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.