50A Power from 30A Sources

Facility managers for marinas, yacht clubs, boatyards, condos and municipal walls must make investment choices about the electrical infrastructure that they will install to support their customer’s needs. Systems that provide maximum flexibility in electrical connectivity for boaters are expensive in capital cost and maintenance. In many facilities boaters will encounter more modest wiring alternatives. Wiring configurations will also vary between docks in larger facilities. Different docks at facilities that support a wide size range of both resident boats and transient visitors may be wired differently. Very large boats would normally slip on a dock with other large boats. These docks will likely be powered with only 208V/240V, 50A service outlets. Docks intended for mid-sized boats may have a mix of 208V/240V, 50A outlets and 120V, 30A outlets, or may have only 120V, 30A outlets. Facilities that cater to only transient visitors may have a mix of 30A and 50A outlets, or may have only 20A and 30A twistlock outlets. Electrically, there are many possible code-compliant wiring variations.

Cruisers must assess their personal desire for, and dependence on, shore power. Before departure, cruiser’s should obtain a set of adapters to provide the desired personal flexibility. The specific adapter(s) needed aboard the boat depends on the shore power inlet configuration of the boat. Along the Great Loop route, several variations of shore power may be encountered. The goal would be to have the flexibility to be able to connect the boat’€™s shore power inlet connection to each of the following commonly found power sources:

  1. residential 120VAC, 15A and 20A duplex outlets,
  2. marine 125V, 20A twist outlet (sometimes alone and sometimes in pairs),
  3. marine 125V, 30A twist outlet (sometimes alone and sometimes in pairs),
  4. 208V/240V, 50A marine twist outlet.

We never encountered a 120V, 2-Pole, 3-Wire NEMA type SS1 50A shore power source; they exist, but are very uncommon. We have encountered NEMA 14-50 (residential 240V, 50A outlets used on electric range/ovens and kilns) in various places along the Erie Canal system for use by canal system work boats. Because we had an adapter to access those outlets, we enjoyed shore power when others did not.

Boats fit with 50A Shore Power inlets will regularly encounter situations where 50A outlets are not available. For these situations, 30A-to-50A adapters can provide access to a AC power sufficient to meet short-term needs. Simply put, adapters create options, flexibility and alternatives to boaters. Among the options, adapters can provide enough power to avoid the need to run gensets at a dock.

Note: this article applies to boats which are NOT fit with polarization/isolation transformers.

In North America, the national standard for power delivered to residential and light commercial customers is a “single phase, three-pole, four-wire, center-neutral” wiring configuration. This system is sometimes referred to as a “240V grounded-neutral” system. In these systems, the service’s Neutral (white) conductor is bonded (electrically connected) to the system’s Ground conductor. The bonding point is located at the “derived source,” ashore. Boats connected to shore power systems should never have the neutral and ground bonded aboard the boat. Connections to outlets fed from single phase sources in the utility distribution system will receive service voltages of 120V/240V. Connections to outlets fed from the phase legs of three phase sources in the utility distribution system will receive service voltages of 120V/208V.

Figure 1 shows a typical single-phase residence or dock source fed from a street transformer.  The “secondary” of the transformer is the feed’s source:


Figure 1: Single Phase Transformer with 3-Pole, Center-Neutral Secondary to Customer

Figure 2 shows the common dock power distribution components found on docks at marinas, yacht clubs, boatyards, condos and municipal walls throughout North America. The “derived source” is defined by code to be the point where the Neutral-to-Ground Bond and the dock’s main disconnect circuit breakers are located.

Dock electrical system feeders must be designed to support a number of boats at the same time, which means the current-carrying conductors of the dock feeder need to be quite large. In the US, the National Electric Code, Article 555.12, specifies the ampacity calculations of dock feeders.


Figure 2: North American Dock Shore Power Layout – Typical

Figure 3 shows a simplified example of the most common configuration of 50A shore power outlets found on docks.  This example shows the 3-pole, 4-wire dock feeder with drops to six 208V/240V, 50A shore power receptacles.  The source for the dock feeder can be either 120V/208V or 120V/240V.  This wiring configuration is mandatory in order to support boats fit with 50A shore power services.  Note that the dock feeder is a direct electrical extension of the power transformer shown in Figure 1, and consists of the two energized conductors (L1 and L2), the Neutral conductor (N), and a safety ground conductor, (G).


Figure 3: Typical 240V, 50A, 3-Pole, 4-Wire Dock Feeder

Figure 4 shows a portion of a 120V, 30A shore power configuration.  In this example, each outlet provides 120V at up to 30A to the boat.  Note that adjacent outlets in this wiring configuration are alternately connected to the two energized legs, L1 and L2.  Since both energized legs are necessary for 208V/240V service, this would be the most common way to connect 30A outlets in the case of a dock with a large number of 50A outlets.


Figure 4: Desirable, Best-Case 125V, 30A Dock Wiring Usually Found on Docks with 50A Pedestal Outlets

Figures 5 and 6 show two alternative configurations for providing 30A shore power at a slip.  As in Figure 4, each outlet in Figures 5 and 6 provides 120V at up to 30A to the boat.  The difference in these examples is that all of the 30A outlets are connected to the same energized leg, rather than to alternate legs, of the dock feeder.  For 30A boats, this configuration is functionally equivalent to the example in Figure 4.  Boats requiring two 30A shore power services will never notice or be affected by the difference between the configurations shown in Figure 4, Figure 5 or Figure 6.


Figure 5: Alternate “One” for a 125V, 30A, 2-Pole, 3-Wire Configuration, with Only One Energized Dock Feeder Leg Used for Power



Figure 6: Alternate “Two” for a 125V, 30A, 2-Pole, 3-Wire Configuration, with Only One Energized Dock Feeder Leg Used for Power

For boats that require 208V/240V shore power services via a 50A, 4-Wire shore power cord, a “Smart Wye” splitter can provide shore power from the example shown in Figure 4, albeit at reduced total amperage capacity of 30A, total.  However, the “Smart Wye” will not deliver any power at all if connected to the configurations shown in Figures 5 and 6.

Figure 7 shows the electrical diagram of a “Smart” Reverse Wye Splitter.  To the left are two 30A male plugs which are fit to  30A pedestal outlets.  On the right is a 50A female, which  receives the boat’s regular shore power cord.  In the box at the center, a relay is used to forward power from the pedestal outlets (dock feeder) to the shore power cord.  A 208V/240V relay, K1, is connected between the two energized conductors of the two incoming 120V, 30A lines.


Figure 7: “Smart Wye” Reverse Splitter


Figure 8 shows a “Smart”€ Reverse Wye connected to the dual-leg dock feeder wiring configuration (as previously shown in Figure 4).


Figure 8: Smart Wye Reverse Splitter Connected to Both Energized Legs of a 208V/240V Shore Power Service

This wiring alternative places 208V/240V on the relay coil, K1. The relay “picks,”€ meaning the contacts of the relay close, and this allows 208V/240V shore power to feed through the splitter to the boat. With this adapter, 208V/240V appliances will work. Because the input source is limited to 30A, boat loads may need to be manually limited and controlled to avoid drawing more than 30A. However, with attention, most boat equipment can be used successfully, even if not at the same time.

Figures 9 and 10 show the Smart Wye Reverse Splitter connected to the two alternative single-leg dock feeder configurations. In these cases, since both 30A inputs are connected to the same energized dock feeder leg, there is no voltage between them; that is, zero volts. Since the relay requires 208V/240V to operate, the relay in this case does not “pick,” and no power at all is allowed to pass to the boat.


Figure 9: Both Smart Wye 30A Connections Made to L1



Figure 10: Both Smart Wye 30A Connections Made to L2

In cases where only one energized dock feeder leg is available, the only way to get any shore power at all to this 50A boat – however limited – is with another type of power adapter. Options are available. To understand the options, it is necessary to first understand how the branch circuits aboard the boat are wired.

Figure 11 shows an incomplete but representative view of a 208V/240V boat electrical system. Although I have modified the diagram, credit for the base is to the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC), Annapolis, MD. This diagram shows a “typical”€ AC shore power configuration for a boat built with a 208V/240V, 50A AC power system, and found without a polarization/isolation transformer.


Figure 11: Partial View, Representative of a “Typical” 208V/240V Boat Electrical System

The left side of Figure 11 shows the dock feeder discussed above. At the center-right of the drawing, the AC power buss shown in colors is the AC power buss of the wiring of the boat. All boat equipment gets power from the boat’s AC buss via branch circuit breakers. The 120V utility outlets on a 208V/240V boat can be attached to either one of the energized conductors; to L1 alone, or to L2 alone, or some to L1 and some to L2. The drawing shows two utility outlets. The top outlet is fed by L1 and the bottom outlet is fed by L2. Any adapter that’s used to supply some limited power onto a 208V/240V boat must provide that power to both L1 and L2.

Figure 12 shows a 30A-to-50A adapter that will accomplish the goal. Power from one of the energized dock feeder legs is brought through the pigtail to feed both the L1 and L2 blades of the 50A receptacle. Each 50A receptacle blade will have 120V, but because they are fed from the same point, there will be no 208V/240V power.


Figure 12: 30A-to-50A Straight Adapter

Commercial straight pigtail adapters like this are available.  Power is limited to 30A, total.  With this adapter, 208V/240V appliances will not work, but important 120V refrigeration, lighting, entertainment systems and computers connected to 120V utility outlets will be OK as long as the total load is managed to be less than 30A.

Favorite A-ICW Stops

I was asked recently to comment on our “favorite places” to visit as we cruised along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Following was our response. There are many more places we also stop, but these are the “highlights” we think will also appeal to others.

As a reminder, the ICW is measured in Statute Miles, not Nautical Miles. Statute miles are 5280 feet, what we all know and love in a car as miles, with speed measured in miles per hour. Nautical miles are longer than Statute miles; the conversion factor is 1.1508, so 5280 x 1.15 = 6076 feet (rounded).

Below in this text, I use the following abbreviations:
MM – mile marker
StM – Statute mile (vs Nautical Mile)

Portsmouth, VA: Located immediately south of the Chesapeake Bay, this is an excellent place to rest and relax after transiting the Bay, particularly if the weather has had the Bay “a bit disturbed.” Portsmouth is at MM0 – the start of – the Atlantic ICW. Southbound, Norfolk is to Port and Portsmouth is to STBD. There is an anchorage known as “Hospital Point” at MM0, but dinghy docks are scarce for those who’d want to go ashore. Waterside Marina is a good marina stop in Norfolk, VA. It’s located within walking distance to the USS Wisconsin, a WWII Battleship museum. One quarter mile south of MM0 are Tidewater Marina and Ocean Marine on the Portsmouth side. There are also two first-come, first-served public basins on the Portsmouth side where cruisers can tie up free; there are no services. These spaces fill up fast if bad weather is forecast or in progress for the lower Chesapeake Bay, as they are great places to wait on weather. Storm tides here will come over the docks, so you may get your feet wet. From the High Street basin, it’s an easy walk to the museum Light Ship Portsmouth. There are two small but nice museums surrounding that basin. Along high street, there are several mostly “bar food” restaurants; our particular favorite is the German Biergarten, about a 6 block walk.

Elizabeth City, NC, and the “Albemarle Loop:” Elizabeth City at MM 51 on the Dismal Swamp ICW Route is the “anchor town” of the ICW southbound from Norfolk/Portsmouth.  Elizabeth City has a marvelous small museum dedicated to the maritime and economic history of the region.  The Elizabeth City Public Wharf is the “Harbor of Hospitality.”  Docks are free, albeit without services.  This is a favorite stop for us to relax and refresh.

South lies the Albemarle sound, a shallow body of water where the “deep water” range is 12′ – 18′.  These waters are home to many crab fishermen; crab pot floats are to be found virtually throughout the sound.  The sound lies geographically East-West, and the prevailing winds are from the West and Southwest.  Winds greater than 15 kts can raise uncomfortable beam seas for North-South crossings.  Winds greater that 20 kts can produce uncomfortable chop in all directions.

While not technically part of the ICW, the Albemarle “loop” is centered around the two ICW Routes between Norfolk/Portsmouth and the southbound ICW at the Alligator River in North Carolina.  The “Albemarle Loop” is a cruising route that touches some wonderful and oft-overlooked venues.  On the Crystal Coast, the towns of Manteo and Ocracoke are excellent stops.  On the Western Albemarle, the towns of Edenton and Plymouth are delightful.  The history of the Albemarle dates to the earliest English colonists.  At Matteo, visit the Lost Colony Plantation.  At Edenton, visit the revolutionary period Chowan County Courthouse, St. Paul’s Church, learn of the “Tea Party” that the ladies of Edenton hosted, and visit many local historical sites.

Here is a link to information on the Albemarle Loop: http://albemarleloop.com.

Beaufort, NC: This is a vintage seaport town just East of Morehead City, MM204; it’s a very pleasant, laid-back, “chillaxin'” place with a small but well done Maritime Museum, many shoppes and some nice local restaurants.  Stay at the Beaufort City Docks. This marina is pricy for a municipal marina, but convenient for walking access to town. For those who might enjoy a short off-shore (maybe 10 miles) jaunt, depart the Beaufort Inlet and head out the the bight at the Cape Lookout National Seashore.  It is a large, well protected anchorage, with dinghy access to the beach for campfires and swimming.  The bight itself is well protected from ocean winds and sea states, but the trip out and back can be too much for some if the wind offshore is up.  Plan accordingly.

Charleston, SC: magnificent old southern city with many points-of-interest and fine restaurants. Our visit strategy is to immediately take a tour bus around the city that is new to us.  We look for a tour company that has same-day on-and-off privileges.  (We do this every time we arrive somewhere we’ve not been before, including Canada).  We take the entire tour circuit first, then go back to places that we think we’d like to know more about.

In Charleston, MM465, our preferred marina is the Charleston Maritime Center, located on the Cooper River, on the north side of the city, on the Cooper River. The CMC basin can be choppy in heavy weather, but we feel the relative convenience of the location is offsetting. We suggest advance reservations, as this is a popular marina with a relatively small capacity for transient visitors.

At Charleston, start the city tour at the downtown Welcome Center.  Or, take a tour boat to Fort Sumpter. There is a nice aquarium near the Ft. Sumpter ferry docks.  There is a water taxi from the Charleston Maritime Center that goes back and forth to Patriot Point, which is where the USS Yorktown museum ship is located.  There is a large Harris-Teeter grocery about two city blocks from the Maritime Center.

There are several architecture tours and many weekly and seasonal activities for visitors.

Beaufort, SC: from the Beaufort Downtown Marina, take a carriage tour through the historic ante-bellum homes in the area.  Our preferred marina stop here is Port Royal Landing Marina. From the docks, it’s a long walk to shore, but the hospitality at PRL is like no other.  Beaufort’s downtown is friendly with many shoppes and good small town restaurant options. Rent a car here and visit the nearby Gullah Geechee historical and cultural corridor, the Penn School (founded in 1862) and Fort Fremont.

Savannah, GA: In Savannah, cruisers can stay on the Savannah River, in downtown Savannah, at either the municipal docks or at private marinas. The Savannah waterfront is very interesting, with its large riverwalk, wonderful park overlooking the River, and a mix of large shipping, commercial traffic and every kind of small-boat and pleasure craft.  The tidal range here is about 8′ – 9′, and at low tide, boats are significantly below the adjacent public riverwalk, where pedestrians are fascinated by the boats and often look down at boats moored on the municipal dock. The downtown docks are in a “No Wake Zone,” so for the most part, wakes are not an issue. Throughout the season, there are events and activities along the riverwalk, and we’ve found it quite interesting and fun.

Alternatively, cruisers can stay at Thunderbolt or Isle of Hope. From both locations, city busses run to the downtown Savannah Welcome Center. My Admiral prefers the quiet and relative privacy of this alternative. In Thunderbolt, there are a couple of fun “pub food” restaurants and a fine marine chandlery caller River Supply.

In Savannah, there is a nice live stage theater within walking distance of the downtown waterfront (http://www.savannahtheatre.com).  There are several architecture tours and many weekly and seasonal activities for visitors.  From Savannah, boaters can rent a car to visit Bonaventure Cemetery (an amazing place, the film site for the movie, “Garden of Good and Evil”), Tybee Island (the Tybee Island Lighthouse and grounds are open to the public) and Fort Pulaski.

Fernandina Beach, FL: The downtown of this lovely small city is right at the foot of the docks at the Fernandina Harbor Marina.  Take the tour to Civil War era Fort Clinch.  Visit the house where the Pippi Longstocking movie was filmed.  Visit Billy Burbank’s trawl net factory. The trawl net “factory” makes shrimp nets, but the modern history of this business is instructive to anyone interested in entrepreneurship. Burbank’s is open to the public for tours, and it’s a very interesting afternoon.

St. Augustine, FL: We prefer to stop at the St. Augustine City Marina. Tidal currents here are swift; boat handling skills and careful attention to the dockmaster’s instructions are essential. Wait for slack if unsure; caution is essential. The Catholic Cathedral Basilica would be of architectural interest to all. The Fortification overlooking the river – Castillo de San Marcos – is wonderful, and the docents that do the historical interpretation are excellent.  There are many restaurants – ranging from fine dining to pub food – within walking distance of the St. Augustine City Marina.  We particularly like the a1a Ale House.  Rent a car or take a shuttle bus to the St. Augustine lighthouse, which is open to the public. Young’uns traveling with you would also enjoy the Alligator Farm.

Titusville, FL: Not really remarkable as a destination in itself, but the Titusville City Marina is an excellent place for boaters to stay in order to visit NASA at Cape Canaveral; the public areas and displays at Canaveral are excellent.  It’s also a great place to watch a launch, if one is scheduled.

Comments on ICW cruising conditions:

For a more thorough discussion of cruising conditions, hints, tips, suggestions and warnings, please see our related article on the A-ICE on this website, here: https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/cruising-practica/general-cruising/a-icw-overview/.

There are many areas of shallow water throughout the Southeast region.  The very best resource for current data on low water (shoaling) and caution areas is available via http://www.activecaptain.com.  Two other websites that all ICW travelers should know about are http://www.waterwayguide.com and http://www.cruisersnet.com.  Waterway Guide publishes a series of excellent waterway guide books and maintains cruising information on their website and on tablet and smartphone apps. The “Salty Southeast Cruiser’s Net (SSECN) is really a boating group, founded by Claiborne Young.  After Claiborne’s untimely loss, the group has continued in operation.  The Cruiser’s Net website specializes on the US Southeast.  SSECN has apps for both tablet and smartphones. There is some duplication of material between the WWG site and the SSECN site, but there is unique value to both.  Both are excellent resources for fuel prices, marinas and anchorages.  All three of these websites require users to register, but all three are free, and all are very useful to ICW boaters.

There are some generalizations that apply to the ICW between Georgetown, SC, to and through St. Augustine, FL. This entire stretch has high tidal ranges; from 5′ at St. Augustine to as much as 9′ in Savannah/Beaufort/Charleston.  The high tidal ranges create swift tidal currents, and especially for first-timers, docking is easiest in the 1/2 hour before and after slack. In some of those areas, boats drawing more than 4′ will want to consider not traveling at low tide; especially celestial low tides.  There are some well-known “trouble spots” in the region, including the Dahoo River at MM490/500, the Ashepoo-Coosaw Cutoff at MM 518, Fields Cut at MM573, Hell Gate at MM600, the Little Mud River at MM650, Jekyll Creek at MM680/685, and several spots on the Amelia River/South Amelia River below Fernandina Beach. There are some local knowledge bypasses around some shoal areas.  In others, the only choice is to wait for the tide to provide deeper water. All of the cruising sites above can provide additional detail.

The US Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) is responsible for dredging the ICW.  USACE is funded through state congressional delegations.  In recent years, the money congress allocated to dredging has been diverted by these state delegations to “more pressing needs,” with the consequence that many areas of the ICW are shoaling. In fact, the ICW resource is slowly being lost… allowed to die, really… by congress.  There is a not-for-profit organization called the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association that tries to improve the situation.  The Executive Director is Brad Pickel at  bpickel@seahavenconsulting.com.

Renting a car in any of the above venues greatly expands what a cruising visitor can see and do.  Some, but not all, marinas have courtesy cars.  Generally, courtesy cars can’t be used for long periods of time, but they are useful for re-provisioning and maintenance runs.

Boat Batteries – Charging and Care


For all boat owners, an understanding of lead-acid batteries is important to optimizing the reliability and performance of the boat’s DC electrical system.  This article introduces some important concepts in order to enable further reading in boating publications, magazines, websites and Internet posts.  This article has no math, and only conceptual references to battery chemistry and physics.

It is essential to understand the rate at which different types of lead-acid batteries can be charged.  For boaters, the subject has a direct bearing on battery and battery charger choices.  Owners must also understand the importance of battery care, including routine monitoring of state-of-charge, battery electrolyte management, equalization charging, and related battery maintenance subjects.  Good battery maintenance will avoid premature battery failure and maximize battery service life.

Batteries (what they are/what they do):

Lead-acid batteries contain chemical energy in the materials of which they are made.  Batteries release that stored energy in the form of DC electric current.   The rate at which that energy can be delivered by a battery into an electrical load is stated in Cranking Amps (CA), Cold Cranking Amps (CCA), Marine Cranking Amps (MCA) and Reserve Capacity (RC).  Deep-cycle (traction) batteries are typically rated in aHr returned over 20 hours (US measurement system; 10 hours is typical in Europe).  Start service batteries are normally rated in CA/CCA/MCA and RC.  The total amount of energy a lead-acid battery can release is determined by the physical properties of the battery materials, its construction, and the length of time over which the energy is drawn off.

Charge Acceptance Rate:

The technical details related to Charge Acceptance Rate (CAR) are quite complex, but there are some simple “rules-of-thumb” that illustrate and explain basic battery charging concepts.  CAR is determined by battery materials and construction technology.  The ill effects of incorrect charging (over charging and under charging) are extremely difficult to measure and may never be fully appreciated by retail battery buyers/owners.  Boaters need to know that poorly designed charging systems can result in premature battery failure and shortened battery service life.

Assume that the lead-acid house bank has been discharged to a point where between 50% and 60% of its total capacity is still remaining.  In other words, 40-plus percent of the battery capacity has been “used,” and the batteries are presently at 50% to 60% State-Of-Charge (SOC).  This condition is an appropriate and reasonable time to begin recharging the batteries.

The CAR “rule-of-thumb” for flooded wet cells at 50% SOC is that they will accept 25%, stated in Amperes, of that cell’s aHr capacity.  So, for a 100 aHr battery at 50% SOC, CAR would be 25A.   That is, that 100 aHr flooded wet cell will accept a charge current of 25A, but no more.  That 25A of charging current can come from a single battery charger or from several charging sources working cooperatively together.

Similarly, the CAR “rule-of-thumb” for AGM and Gel cells at 50% SOC is that they will accept 40%, stated in Amperes, of the cell’s aHr capacity.   So for a 100 aHr AGM or Gel cell at 50% SOC, CAR would be 40A.  Indeed, some specialized AGM cells (Thin Plate Pure Lead) can accept larger charging currents, but the batteries found on most boats tend to be of types that cannot.   An owner who has batteries that can take higher CARs would know that.  The batteries are expensive, and owners would not install those batteries without knowing what they can do and why they’d want/need them.

Just because a battery has a theoretical CAR does not make charging at that rate the right thing to do.

Rules-of-thumb are useful for learning and understanding concepts.  Battery owners should verify the manufacturer’s ratings for their particular batteries.  Batteries do have different specifics.   Lifeline, for example, specifies lesser than “rule-of-thumb” maximum CAR, and for good reason.

For lead-acid batteries, the positive and negative lead plates are composed of two different forms of lead: pure lead and lead dioxide (lead dioxide is also called “sponge lead” by some authors).  Lead-acid batteries release electric current in a chemical reaction that converts lead and lead dioxide into lead sulfate and simultaneously, sulfuric acid into water.  In that chemical reaction, free electrons are released.  Charging a lead-acid battery is the process of recombining the lead sulfate and water back into lead/lead dioxide and sulfuric acid.  Lead is a crystal lattice metal.  In the recombination, electrons are restored to the structure of the crystal lattice of the metal.

Most boaters are aware that multi-stage battery charging is the optimum technical solution to maximize battery service life and ensure the reliability of their DC electrical system.  A simplified view of the nominal charge-cycle that multi-stage chargers should produce is as follows:

Lead-acid battery charging stages

Lead-acid battery charging stages

In the “bulk” stage, the charging source maximizes the charge current to the level the batteries/bank can accept.  Battery terminal voltage starts out low, and slowly increases to it’s pre-determined setpoint as SOC increases.  In the “absorb” stage, terminal voltage is held at a pre-determined level, and  charging current decreases as SOC continues to increase.  In the “float” stage, terminal voltage is held slightly above the battery’s resting voltage and a very small current trickles through the battery.  The “equalize” stage is a short duration, occasional, over-charge performed on a fully-charged battery.

I recommend that charging systems be designed to result in charge rates that are slightly less than battery manufacturer specifications for CAR.  The reason is, with a partially discharged battery, the crystal lattice of the lead plates is depleted of electrons.  Lead has been converted to lead sulfate and the plate surfaces are “etched” of material.  During charging, it takes time for the conversion of lead sulfate back into lead and lead dioxide, and it takes time for electrons to equalize throughout the interior deep regions of the lattice of the lead plate material.   If the rate of electron migration is driven to try to proceed above the maximum CAR, the process can result in a phenomena called “surface charge.”   The surfaces of the lead plates of the battery can become electron-saturated even while the deep structure of the lead lattice remains electron deficient.  Generally, electron migration rate-control is one of the key purposes of the “absorb” stage of the battery charging curve.

Modern multi-stage AC battery chargers and multi-stage engine alternator voltage regulators (like the Balmar MC614 and ARS-5, and the Xantrex XAR) use

  1.  1) battery terminal voltage,
  2.  2) elapsed time,
  3.  3) battery temperature, and
  4.  4) the amount of charge current flow

to determine when to switch from stage-to-stage.   If a battery is charged too fast by a charging source capable of “force-feeding” more current than the battery can accept, surface charge over-saturation will occur.  Under this condition, electrolyte gassing will also occur.

Worse than gassing (discussed later in this article), battery terminal voltage will appear to have reached a charger stage-transition setpoint, and a multi-stage charger can think that it’s time to switch into the next later stage of charging.  For example, the “bulk” charging target voltage can be reached early, and the charger will then switch to “absorb.”   This particular condition doesn’t have serious consequences, but it does prolong the overall time it takes to achieve full charge.

However, the “absorb” charging current threshold can appear to be met prematurely.  In that case, “absorb” can terminate early, and the charger can enter “float” prematurely.   If absorb ends prematurely, the lattice structure of the plates will be in an only partially reconstructed (electron-depleted) state.  Thereafter with the continuing passage of time, the excess surface charge that caused the premature stage switch will bleed into the deep lattice.   Once electron equilibration completes, the result is that the entire lead lattice remains electron deficient.   That is, in English, the battery is undercharged (not fully re-charged).   That means some lead sulfate remains behind.

Complicating the above, some experts now feel that the duration of the “absorb” phase in modern multistage chargers is not sufficiently long enough to fully recharge the battery, even when everything else is optimum.  Because the volume of available lead sulfate decreases as the battery charges, the speed at which it’s conversion back in lead and lead dioxide necessarily slows.  Some experts say that the final 15% of charge, from 85% to 100%, requires 8 hours.  Shore power chargers that drop into float for long times can accomplish the same thing, but running on a genset at anchor, not so much.

All of this also means the energy restored into the battery is only a large fraction of what should be there; let’s say, instead of 100 aHr for a 100 aHr rated battery, maybe only 95 aHr or 96 aHr.  Following is a marketing (conceptual) chart from a major manufacturer of solar charging systems and PWM and MPPT controllers showing the effect of charging on battery life:

Effects of charging on battery service life.

Effects of charging on battery service life.

An example: assume a 1000 aHr flooded wet cell battery bank that is around 50% SOC; it’s theoretical CAR is 250A (25% of aHr capacity).   A charging source controlled to drive only a “bulk” charge of 150A or 200a would avoid the build-up of excess surface charge, but a charger (or multiple charging sources working cooperatively) that drove to 400A would indeed create a massive surface charge that could result in a battery bank that is chronically undercharged while also needing a lot of electrolyte replacement.

Realize also that in all lead-acid batteries, as SOC increases, CAR decreases.  That is, the “internal resistance” of the battery’s “equivalent circuit” goes up.  That also increases the possibility of excessive surface charge.  The net is, charger selection and capability are extremely important.  The charger and the charging program need to be able to sense battery behavior and compensate for changing CAR throughout the charging process.  All battery banks of all sizes can exit the “absorb” stage early, wind up in “float” prematurely, and be chronically undercharged.   If that happens on a regular basis, battery service life will be lessened.


Battery charging is indeed a trade-off between what is actually best for the physics and chemistry of the battery and what the owner views as “best” or “necessary” for them in their daily lives.   What’s best for the battery is to be fully recharged, and to be fully charged somewhat slowly compared to its theoretical maximum capability.   Of course, that means increased generator run time for anchored boats.    Many cruisers charge to the end of bulk and quit; that point is, as a “rule-of-thumb,” the “gassing” point, or about the 85% SOC point.   Most cruising boaters have heard of re-charging in the range between 50% SOC and 85% SOC.   That is not a strategy to maximize battery service life or return total lifetime amp hours.   To achieve those goals, owners must do what is best for the batteries. Most battery manufacturers recommend fully charging batteries at least every 10 days to two weeks.

A side benefit of solar charging systems is that they have lower charging capacities and do their work over longer periods of time; slowly.

Battery Monitoring:

I recommend the use of a coulomb counter to monitor battery State-Of-Charge (SOC).   One such legacy stand-alone coulomb counting device is the Xantrex Link10/Link 20, but it has some limitations.  There are several aftermarket coulomb counters available today, such as the Bluesea Systems M2 DC (p/n 1830), Victron BMV-770 or BMV702, Xantrex LinkPro and Mastervolt BTM-III.

I feel the best choice these days is to get a coulomb counting monitor from the manufacturer of the charger or inverter/charger.   Aboard Sanctuary, a Magnum MS-Series Inverter/Charger is installed.   I replaced my Xantrex Link 20 with a Magnum Battery Monitor, ME-BMK.   Our monitor calculates Peukert effect and Charge Efficiency Factor (CEF) in real time.  This is especially important for those who run AC appliances such as coffee makers, food processors, chopper/grinders, microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners, washer/dryers and such on inverters.   These types of loads on the 120VAC side are very demanding on the 12VDC battery side.   Heavy DC loads (thrusters, windlasses, winches and DC motors [watermaker “Clark Pump”]) also distort (lessen) the 20-hour rating of energy capacity that batteries can return.

Many boaters rely on conventional DC voltmeters to track state-of-charge.   Battery terminal voltage is a late indication of SOC.   Particularly when large DC loads are involved, voltmeters do not provide a reliable indication of SOC.  Conductance testers are great at measuring CA/CCA/MCA, but not so good at aHr.   In my opinion, coulomb counters remain the best available alternative today.

Electrolyte Level:

Recalling  the purposes of the “bulk” and “absorb” stages of charging: “bulk” is a constant-current stage of large current flow (full-fielded alternator) that is targeted to take advantage of the Charge Acceptance Rate physics of the lead plates.  “Absorb” is a constant-voltage stage that is intended to restore the electron equilibrium of the deep crystal lattice of the lead plates.  However, electron replacement in the plates is only part of what’s going on inside the battery.   The chemistry of the liquid electrolyte is also dynamic and changing throughout the recharge and discharge cycles.

When flooded lead-acid batteries are fully charged, the “normal” mixture for the liquid electrolyte is approximately 35% sulfuric acid and 65% pure water, so the Specific Gravity (SpGr) of the electrolyte mixture is 1.265 at 80ºF.   With flooded wet cells, SpGr can be measured with a hydrometer; it’s not practical to measure SpGr with sealed AGMs or Gels. The process of discharging a battery removes sulphur from the sulfuric acid to form a sulfate of lead. Timely recharging of the battery reverses that reaction.   With the formation of lead sulfate during discharge, the percentage of sulphuric acid in the electrolyte mixture decreases and the percentage of water in the electrolyte mixture increases.  The SpGr of the electrolyte mixture goes down.  (Note: measurement of SpGr is the single most reliable measure of battery state-of-charge; perhaps not practical, but by far the most accurate).

As a lead-acid battery begins to charge, the electrolyte is restored toward the 35/65% “normal” equilibrium mixture concentrations of sulphuric acid and water.   During charging, there comes a point when electrons cannot move as fast into the lead lattice as the chemical process is capable of proceeding. That point is called the “gassing” voltage; or the point at which significant bubbling begins to appear in the liquid electrolyte; the electrolyte appears to be “boiling.”   “Gassing” is the point at which hydrogen gas is given off to the atmosphere.  At the gassing voltage, CAR is overcome by the build-up of surface charge; that’s when “gassing” begins.

One result of this evolution of electro-chemistry is a drop in the liquid level of the electrolyte in the battery cell.   Some people say “water has boiled off.”   Not exactly, but that description is OK relative to the externally observable symptom.   The liquid electrolyte level does go down, and if it goes far enough, the plate tops will get exposed.   Another consequence of the gassing is that some lead sulfate remains un-reconstituted, so over time, battery capacity is diminished.

The “gassing” voltage (or ideally, a voltage immediately below the gassing voltage) is the point where lead-acid battery chargers should  switch from “bulk” to “absorb.”   At that point, the battery is around 85% state-of-charge.   One major system design reason for a charger to switch from constant current (bulk) to constant voltage (absorb) at that 85% level is to reduce gassing to a minimum.   Implication: if there is an ongoing need to replace distilled water in the battery electrolyte mixture, the ONLY reason is that the charging source(s) is not switching from bulk to absorb at the most optimal point in the charging cycle FOR THOSE BATTERIES AT THEIR OPERATING TEMPERATURE.   Other than a physical damage to the battery case, there’s no other reason to lose electrolyte.

Electrolyte Stratification:

I believe flooded wet cells offer the best overall return-on-investment for boats that get a lot of use.  AGMs or Gels are a better choice for boats that get relatively little use.

Stratification is a phenomena that happens to flooded wet cells over a relatively long period of time (weeks) of disuse.  As discussed above, the liquid electrolyte in lead-acid batteries is a mixture of sulphuric acid and water.  Over time, the sulphuric acid and water components will settle in layers in the battery cell chambers (stratify), water “floating” on top of acid.  Charge/discharge cycles set up convective circulation in the electrolyte mixture, so stratification does not occur when batteries are used.  Boats also agitate the electrolyte mixture as jostle about in a seaway.  Equalization charging also creates convection current which mixes electrolyte liquid.  Boats at risk for electrolyte stratification are boats with flooded wet cells that get infrequent use, have high DC electrical demands, and have small charger capacity and/or are not recharged for sufficient time to achieve a full charge.

Stratification in flooded wet cells is a problem for several reasons.  Acid concentration at the bottom of the plates causes open circuit terminal voltage to appear higher than it actually is.  Uneven distribution of the acid throughout the cell reduces CA/CCA/MCA and causes uneven plate etching.  Sulfates on plates are not evenly reconstituted.  Over long periods of time, these issues cause premature loss of capacity and lead to early battery failure.

Digital Battery Charging Programs:

Charger manufacturers are different from battery manufacturers.  Chargers from any one manufacturer will charge batteries from many battery manufacturers.  Default charging programs make assumptions (via “rules-of-thumb”) based on averages for battery materials, construction and operating temperatures.   Occasionally in real life, factory defaults must be tweaked.   Not all flooded wet cells are the same; not all AGMs are the same.  Balmar voltage regulators allow the setpoints for charging-stage voltage, stage duration and battery temperature to be adjusted.   Most newer shore power chargers allow for some parameters to be adjusted.  Many older technology chargers do not.  Shore power chargers should be equipped with temperature probes for the batteries they charge.  If the charger’s battery-type setting (flooded, AGM, Gel) is correct for the battery being charged, and batteries nevertheless continue to lose electrolyte, reduce the bulk setpoint voltage in steps of 0.1 volt and monitor the results.   Electrolyte loss should decrease.  Do that incrementally until full charging occurs with minimal electrolyte loss.   The effect will be that it may take a few minutes longer to achieve a fully charged battery (total time from start-of-bulk through end-of-absorb), but there will be less electrolyte loss, less hydrogen outgassing, and more complete re-constitution of lead sulfate.

These same processes occur inside AGM and Gel batteries.   The difference is, because AGM and Gel batteries are sealed, it can’t be seen or measured.   These batteries have pressure operated valves (Valve Regulated Lead Acid) that retain the outgassed hydrogen under pressure, and allow it to resorb into it’s electrolyte over time. That does work, to a point.  However, it’s way better to avoid overcharging sealed batteries.  For maximum return on service life, set charging parameters so that sealed batteries charge slowly.  Especially so with Gels, because hydrogen gas escaping in gel cells can actually create gaps (channels) in the Gel, which can result in permanent loss of capacity in the cell.


Equalization (called “conditioning” by some manufacturers) is the process of applying an intentional over-voltage charge to a battery.  Because the battery to be equalized starts out fully charged, DC currents forced through the battery during equalization are relatively low.  Equalizing is very hard on the mechanical structure of the plates and the plate support frames.  It also causes aggressive release of hydrogen gas (gassing).   These negatives are why very few AGMs, and no Gels, can be equalized.  Battery and charger manufacturers recommend equalizing flooded wet cells only when the SpGr in resting cells differ from cell-to-cell by from 0.15 to 0.20.

Measuring SpGr is not hard, but it is tedious.  Achieving a “resting” state is impractical on most boats while batteries are in use.  Lead-acid flooded wet cells are 2.2VDC each, so there are 6 cells in each battery of nominally 12V.   A bank of three 12V batteries will have 36 individual cells.   Only the most dedicated owners will measure the SpGr of 36 cells to determine if equalization is actually appropriate.

Then there is the matter of, “how long to equalize?”   Manufacturers recommend monitoring of cell SpGr hourly, with the equalization overcharging voltage being discontinued when the SpGr is consistently equal across all of the cells of the battery/bank.  When the SpGr is equal across all cells in the battery, that is THE DEFINITION of “equalized.”   That is the condition where the internal resistance and internal losses of each cell are identical, and balanced, so each cell carries a fully equivalent part of the total load.   This state is reached after a variable duration of time, depending on the starting condition of the battery when the equalization process was begun.

The net is, while there is real science and manufacturer’s recommendation on how and when to equalize, and when to quit equalizing, the tedious and inconvenient nature of “doing this right” makes this task ripe for shortcuts and dockside lore.   It takes a lot of time to do it right; I assume, more time than most people are willing to invest.  Can it be a good thing to do?  Absolutely.   Can it be a bad thing if it’s over done?   Absolutely.

Boardings by Law Enforcement


In the United States, the supreme law of land is our Federal Constitution. God blessed our founding fathers with great intelligence and insight as they developed and adopted that wonderful document. The first 10 amendments, collectively known as the “Bill of Rights,” give citizens specific protections. Among them, the Fourth Amendment states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probably cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Probable cause is “the level of suspicion that would cause a reasonable and prudent person, given the overall circumstances, to believe a crime has been committed.” A warrant is a “court order authorizing police to arrest a person, search his or her private property, or take his or her belongings.” All boaters should note, in these United States, this Constitutional protection DOES NOT extend to boats and boaters.

United States Coast Guard:

References for this section:

  1. http://www.uscg.mil/d1/prevention/NavInfo/navinfo/documents/Enforcement.PDF
  2. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/14/89
  3. http://navwaters.com/2012/11/12/the-fourth-amendment-rights-vs-boarding-power-of-the-united-states-coast-guard/
  4. http://boatswainsmate.net/BM/BOStudyGuide.pdf
  5. http://www.dtic.mil/get-tr-doc/pdf?AD=ADA329162
  6. http://military.wikia.com/wiki/Posse_Comitatus_Act

The United States Coast Guard mission is to “enforce or assist in the enforcement of all applicable federal laws, on, under and over the high seas and waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.” This mission is conveyed by Congress under 14 USC 2 (1). The Coast Guard has the authority to board any US flag vessel anywhere in the world, and any vessel, regardless of Flag or stateless status, in US waters. The Coast Guard has four fundamental sources of authority:

  1. 14 USC 89 for Maritime Law Enforcement;
  2. 14 USC 143 for Customs and Border Protection;
  3. 50 USC 191 for protection and security of vessels, harbor, and waterline facilities including law enforcement ashore, and
  4. The history and traditions of the sea for Mariner Assistance

The Coast Guard’s authority under 14 USC 89 is to “address inquiries to those on board, examine the ship’s documents and papers, and examine, inspect, and search the vessel and use all necessary force to compel compliance.” The word, “inspect,” can be used to justify much more intrusive searches. For example, the Coast Guard can “inspect” your engine room for “adequate ventilation,” but in the process, take note of anything that happens to be there that some 18 y/o Petty Offices decides to be curious about. Not that cruisers have anything to hide, but there is no analogy to this warrantless and intrusive police authority in your home on land.

The US Coast Guard also has Customs authority under 14 USC 143, which states “commissioned, warrant, and petty officers of the Coast Guard are deemed to be officers of the customs and when so acting shall, insofar as performance of the duties relating to customs laws are concerned, be subject to regulations issued by the Secretary of the Treasury governing officers of the customs.” Who knew?!

The Posse Comitatus Act (18 USC 1385) prohibits United States Department Of Defense personnel from assisting civilian law enforcement in keeping the peace, arresting felons, or enforcing civil law in general. The US Coast Guard is exempt from the Posse Comitatus Act because it operates under the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Defense. (The National Guard is also exempt from Posse Comitatus, because the National Guard is a state agency under civil control of the Governors of the respective states.)


For those that carry weapons aboard, certain weapons are always prohibited:

  1. Short Barreled Shotgun:
    1. Barrel Length is less then 18”
    2. Overall Length is less then 26“
  2. Short Barreled Rifle:
    1. Barrel Length is less then 16”
    2. Overall Length is less then 26”
  3. Machine Guns:
    1. Any weapon that is designed to shoot, or does shoot, more then one shot automatically, without manually reloading, by a single function of the trigger
    2. Includes the Frame and Receiver or any combination of parts designed and intended for use in the converting into a Machine Gun
  4. Smooth Bore Pistol:
    1. Any pistol whose barrel does not have spiraled grooves inside the barrel as does other pistols
  5. Muffler or Silencer:
    1. Any device that attaches to a pistol that might lessen the sound of a round being discharged

Furthermore, under 18 USC 922 (d), certain persons are always prohibited from carrying firearms, including:

  1. Convicted felons
  2. Dishonorably discharged persons of the military
  3. Adjudicated mentally incompetent
  4. Renounced US citizenship
  5. Illegal alien
  6. User/Addict of a controlled substance
  7. Fugitive from justice
  8. Has a court order restraining the person from harassing, stalking, or the threatening of an intimate partner or child of such partner
  9. Convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence


Coast Guard boardings are usually for enforcement of “Substantive Law.”  Substantive Laws prohibit certain actions or require certain affirmative conduct.  Categories of substantive law enforced by the US Coast Guard include:

  1. Drug enforcement (46 USC Appendix 1903);
  2. Smuggling and immigration (8 USC 1324);
  3. Fisheries laws;
  4. Protected areas and species;
  5. Environmental and pollution;
  6. Port and waterway;
  7. Coastal security;
  8. Vessel safety and “manifestly unsafe voyage (46 USC 4302 and 4308); and
  9. General criminal law.

The Coast Guard does have a category of boardings called “Consensual Boardings.”  Consensual boardings usually involve non-US Flag vessels, and have three criteria:

    1. Done with the permission of the vessel’s master;
    2. Can only look in spaces that the master permit; and
    3. Ends when masters say so.

State and Local Law Enforcement Officers:

References for this section:

  1. http://blog.tradeonlytoday.com/dealer_outlook/?p=1543%22
  2. http://opinions.aoc.arkansas.gov/WebLink8/0/doc/310905/Page1.aspx
  3. http://www.outdoorhub.com/news/2012/04/30/michigan-public-act-62-revises-random-boat-stops-for-safety-inspections/
  4. http://www.ohiohouse.gov/republicans/press/ohio-house-passes-boater-freedom-act
  5. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/11/nyregion/stepped-up-security-checks-on-hudson-anger-boaters.html?_r=0
  6. https://boatingonthehudson.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/schumer-demands-reduction-in-unnecessary-boat-stops-and-universal-inspection-sticker-system/

Keep in mind that the United States Coast Guard is an agent of the United States Federal Government. The US Coast Guard has sweeping authority granted by Congress. That authority actually originated with the Revenue Act of 1790, and has been handed down to today’s Coast Guard. I would note that in the 1790s, there were very few pleasure boats, and even fewer full-time cruisers and liveaboards. Do I have an “expectation of privacy” on my boat? You bet I do. My boat is my home; my “castle.” I live there; I eat there; I sleep there; our boat is definitely our “castle.”  But not at law!

The fact is that state, county and local marine police agencies do not have the sweeping authority that the Coast Guard has. In fact, even other Federal agencies do not have those sweeping powers, including Customs and Border Protection. Only the US Coast Guard has those authorities. However, LEOs of these lesser agencies will not hesitate to assert that they do, and act bullishly to abuse a boat operator’s  confusion, innocence and anxiety. So, what is the truth?

Arkansas: On Feb. 7, 2013, the Arkansas Supreme Court (case: Arkansas v. Robert M. Allen) handed down a ruling that the random stopping of Allen’s boat was unreasonable and violated Allen’s constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.

Michigan: On February 23, 2012, the Michigan legislature adopted Public Law 62, prohibiting random stops of recreational boats for safety inspections.

Ohio: On June 4, 2013, the Ohio legislature adopted House Bill 29, entitled “Boater’s Freedom Act,” which specifies that the state’s law enforcement personnel may only stop a vessel if they have reasonable suspicion that the vessel or vessel’s operator are in violation of marine law or otherwise engaged in criminal activity. The bill had broad support from Ohio’s boaters, the marine industry and the Ohio Division of Watercraft.

Florida: As of the 2016 session of the Florida legislature (the time of this writing), there is a bill pending that would stop gratuitous boardings without probable cause.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut state, county and local LEOs conduct many gratuitous “boat safety” boardings. Boaters in the tri-state region are outraged. I am not personally knowledgeable of conditions on the West Coast.

None of these new state laws give boaters the same protections they would have in their land-based residences under the Fourth Amendment, but states are beginning to respond to boater angst about repetitive, abusive and inappropriate behaviors by some – clearly not all – LEOs.

What individual boaters choose to do with this information is a personal choice. I consider boarding without consent, and in the case of law enforcement officers, without probable cause, to be an act of “piracy.”  Piracy is, “an act of robbery or criminal violence at sea.” For myself, I have learned to ask, “am I obligated by law to allow you to board?” Officers know that I am not so obligated, and usually will not press the point. If they do, I do not affirmatively grant permission to non-Coast Guard agencies to board. That said, I certainly cooperate if law enforcement officers choose to board. Non-cooperation would only make things worse. Much worse.

Sanctuary has, in the past, been boarded to check our Marine Sanitation Device for overboard discharge. The procedure is that the LEO puts dye flakes in the head, and then flushes about 30 doggoned gallons of water. Presumably, non-complying boats would leave a dye trail in the water. Of course, that is a “destructive test,” wherein it is the usable capacity of the holding tank, for which the boater has paid, that is “destroyed.” So if/when faced with that again, I plan to refuse the test unless I am provided with $25 cash or a chit for a pumpout at the LE agency’s expense. We’ll see how that plays. Wish me luck…

Title, Registration and Taxes


10/2016: Article edited-for-update to clarify understanding and add detail.

Vehicle registration and titling – automobile, aircraft and boat – are normally handled by state vehicle and traffic laws.  Taxes are handled under various sections of state revenue laws.  From state to state, these laws and not consistent; in some cases, actually mutually exclusive.  For cruisers – especially those who travel the US East Coast seasonally – it is extremely difficult to comply with the laws of all of the states at the same time.  Boaters must understand that there are gray areas to which personal preference and judgement must be applied.  Different people will have different preferences for “operating near the boundaries.”  The ability to deal with ambiguity will be a great personal asset.

For boats that move between states while cruising, this complex area is fraught with questions that can only be answered based on the circumstances of the individual doing the asking.  Where is the owner’s legal residence? What are the “principle cruising waters” of the boat?  Who determines the boat’s principle cruising waters?  Based on what factors/conditions?  Was a sales tax paid when the boat was purchased? If so, what was the percentage rate? Does the boat’s state of registration have a Personal Property Tax? A Use Tax? What is the time-limit for a non-resident visitor before the registration must be transferred to the visited state? Does the visited state require the vessel to be registered “somewhere” before entry? Is the boat USCG Documented? For USCG Documented vesselsIs, is state registration also required in the state where the boat is domiciled? All of this creates very complex questions which are specific to the details of each individual boat owner’s situation.

I’ll start with some terminology that is widely mis-understood and mis-used:

In law, title is the means by which the owner has just and legal possession of his or her property. It is distinct from the document that provides evidence of the title; e.g., a deed or certificate-of-title. Title can be lost or acquired only by the methods established by law; that is, by inheritance or by purchase. Several persons or entities may have different titles to the same asset. While one holds a legal title (a claim to the asset that is recognized by a court), another may hold an equitable title (the right to have the legal title transferred to them if certain conditions are met/not met). This occurs if there is a mortgage or other lien.

Title – USCG Certificate of Documentation:
The process of obtaining a US Coast Guard Certificate of Documentation is an administrative process of the US Federal Government administered by the US Coast Guard. It is analogous to a state’s registration and titling processes. The process results in the issuance of a Vessel Identification Number and a title document called a “Certificate of Documentation,” or “COD.” The Vessel Identification Number identifies the vessel, and is associated with the vessel’s Hull Identification Number; i.e., the boat, not the owners. The US Coast Guard vessel COD is recognized internationally as a certificate of ownership and nationality. Therefore, documented vessels are protected as vessels of the United States.

The COD is equivalent to a title document. The issuance process includes a title search to ensure the vessel is the legal property of the seller and clear of mortgages, bank loans, Mechanic’s Liens or other financial encumbrances. That can be an advantage for both seller and buyer at time of sale.

To be eligible for US Coast Guard documentation, the owners of the vessel must be citizens of the United States. Usually, any boat over 26 feet in length qualifies for US Coast Guard Documentation. A documented vessel falls under federal law enforcement jurisdiction vs. the jurisdiction of any state or local agency for recovery and prosecution in the event of theft or involvement in criminal activity.

Title – State:
Each state has a titling process for vehicles, vessels and aircraft. The state title is proof of legal ownership, but not necessarily equitable ownership, as equitable title will be subject to satisfaction of mortgages, bank loans, Mechanic’s Liens, and any other recorded encumbrances. These processes operate at the state level, and enforcement is the responsibility of state authorities. In international cases, there is no backing for the owner by US federal authorities.

Vessel registration is an administrative procedure of state government, usually under the state’s Vehicle and Traffic statutes.  For cars, it results in the issuance of license plates; for boats, it results in the issuance of a Vessel Identification Number, and usually decals to prove that the process is complete and current. Registration serves to document the contact information of owners and provides a tracking system for the vehicle/vessel/aircraft and provides a mechanism for collecting infrastructure use taxes.  For wheeled vehicles, It grants a “license” that permits the use of public rights-of-way.  For boats, it provides a license to use public trust waterways under the state’s jurisdiction. Registration does not prove ownership.  In some states, a use tax is collected as part of the initial/periodic re-registration process. The use tax is not an excise tax or personal property tax, but both excise and personal property taxes can tag along on the registration process.   SOME STATES REQUIRE REGISTRATION OF USCG DOCUMENTED VESSELS AND SOME STATES DO NOT REQUIRE STATE REGISTRATION OF USCG DOCUMENTED VESSELS.

Sales Tax/Excise Tax:
Whether a tax paid for the purchase of a vessel is a sales tax or an excise tax  or a use tax is a matter of definition of the state department of revenue law where the tax is assessed. To a buyer, it matters little. There is no federal excise tax in the US, but many states impose one. The excise is applied at the time of transfer of title (sale), commonly at a percentage rate of the sale price. Some states do not impose an excise. The rate of excise imposed by states that do varies from state to state.

In a state that imposes a sale-time excise, the tax will be due and payable on a new boat at the time of registration.

Maryland and Florida also have maximum caps on excise tax rates.  Others may; do your own due diligence.

All of this varies from state to state. Using Florida as an example, if an owner moves a currently owned boat from Maryland to Florida, the following Florida tests apply [cit: Florida Department of Revenue Brochure GT-800005]:
1.  the boat was purchased outside Florida, AND
2.  it’s been registered in some US jurisdiction for more than 6 months (registered, like a car, not titled, like the USCG COD), AND
3.  You DID NOT intend to bring it into Florida when you bought it,
then there will be no excise due if you choose to register the boat in Florida.  [cit: Florida Department of Revenue brochure, GT-800005.]

Personal Property Tax:
Specific items of personal property (vs. real property) may be taxed by some states, counties and local municipalities. PPTs are usually imposed on an annual basis.  The owner of the property as of January 1 before the fiscal year begins is generally the entity assessed. Not all state, county and municipal jurisdictions impose PPTs. Items that are subject to PPTs vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Personal Property Taxes can attach to the assets of non-resident transients in some jurisdictions under some circumstances. If a non-resident fails to pay a lawfully imposed PPT, the debt can and may be recorded as a lien against the title of the asset.

Use Tax:
A “use tax” is a tax on “goods and services that you bring into Florida untaxed or taxed at a rate less than Florida’s.”  [cit: Florida Department of Revenue brochure GT-800005.]  This definition is fairly consistent across the US.  Use taxes are essential equivalent to sales taxes, except applied to those who acquired the goods or services in another taxing jurisdiction.  Selected “Use Tax” scenarios that apply to boaters follow:

  1. For resident boaters who purchase a boat within their state of residence jurisdiction, the sales tax – if any – is paid at the time of vessel registration.  Simple and clean.
  2. For non-resident boaters who move from one state taxing jurisdiction to a new state, a sales tax (or equivalent use tax) may be due upon vessel registration in the new state.
  3. For non-resident boaters who cruise through a taxing jurisdiction other than their home jurisdiction, a reciprocity period applies.  During that reciprocity period, no taxes are assessed.  If the length of stay exceeds the reciprocity period, a sales tax (use tax) may be due in the new taxing jurisdiction.  The reciprocity period varies from state-to-state.  How the use tax is collected also varies from state to state.    (Note: see “Reciprocity,” following below.)
  4. What happens if a currently owned boat is moved from state to state depends on the department of revenue law of the new state. Usually, credit is given for the amount of excise paid in another state at the time of prior registration there. So, moving a boat from Maryland (5% excise) to New York (8-3/4% excise), the owner would pay NY 3-3/4%. Moving the boat from Maryland (5% excise) to Ohio (5.75% excise) would result in a 3/4% tax. Moving the boat from Maryland to Rhode Island (no excise) would NOT result in a refund.  [Cit: rates based on BoatUS information, updated occasionally, and located here: http://www.boatus.com/gov/states/default.asp.%5D
  5. Some states require marina managers to report the presence of non-resident boats on specific dates (like January 1st) to Department of Revenue authorities for the purpose of applying use taxes upon the owners.

Time limits apply for the length of time that a state will honor vehicle and vessel registrations from other states. For business travelers and vacationers (short term visits) any state’s vehicle registration is honored everywhere. Likewise, for boaters, any state’s vessel registration is honored everywhere. However, time limits may affect long range cruisers, such as “snow birds,” in some situations. The laws of the various states generally require “domestic” registration within a reciprocity period. This varies from 30 to 90 days, depending on the state.

Florida Sojourner’s Permit:
Florida has a unique use tax called a Sojourner’s Permit.  This is a short-term form of registration of the vessel in Florida.  It does not change the homeport state of registration, but it extends the lawful reciprocity period in Florida, usually by several months.  Those who cruise and move occasionally will almost certainly not come into contact with the authorities on this one, but those who leave their boats in a marina for the entire winter season may.

The “Sojourner Permit” is a temporary registration that allows out-of-state visitors to remain in Florida longer than the 90-day standard reciprocity period.  The Sojourner’s Permit applies only to Florida, and does not supersede, cancel or impair the home-state registration of the vessel.  The Sojourner’s Permit applies statewide across Florida as a legislative provision of the State of Florida.  With the Sojourner’s Permit, there is no sales tax assessed, since by definition, the intended stay is “temporary.”

Vessel owners apply for the Sojourners Permit at any of the various county tax collector offices.  There is a standard State of Florida fee.  A small number of counties also tack on local fees.  The Sojourner’s Permit expires in the birth month of the first person on the vessel’s certificate of title.  If the vessel is owned by a trust, a corporation or an LLC, the Sojourner’s Permit expires in June.

Here is a link to the vessel registration fee schedule.  At the bottom of the page is a list of counties that charge the local surtax: http://www3.flhsmv.gov/dmv/Proc/Fees/Fees-04.PDF

To apply for the Sojourner’s Permit, submit HSMV Form 87244.  Here is a link to the form:  http://www.flhsmv.gov/dmv/forms/btr/87244.pdf

Here is a link to all Florida HSMV office locations.  Use one that offers full service.  https://www.flhsmv.gov/locations/

In addition to the Sojourner’s Permit mentioned above, Florida law also requires that a vessel be registered in some US jurisdiction to be eligible in the first place for the 90-day reciprocity “deal.”  The “logic” here is, “reciprocity” implies a courtesy extended between two or more entities; if the boat isn’t registered somewhere, then there’s no state with which to extend the courtesy of reciprocity.

Florida law requires that boats be registered AT THE TIME THE BOAT ENTERS FLORIDA WATERS.  (Michigan and some other states have similar laws.)  In the very specific case of a boat from a state that DOES NOT register boats, the Florida Sojourner’s Permit will satisfy Florida law; i.e., registered – albeit temporarily – in FL.

The specific requirements for legal residency vary from state to state.  Furthermore, different state agencies have different definitions of what constitutes “residency” when the topic is receiving public benefits, in-state tuition at colleges, and liability for income tax.  All decisions around changing residency have tax implications, and due diligence will be based on each person’s personal situation.  For those without land holdings and living on a boat, changing residency is actually very easy.  A few items seem obvious:

  • maintain a residence for personal use in the state;
  • get a driver license;
  • register an automobile;
  • register to vote;
  • live in a motor home or vessel which is not permanently attached to any property while not having a permanent residence in any other state;
  • use an address in the state for federal/state income tax filings.

All of the above items “show intent” for the purposes of filing a “Declaration of Intent to Domicile” in Florida.  Florida is a very common seasonal destination for “snow birds.”  Snow birds often own property in other states, and not everyone who spends the season in Florida intends to change residency.  To establish fully legal “primary” residency in Florida, one need only fill out a one-page form called “Declaration of Intent to Domicile.”  The form is filed with the clerk of the circuit court’s office in any county courthouse.  You are a Florida resident at the moment the clerk signs that form.   Florida does not have a personal income tax, but for other-state tax purposes, that declaration would take effect the next following calendar January 1st.   Send a copy to the appropriate taxing authority in the former state of residence as proof of change of residency.

Diesel Engine Maintenance

When we bought Sanctuary, I had no prior experience with diesel engines.  To get myself started, I attended a diesel engine orientation course in Annapolis called “Diesel Dork.”  That course ran two full days and included “hands on” a working diesel.  What I mostly got from that course was the personal confidence that diesel engine maintenance is the same as, or simpler than, maintaining a gasoline engine.  My conclusions were:

1. Routine diesel maintenance is not difficult but can be a bit messy.  There are simple precautions and techniques to minimize messes.
2. Diesel-powered fuel systems are orders-of-magnitude safer to handle than their gasoline-powered counterparts, because diesel fuel does not flash or ignite at Standard Temperature and Pressure (STP).
3. Diesel engines do not have an ignition system, so all that’s needed for an otherwise healthy diesel engine to run is clean fuel and clean air.
4.  DIY mechanics need to form an honest self-assessment of their personal mechanical skills, experience and self-confidence.  Of critical importance is a sense of when to stop and call a professional; i.e., “know when you’re getting in over your head.”
5.  As a DIY mechanic, learn all you can about your own engine(s); don’t worry about anything more.
6.  Anyone with beginner or higher mechanical skills and the inclination to do mechanical work will be able to perform routine diesel engine maintenance.
7.  Anyone with moderate or higher DIY mechanic skills and experience will be able to remove and replace fuel injectors, lift pumps and adjust valve clearances, as discussed below.
8.  Anyone with the tools needed to work on gasoline engines or lawn tractors won’t need to make a large tool investment to work on a diesel engine.
9.  A review of routine service tasks will help new diesel owners develop a list of spare parts and consumables that the boat should carry aboard.

Some background for owners of diesel-powered boats to consider and understand:

1. A “Disabled Boat” event
When cars quit running on the road, tows are relatively easy; especially so in the age of cellphones.  When boats quit running on the water, getting help is not nearly as easy.  Some skill with boat mechanicals is as important to boat operators as navigation and seamanship skills.  If a boat quits while under way, operators should expect to be “alone and on-your-own” for a significant time period. Particularly so if far from shore, in remote areas or during periods of inclement or severe weather. Rough seas, rain, and sensitive or seasick persons and pets aboard will greatly complicate the experience. Even well maintained boats can have mechanical failures, so towing insurance programs from BoatUS and SeaTow can be very valuable in the US.

2. Diesel Engine Technologies in 2016
There are currently two major “generations” of diesel engines commonly found in boats. The classic (older) generation has mechanical fly-weight fuel injection systems and the newer has “computer” controlled common-rail fuel injection systems. Electronic controls are how newer diesels comply with US Clean Air Standards (Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, 2005, and Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, 2010). Classic mechanical fly-weight governed injection pump engines generally can not meet DERA standards and are not sold “new” in the US.  But across the “fleet” of work boats and pleasure craft, mechanically injected engines still represent the vast majority of the install base.  Mechanically injected engines are still in wide use in most other parts of the world. Parts for mechanically injected engines are universally available across North America. These engines will be with us for many years to come.

Other than for starting, mechanically injected engines do not need DC electric power to run. Computer-controlled common-rail injected engines do need power to run. This difference has significant implications to the overall reliability and failure modes of diesel-powered systems. Decline or loss of power due to battery issues can and does impair the operation of, or stop, computer-controlled engines. Design of computer-controlled diesel engine electrical systems must consider alternatives to prevent loss of adequate DC power.

3. Diesel fuel
A boat that has 500 gallons in tankage capacity and is run 80 hours per year is probably going to have aging and old fuel in its tanks.  Within weeks after the refining process is complete, diesel fuel begins to slowly break down. “Asphaltenes” are a molecular distillation residue of crude oil refining.  Asphaltenes tend to “clump together” in solution. Over time, they form increasingly larger and larger “clumps.” After long periods of storage, these clumps get big enough to contribute to clogging fuel filters.

Environmental water (rain, snow-melt) gets into fuel tanks primarily through deck fill ports.  (“Condensation” in tanks is not nearly the problem that urban legend would suggest.) Deck fill “O” rings deteriorate and crack, boats stand unattended for long periods, ice and snow lays on decks and water gets into tanks.  Anaerobic algae – “bugs” that don’t need air and live at the interface of fuel floating on water in dark tanks – begin to grow in the tank.  That algae is black, and is often seen in clogged fuel filters.  Algae can be quite thick, almost like cream soup, and it can and will contribute to clogging fuel filters.

Water and other fuel contaminants tend to settle to the bottom of fuel tanks. Diesel fuel floats on water. When a boat gets into rough seas, algae and contaminants in tank bottoms get stirred up and become suspended in the fuel, with the result that filters clog up. Clogged filters may cause the engine to stumble and run rough, and it may even stall. Undetected water contamination can stall engines, cause a “disabled boat” event, damage injection pumps and injectors and cause damage to internal engine parts.

4. Fuel Polishing
“Fuel Polishing” is the process of filtering water and contaminants out of aging fuel stored in boat tanks. This is a service procedure done at the convenience of the boat owner. The process is intended to prevent fuel contamination problems. Polishing is best accomplished by professional fuel cleaning services that use equipment capable of producing high pressures to create artificial turbulence in tanks. The turbulence stirs up any contamination on the bottom of fuel tanks, and the polishing process in turn filters the stirred up fuel to remove suspended contaminants and water.

Polishing systems as installed on boats generally do not have the pressure or volume handling capacity to stir up contaminants that have settled to the bottom of tanks. However, they do circulate the liquid fuel through on-board filters, and will filter any suspended contaminants. The best filtering option is to filter the fuel while passing it from one tank to a second, known-clean tank. That method filters 100% of the liquid fuel in one pass. Some polishing systems remove fuel from a tank, pass it through a filter, and then return it to the same tank from which it came. This is called “back-mixing,” and requires multiple tank volume passes through filters to completely remove suspended contaminants. From one expert: “filtering one tank turnover will theoretically remove 63% of the contaminants.  Filtering two tank volume turnovers will remove 86% of contaminants. Filtering three tank volume turnovers will remove 95% of contaminants. Filtering four tank turnovers will remove 98% of contaminants.” And so it goes…

A running diesel engine does not burn all of the fuel passed from the injection pump to the injectors. More fuel volume is supplied by the injection pump than can “fit” through the nozzles of fuel injectors. Excess fuel is returned to the tank in a fuel return line. That process amounts to “back-mixing polishing,” because the returned fuel has been filtered by the boat’s normal fuel filtration system. Diesel engines from different manufacturer’s are different in the percentage of unused fuel that is returned to the tanks.

Aboard Sanctuary, we turn over the fuel in our tanks several times per year, not through a polishing system, but through ordinary use of the boat.   We carry 320 gallons of diesel fuel, and we consume 500 gallons in traveling between Baltimore and Charlotte Harbor.  We are “snow birds,” and make that trip twice per year.  As we progressed along the Great Loop cruise, we burned 2217.9 gallons, so 2217.9/320=6.9 turns of the fuel in our tanks.  Fresh fuel eliminates – certainly reduces – the chances of fuel-related troubles.

5. Personal Safety – Working on Boat Systems
REMOVE ALL JEWELRY BEFORE WORKING AROUND ANY MECHANICAL OR ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS.  NO WATCHES, NO WEDDING RINGS, NO NECK CHAINS; NO VANITY JEWELRY OF ANY KIND!!!  A gold chain or wedding ring snagged in an engine belt can easily remove a body part, and the victim would consider himself lucky if that’s all that happened. NEVER WORK ALONE. Even though an assistant may not be needed for the work-at-hand, always have someone else nearby who can stop engines, disconnect power and/or call for help in case something bad happens.

6. Personal Safety – Injuries and Raw Water
Be extremely careful when working around and in raw water. Methodically avoid cuts and scrapes of hands, arms, legs and feet. IF CUT, IMMEDIATELY WASH THE CUT WITH A CONCENTRATED BLEACH SOLUTION OR ANTIBIOTIC SOAP. MONITOR HEALING CAREFULLY, AND FOR WEEKS AFTER INJURY. Sea water – both salt water AND fresh water – is biologically active. Raw water can contain bacteria that can cause extremely serious infections in humans. If any sign of infection appears, particularly weeks after healing would seem to be complete, see a physician and mention that you have worked in a seawater environment and exposed open cuts to that sea water. DON’T MESS WITH THIS. AMPUTATIONS ARE NOT UNCOMMON TO TREAT INFECTIONS THAT INITIALLY WERE NOT CORRECTLY DIAGNOSED AND TREATED. For more information, see my article on Mycobacterium Marinum on this website, here: https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/cruising-practica/mycobacterium-marinum/.

7. DIY Maintenance
Diesel engine maintenance tasks can be arranged and sorted into “simple,” “complex” and “advanced” categories. I use “complex” to mean many steps, but not involving specialized background knowledge, awareness or tools. Maintenance intervals can be based on usage, age, wear or repair. Look to manufacturer maintenance manuals for details of service procedures. What follows is a basic overview, certain specific conditional implications and some contextual thoughts. The reader is responsible to have the knowledge and skills to perform the detailed work associated with these tasks.

When I wrote this post, I was thinking of a boat’s main propulsion engine.  Gensets don’t have transmissions, but many of the maintenance activities described here do apply equally to diesel genset engines.  Discussion of specific engine maintenance activities follows:

1.  [Simple; Usage/Age.] Change fuel filters when necessary.  Diesel fuel is usually filtered in two stages: “primary” and “secondary.”  At least daily, monitor fuel suction levels at the primary filters and at the same time, check for the presence of any water in the filter’s fuel bowl. The ability to see water in the filter’s fuel bowl is key to avoiding engine shutdown and possible engine damage.

Primary filters are the first-in-line as fuel flows from the fuel tank towards the engine.   Primary filters are generally located ahead of the fuel “lift pump” in the fuel line. The lift pump creates suction (vacuum) which pulls fuel from the tank and through the primary filters.  Primary filters are almost universally of the “water separator” type.  Be sure filter housing covers and cover gaskets are seated and air tight after being replaced.

Secondary filters are second-in-line.  Secondary filters are located between the lift pump and the fuel injection pump in the fuel line, and are generally mounted on the engine’s block.  Secondary filters are pressurized in operation.  Some secondary filters are on the high-pressure output side of the injection pump, and those are very highly pressurized.  Because of the pressurization, be sure to use secondary filters that are rated for, and compatible with, the engine on which they are installed.  If unsure, buy filters from the engine’s parts dealer. Some manufacturer warrantees require using their own branded filters.  Be sure the filter and gasket are aligned and tight after being replaced. If the filter has a water-separator drains cock, be sure that drain cock is also tightly closed.

When changing fuel filters – particularly the secondary fuel filter – air will have to be “purged” from the filter and fuel supply lines.  Purging fuel lines is a simple but very important procedure.  A diesel engine with air in the fuel lines may stumble and run rough, may run progressively worse as engine load is increased, or may not start/run at all.  Many diesels will tolerate a little air and self-purge after a primary fuel filter change.  Sanctuary’s Cummins engine does, but some will not.

2.  [Simple; Usage.] Diesel engines require huge volumes of combustion air.  The air filter needs to be clean.  Monitor the condition of, and change air filters, as needed.  Keep hands, clothing and rags well away from an exposed air intake port of a running diesel engine.  Air suction at the intake manifold will suck body parts and rags right in (and ruin your whole day in an instant).

3.  [Simple; Usage/Age.] Learn to change the engine’s lubricating oil and oil filter.  I always change the oil filter at every oil change.  The oil change process is identical to that of a gasoline engine.  Use ONLY oil formulated for use in diesel engines (API Service Class=Cx-y”), NOT the oils that are formulated for gasoline engines (Service Class=Sx-y).  The “C” is for “compression,” the “S” is for “spark.”  The engine manufacturer’s owners manual will have details on what oil viscosity to use, how much oil is needed with and without the filter, and how often oil should be changed.  Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations to the letter.  On older engines, it’s a good idea to slightly increase the frequency of oil changes. DO NOT OVERFILL THE CRANKCASE.  Recycle used engine oil.  Regardless of the exact amount of oil the manufacturer calls for, the unique “personality” and mounting angle of each diesel engine will affect the final working level of the oil on the dipstick.  If the engine loses 1/2 quart after an oil change, and then that loss stops, don’t worry about it.  That level is what that particular engine “wants to have,” and it is not an indication of a problem.

4. [Complex as a system; simple in pieces.] The function of the engine cooling system of all boats is critical to the operation, performance and service life of the engine. In the words of one diesel engine expert, “Most engines ‘go bang’ as the result of overheating due to a failure to maintain the cooling system.” Think, plan and act accordingly.

Boat cooling systems are quite complex, but individual maintenance tasks are generally within the skills of DIY mechanics, and can be performed one-at-a-time. Most diesel configurations in boats have two-stage cooling systems.  Inspect and maintain this critical system from end-to-end, from the raw water inlet thru-hull to the exhaust port of the boat, and into each and every cooled mechanical component along the end-to-end cooling circuit.

4a. [Simple; Age.] Periodically inspect and clean the raw water sea strainer. I do this monthly, more often in areas where sea grasses are common. The sea strainer admits engine cooling water through the hull. The strainer assembly has a basket that will catch and trap sea weed and other water borne debris. Learn to close the thru-hull valve, disassemble the sea strainer, clean the debris basket, and restore the system to operation.

4b. [Simple; Age.] Periodically change the antifreeze coolant.  We do that every couple of years, and generally, any time I have to open the fresh water side of the cooling system (infrequent), which re-starts the two-year clock.  The coolant within the engine is referred to as the “fresh water side.” The fresh water side of the cooling system is physically separated from the “raw water” (“sea water”) side.  The fresh water side of the system contains a solution of clean tap water and ethylene glycol coolant, exactly like that of a car’s gasoline engine.  Do not fill the fresh water side with either undiluted (“pure”) ethylene glycol or plain tap water.  Use the proportion of water and glycol that the engine manufacturer recommends.  This is a mandatory check item when decommissioning for winter layup in a cold climate.

Safety note: NEVER use antifreeze products designed for potable (drinking water) water systems in engine cooling systems.  Use ethylene glycol in engines.  NEVER use glycol antifreeze in potable water systems, either.  The glycol is poisonous to humans and animals.

4c. [Simple; Usage/Age.] Periodically change the raw water impeller.  The “raw water” side of the cooling system circulates sea water through a “heat exchanger,” analogous to the radiator of a car.  In a boat’s “raw water” cooling system, hot antifreeze coolant passes over a set of tubes inside the heat exchanger.  Sea water passes through these tubes, and excess heat is removed in the discharged sea water (wet exhaust).

The sea water needed for engine and transmission cooling is circulated by a pump mounted on the engine.  The pump contains a synthetic rubber (nitrile) impeller.  The time interval between impeller changes depends on 1) age of the impeller, and/or 2) cumulative hours of use and/or 3) sediment conditions of the raw water in the area where the boat is being used.  Sanctuary cruises mainly the US East and Gulf Coasts, and we accumulate between 500 and 800 hours per year.  I change our impeller every spring, based primarily on cumulative engine hours.  Grit and sediments in raw water may necessitate more frequent changes in some places.  Relatively few engine hours accumulated over multiple years time would also warrant an impeller change.

4d. [Simple; Age.] The main engine heat exchanger unit needs two kinds of periodic service, which happen at different service intervals.

First, change cooling system zincs quarterly. The heat exchanger usually contains one or more zinc anodes to protect it from galvanic corrosion. Zincs are fit in the sea water side of the heat exchanger. Servicing zincs will result in sea water draining from the heat exchanger, but will not result in antifreeze loss.  The raw water circuit is self-priming after reassembly. Simple start the engine and watch for raw water flow from the exhaust.

Second, clean the heat exchanger seasonally. The raw water side of the heat exchanger contains whatever local raw water exists where the boat is floating, whether river/lake fresh water, ocean salt water or a brackish dilution. Raw waters are biologically active with local sea critters (slime, barnacles, worms, etc); salt water is particularly active.  Seasonally, we clean the heat exchanger by circulating a biocide cleaner and chemical calcium de-scaler through the running system. Every 3 – 4 years, we remove the heat exchanger and take it to a radiator shop to have it chemically de-scaled.

4e. [Simple; Usage/Age.] Most diesel engine raw water cooling systems have in-line “transmission coolers.” In-line coolers are just another form of heat exchanger. A pump in the transmissions circulates transmission fluid around tubes in the cooler, and circulating raw water flowing through the tubes cools the transmission fluid to remove heat. Generally, no maintenance is required on the transmission side. However, it is wise to seasonally remove the input raw water hose and check for debris in the input end of the transmission cooler. Do this automatically if impeller vanes are missing when the raw water impeller is changed. Particularly if vanes break off raw water impellers, it’s highly likely they will get trapped at the first cooler they come to, usually the transmission cooler. Cooler tubes are too small to allow impeller pieces to pass, and the cooler will act like a debris “filter.” It is possible to compromise the effective cooling capacity of the entire cooling system if debris builds up in that cooler inlet. Handle the hoses at the transmission cooler gently to avoid deforming the cooler hose nipples.

Note: some OEM transmission coolers are not fit with zinc anodes. Galvanic corrosion can and will eat pinholes in the copper material from which heat exchangers are made. If a boat is kept in the water – especially salt water – change the cooler as a preventive maintenance action every 3 – 4 years, or every 2000 – 2500 hours. Some aftermarket companies make replacement coolers that do contain zinc anodes. I recommend using a cooler containing a zinc. If the boat is seasonally removed from the water, consult with a competent diesel mechanic for replacement interval recommendations. If this cooler develops an internal leak, sea water will enter the transmission and transmission fluid will be lost to the raw water. Nothing good can come from that scenario!

4f. I have excluded turbochargers, intercoolers and oil coolers in this discussion. Owners of engines fit with these devices must review the periodic maintenance recommended by the engine manufacturer.

5.  [Simple; Wear.] Know how to adjust belt tension, if belt tension is adjustable, and know how to change on-engine belts. Monitor on-engine drive belts (vee belts, serpentine belts) for wear and tension.

6. [Complex; One-time fitup.] All boats should have exhaust gas high temperature sensors to provide early warning of loss of raw water flow, such as might happen if a plastic bag were sucked into the raw water intake or if the raw water intake thruhull were inadvertantly left “closed.” Exhaust gas temperature sensors give warning of imminent system failure much earlier than engine coolant temperature sensors feeding engine gauges. They are easy to install, available in the aftermarket, and are an important safety adjunct to any boat with a wet exhaust. In a “wet exhaust,” environmental raw water is mixed with hot engine exhaust gasses to cool engine exhaust gasses. Diesel engine exhaust gas temperatures can reach 800ºF when the engine is under load. Many boats have rubber exhaust hoses and fiberglass waterlock “mufflers.” It is crucial that diesel exhaust gasses in wet exhaust systems be maintained at a low enough temperature that fiberglass mufflers and rubber exhaust hoses don’t “melt.” Cooling water leaks in the exhaust system of a boat can easily sink a boat.

7.  [Complex; repair.] Diesel engines are shut down by shutting off the flow if fuel to the engine.  The device that controls that function is called a “fuel solenoid,” which on my Cummins, is a part located on the side of my injection pump. The solenoid is an electrically-operated plunger that operates a fuel valve in the injection pump.  On mechanically injected diesels, there are two designs of these solenoids.  The “normally closed” design requires full-time DC power from the battery while the engine is running in order to hold the solenoid activated.  The “normally open” design only requires DC power from the battery to momentarily activate the solenoid, which shuts down the engine.  The “normally open” design has a pushbutton that is used to activate the solenoid to stop the engine.  Sanctuary’s Cummins diesel, OEM, has the “normally closed” design. It is controlled by a familiar “key-type” ignition switch on my gauge console.  Sanctuary’s fuel solenoid has failed in operation.  When it fails, the engine gets no fuel, and it shuts down or will not start. For diesel engines, I recommend the “normally open” solenoid design. On gasoline engines, the “normally closed” solenoid type is required by Federal Regulation (33 CFR 183.528).

With the “normally open” solenoid type, the engine can be shut down manually if the solenoid were to fail to operate.  On mechanically injected engines, there is a lever on the injection pump that closes the fuel shutoff valve manually.  Anyone with one of these engines MUST know how to do that.

Note: Intentionally closing off the fuel supply to a diesel engine allows the engine to be cranked without the engine starting.  This capability is useful in pre-oiling an engine that has not run in a long time, and may be useful in purging air out of the fuel system.  However, be methodically careful not to overheat the starter motor.  NEVER CRANK A STARTER MOTOR MORE THAN 15 – 30 seconds at a time, and allow several minutes between such operation for the motor to cool.

8. [Simple; Repair.] The Raw Water Pump of which the raw water impeller is a part needs periodic inspection, and periodic servicing. The raw water pump has a gear driven drive shaft. The drive gear is a component part of the central engine timing drive. Sanctuary’s pump and drive gear are built as a removable assembly consisting of the drive gear pressed onto the pump drive shaft, the engine mounting flange, a spacer and the pump housing body. The engine mounting flange contains a lip seal that eliminates lubricating oil leaks at the engine end of the shaft. The water pump housing contains a ceramic water seal that eliminates raw water leaks at the pump end of the shaft. The spacer mechanically separates  the mounting flange from the pump housing, and contains several “weep holes.” In operation, the vanes of the rotating impeller make continuous contact with the front cover plate, the internal cam, and the water chamber surfaces inside the pump. Not only does the impeller wear in use, but sediments suspended in the raw water abrade away the machined internal metal surfaces of the pump. Periodically, either the oil or water seals will begin to leak, and at that point, the pump will need servicing. Learn to remove and replace the pump. I do that approximately every two years, or whenever I note oil or water leakage around the weep holes at the shaft spacer. Rebuild kits are available for these pumps but I prefer to send them out for professional bench servicing.

9. [Simple; Repair.] The Fresh Water Pump is a centrifugal pump that circulates the antifreeze coolant solution through the engine itself, and through engine cooling system components. The belt-driven pump is mounted on the engine. Coolant loss and evidence of coolant leaks are the main symptoms leading to pump replacement. This pump is usually replaced as a unit with a new pump. Replace the antifreeze solution when replacing the fresh water pump.

10. [Complex; Repair.] Diesel engines have a thermostat, just as automobile engines do.  The thermostat sets the operating temperature of the engine coolant, and is very important to regulating the very high internal operating temperatures of internal engine parts, and therefore, proper engine operation and service life.  On our Cummins, it’s a complex task to get to it, but it’s not a technically advanced task. It would be wise to determine where the thermostat is located in the engine before there is an actual need-to-know. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for change interval.

11. [Simple; Repair.] The fuel lift pump pulls fuel from the fuel tank(s) by suction.  It in turn provides a low pressure, reliable fuel supply to the injection pump.  Dirty fuel filters place a lot of extra suction load on the lift pump.  Lift pumps can be of electric or mechanical diaphragm design.  Determine what type of lift pump is fit on the engine.  Like the thermostat, this is not a routine service item, but knowing how to change the lift pump can save a “disabled boat” scenario. When the pump is changed, it may be necessary to purge air from the fuel system.

12. [Complex; Usage.] Adjust valve clearances per the engine manufacturer’s service interval. The engine manual will have the specs for intake and exhaust valve clearances and adjustment interval.  My engine manual has a diagram of intake and exhaust valve locations.  Be obsessively careful to keep foreign materials out of the exposed valve train. Clean and vacuum any collected dirt and dust before removing the valve covers. Remove the valve cover(s), adjust the valves to specs, and replace the valve covers.  Aboard Sanctuary, the task takes less than one hour.  The only “special” tool is a set of flat feeler gauges; 0.010″ and 0.020″ are the sizes I need.  If it is necessary to replace valve cover gaskets as part of the job, obtain the replacement gasket kit ahead of time.

13. [Complex; Usage.] Diesel engine fuel injectors provide fuel to the cylinders.  As above, be obsessively careful to keep foreign materials, dust and grit out of the bore holes in the head. Injectors are pressure-activated valves.  Pulses of pressurized fuel arise at the injection pump. During the pulse, the injector valve opens to allow fuel into the cylinder. Flow flows into the cylinder while the pulse pressure is above the injector’s pre-set pressure (“pop-off”) value.  When the pulse pressure drops below the pop-off pre-set, the injector valve closes.  Not all of the fuel sent to the injector is actually injected into the cylinders.  Excess unused fuel returns to the tank via a common (shared) fuel return line.  That excess fuel return serves to cool the injectors.

Injectors need occasional maintenance; usually between 1500 and 3000 hours of operation.  Learn to pull the injectors to take them to a diesel shop for servicing.  Injector servicing requires highly specialized tools and equipment.  Important: when removing and replacing injectors from their bore in the cylinder head, the DIY-mechanic must be aware that there is a copper washer that seals the injector in its bore. These copper washers function as a gasket to prevent cylinder compression gasses from escaping the cylinder into the injector bore.  There is a second “copper” that seals the fuel return line at the injector discharge port.  Mechanics must be aware the copper at the base of the injector bore exists. When removing injectors, it is crucially important to get the old copper out of the bore hole.  If that copper is not removed, it will be impossible to reinstall the injector properly, which can lead to severe damage. Injector coppers usually come out with the injector body, but NOT ALWAYS. Procedures for removing the copper from the bore are in the maintenance manual for the engine.  Always replace the coppers with new when replacing injectors after servicing. When replacing injectors in their bore, verify that they are mechanically aligned with any guide in the bore. This aligns the nozzle in the head. BE CAREFUL NOT TO JAM THE INJECTOR ALIGNMENT SLOT/PIN IN THE BORE.

14. [Advanced; Usage.] There will come a time to have the injection pump serviced.  Servicing the pump is a repair shop activity.  Pump removal and replacement is an advanced DIY-mechanic task. This task does have important background knowledge associated with it.  Injection pumps have tapered shafts that mate with the engine’s timing gear.  Separating that taper from the timing gear requires a special tool; in the case of Sanctuary’s Cummins, an “H” puller.  Separating the pump from the timing gear is not hard, but I would class it as a complex and advanced skill.  There is a woodruff key that locates the pump shaft to the timing gear. Follow disassembly procedures provided by the engine manufacturer. In the case on my Cummins, THAT KEYWAY MUST BE LOCATED AT THE 12 O’CLOCK POSITION OF THE ROTATION OF THE PUMP SHAFT WHEN SEPARATING THE TAPER!  THIS PREVENTS HAVING THE WOODRUFF KEY FALL INTO THE ENGINE. Should that happen, it will be necessary to disassemble the entire front cover of the engine to retrieve it. Ugly!  Reinstalling the pump is easy.  Follow the manufacturer’s directions.

15. [Advanced; Repair.] Removing a cylinder head from an engine is a complex and advanced task. For those with the skills, it is certainly practical to do so on a boat in the water. This task does require a torque wrench and does involve associated technical background knowledge. The head can be pulled with the injectors in place. If the head is removed with the injectors in place, do not place the head assembly flat on any surface in a face-down orientation.  The injector nozzles extend very slightly below the plane of the head.  If the head is placed face-down, the injector’s fuel nozzles can get distorted or damaged.  That in turn will spoil the nozzle’s spray pattern.  It won’t become apparent that happened until the job is all re-assembled and the engine isn’t running well.

This is one task where it’s important to reassemble internal parts in the same place from which they came. Microscopic wear patterns in hardened metal surfaces matter here. Follow techniques to keep track of original parts locations. It is not necessary to pull a head to replace a broken valve spring, but compressed air and an air fitting for an injector seat would be needed. The process is the same as for a gasoline engine.

16. ALL “LOWER-HALF” ENGINE MAINTENANCE IS COMPLEX, AND MOSTLY ADVANCED STUFF. Other than perhaps replacing the front oil seal, I would not recommend doing lower-half maintenance with the boat in the water.

17. [Complex; Age.] Motor mounts can be changed with a boat in the water. This is a mechanically straight-forward task. However, it is necessary to separate the prop shaft at the transmission, and lift the weight of the engine off the mounts in order to replace them. Special safety considerations are necessary. Blocking and cribbing is needed, and any jacking tools need to be able to handle the weight of the engine. Be especially mindful that fingers, feet and extremities are always at risk. When done, it will be necessary to re-align the prop shaft to the engine. A feeler gauge will be needed for that task. DO NOT WORK WITHOUT HAVING SOMEONE NEARBY WHO CAN CALL FOR HELP IF NECESSARY.

18. [Simple; Usage/Age.] While not technically a part of the engine, change the transmission fluid at scheduled intervals. If the transmission has a reduction gear, change the lubricant in the reduction gear if that is a separate maintenance task.

Ground Faults: Difficult To Hire Troubleshooter

Several boat owners have ask how they can find an electrical technician who is qualified to troubleshoot ground fault issues on their boats. The answer is, it can be quite tough.  This post will describe the reasons service technicians see this work as bad business.

To review, this overall problem is the result of “backwards incompatibility” between the “real world” as it exists today vs. the noble goals of the National Electric Code (NEC) code and standards writers.  The 2011 and 2014 editions of the NEC, Article 555.3, requires Equipment Protective Devices (EPDs) on marina docks and at boatyards.  I use the term “ground fault sensor” for EPDs and several other similar devices.  A proposed revision of the NEC for the upcoming 2017 edition would extend the ground fault sensor requirement to single-family residential docks.  By requiring ground fault sensors on docks and at boatyards, the NEC standards writers have caught many dangerous problems on boats.

The widespread rollout of ground fault sensor technology on docks is making boating more safe for all of us, and that will only continue as time proceeds into the future. Many boats in the pleasure craft category have had ground fault and leakage fault problems aboard for many, many years. Up to now, these faults have been silent, hidden and non-symptomatic and boat owners have typically been unaware of the presence of these problems unless they led to a fire or injury.

Ashore, these NEC changes have also been disruptive, expensive and frustrating to marina and boatyard operators. Facility upgrades are very expensive, and these changes add significantly to that cost. Once upgrades are completed and the facility is re-opened for business, marina and boatyard operators find themselves faced with complaints about their dock electrical service from unhappy boaters.  To an unskilled boat owner, the argument is: “My boat has been fine for years!  YEARS!  I don’t lose power ANYWHERE ELSE!  This is the marina’s problem!  Fix it!”

Marina operators generally do not have marine-skilled electricians on staff, so boater complaints result in referrals out to the electrical contractor who performed the facility upgrade. The correct response to Mr. Boater: “Sir!  You have one or more problems aboard your boat!”  I’m sure we can all appreciate how well that message is received by some owners!  Ultimately, lots of professional time is wasted, and no one is happy.

Ground faults on boats are often directly caused by work that was previously done – incorrectly –  by the boat’s owner!  Always, ground faults on boats result from failing to know and comply with the ABYC electrical standards for boats.  Marine electrical technicians with the skills to sort through ground fault and leakage fault symptoms and who can troubleshoot these problems are absolutely overwhelmed by their current workload, and this will only get worse in the future as more and more facilities upgrade their shore power systems.  This spike in ground fault troubleshooting workload is entirely IN ADDITION TO the normal types of workload these technicians would otherwise be staffed up to handle.  Demand for these skills far exceeds supply. Furthermore, troubleshooting ground fault/leakage fault problems is not work for beginners.  Diagnosis of these problems involves advanced troubleshooting skills that take time and experience to develop.  (Analogy: Oncologist vs. Family Practice physician).

Complicating the problem is the fact that the vast majority of boat owners don’t know anything about electricity or electric circuits.  Many boat owners are afraid of electricity in all forms.  In fact, when a professional does encounter a knowledgeable layman, the technician may doubt that the layman actually knows what he’s talking about; most laymen don’t, and that is the technician’s life-experience.  So, all this results in largely uninformed and unskilled customers asking for the most advanced and complex kinds of professional services.

Troubleshooting ground faults on a boat is not good business for the marine electrical technician.  When the technician is all finished with the very complex and tedious work he’s done, to the boat’s owner, everything is exactly the same as it always was.  The boat owner is presented with a bill – maybe a big bill – for the complex, tedious and highly skilled work, and there is nothing except the intangible of a “safety improvement” that this owner receives in return.  There are no shiny new LED fixtures, no neat new trash compactor, no nice new HDTV, no new decor lighting, no improvements in heating and cooling efficiency.  Nothing new and glitzy!  Just the same old, same old.

To repeat myself, Troubleshooting ground faults is not good business for the marine electrical technician.  There are very few common themes in diagnosing ground/leakage faults on boats, so virtually every boat requires a customized approach to troubleshooting.  Very few boaters have electrical diagrams of their boats, and what few diagrams that are available are often incomplete and do not contain the low-level detail of wiring for things like reverse polarity detectors or the active control module on a galvanic isolator.  And certainly not for detachable items like user-supplied surge suppressors.  Every technician knows that each of these service calls will probably take a lot of diagnostic and repair time.  At the technician’s billable rate, that translates to a big bill for the boat owner.  Big bills translate into unhappy boat owners.  Unhappy boat owners translate, for the electrical technician or the business manager, into billing disputes, “no-pay” or “slow-pay” customers, and the legal falderal that goes with all that stuff.  In short, everything about this work, from the technician’s point-of-view, amounts to “bad Karma.” It should be no surprise, then, that many technicians are refusing this work.

So, to the question: “how can an amateur with minimal knowledge look for [ground fault] problems?”  In some locales, it’s going to be very difficult.  I know of good electrical shops that discourage or refuse this work, either through outright refusal or premium pricing that discourages the boat owner. Boaters will have to keep looking until a technician is found who is BOTH skilled AND wiling to take the work.  What I would recommend is to “ask around” both online and in the local market for references to technicians that other boaters respect and recommend. If the name of a person who’s particularly well respected comes up, and they accept the work, it might make sense to move the boat to their home area just to get that level of excellent service.  (Analogy: findings a doctor or dentist or auto mechanic when you move to a new area.) Some boaters may be fortunate enough to have an established relationship with a qualified technician. If so, get on the work schedule as soon as possible and bite the bullet.  To allow for getting on the technician’s work schedule and for the necessary onsite diagnostic time, boaters should assume and plan that this work will take a few weeks at dockside. Anticipate delays in day-to-day activity. The reality is, emergencies will happen and will have a higher priority for your technician.

The ABYC website at http://abycinc.org/?page=CTD has lists of certified technicians by geographic area. Check to see if recommended technicians hold ABYC certifications.   Some non-ABYC technicians may be able to do this work, too, of course, so in the same way you might ask a surgeon how many surgeries he’s done of the type you need, ask the technician about his/her experience troubleshooting ground faults.  Finally, in general, for better or worse, avoid residential electricians; as a group, they won’t understand the marine environment.  In fact, they do things in residential wiring that will CAUSE ground faults; things that SHOULD NEVER BE DONE ON BOATS.