (chip, memory)
  9. ease of data entry (route & waypoint creation/modification) (touch screen vs keypad)
  10. boat motion interferes with touch screen operation when sea states are moderate to lumpy
  11. complexity & frequency of software update(s)
  12. complexity, frequency & cost of chart updates(s)
  13. warranty period
  14. support period
  15. ease of warranty replacement & future upgrade, including backward compatibility
  16. manufacturer provides good technical support (hardware & firmware)
  17. security (insurance deductible, theft)