4/20/2020: Significant editorial updates to content.
5/27/2020: Added borders to images via HTML edits.
All boaters at one time or another get involved in discussions about what boats “are required by standards and codes to have or to do.” This comes up every time the owner is faced with getting a boat survey. A boat survey report usually makes copious references to “ABYC Standards” and to “industry best practice.” But the vast majority of boat owners do not work in a world of industrial codes and standards and are not familiar with what they are, what they are intended to do, and how they are used throughout the marine and commercial business world (especially, the insurance risk world).
This article is in the form of a stand-up classroom presentation. Slides are presented along with text (“speaker notes”) that describes the slide’s content. This is a mix of “engineering” and “safety.” My hope is that this material will make sense in this format. What I do in this article is look at the “electrical system” of our own boat, and compare that to the requirements of the principle ABYC electrical standard, E11, “AC and DC Electrical Systems for Boats.”
Our trawler, Sanctuary, is a Monk36 Trawler fit with two 120V, 30A shore power service cords. In our case, the shore power cords are configured so that one feeds the house AC loads and the other feeds our heat pump AC loads. Many boats are configured in the same way, but other configurations are possible. Our house loads include a battery charger for our genset start battery, fridge, hot water heater, inverter/charger and several utility outlets. The heat pump loads include one 5kBTU self-contained unit and one 16kBTU self-contained unit and a raw water circulator pump.
While configurations of individual boat electrical systems may be different, the ABYC Electrical Standard E11, “AC and DC Electrical Systems on Boats,” applies equally to all electrical system configurations on all boats of all designs and hull forms. Boats that adhere to the ABYC electrical standard are highly likely to be safe and compatible with 2020 shore-side infrastructure (marinas, boatyards, community, condo, municipal and residential docks). These standards are intended to maximize the safety of the boat; safety from shock hazards, freedom from ground faults, freedom from accidental fire hazards and much worse. I strongly encourage boaters to bring their boats into compliance if that is not already done!
THE LAYOUT OF A BOAT ELECTRICAL PLATFORM
Figure 1 shows an “energy flow diagram” of the total electrical system of a typical cruising boat, comprised of three separate divisions. The central electrical system is the vessel’s DC division (shown in red). This is the division that starts the engine and powers navigation lights, pumps, windlass and miscellaneous navigation equipment. All engine-powered boats have DC systems, but AC divisions are optional. Sanctuary’s platform also has an AC division (shown in green) which allows captain and crew to enjoy the comforts of a shore-side residence. Interfacing between the DC and AC divisions is a means to charge the batteries, and optionally, also use the batteries to power all or part of the AC division.
Note: in this topology view, solar battery charging systems would be part of the DC Division.
Note: out-of-scope for this article is the Bonding System Division of the electrical system. Those interested are referred to my article “Bonding System Design and Evaluation.”
Figure 2 shows the interfacing division with an inverter/charger instead of a battery charger. The red highlighted lines show the Inverter/charger in “Invert” mode. For the inverter to be in “Invert” mode, no other AC power source is available to the vessel; ie, no shore power, and no onboard generator running. Absent a source of AC power, the inverter draws DC power from the batteries, converts it to AC, and provides AC power to a subset of AC circuits on the boat. This operating mode would be the typical operating mode for boats at anchor, or boats underway on a travel day. While at anchor or underway, power is available for an AC coffee maker, a microwave, a crockpot, AC space lighting and entertainment systems, and an AC charging source for computers, onboard routers, smart phones and tablet computers. At least, that’s what we do aboard Sanctuary.
In Figure 3, the red highlighted lines show the flow of AC power when the boat is connected to shore power via a dock-side pedestal. AC Power enters the boat at the SHORE POWER INLET, passes through a MAIN DISCONNECT BREAKER to, and through, the GENERATOR TRANSFER SWITCH and on to a DISTRIBUTION PANEL which supplies HOUSE LOADS. AC Shore Power passively “Passes Through” the INVERTER/CHARGER to power a subset of AC loads, and the inverter/charger device acts as a DC BATTERY CHARGER.
Note: in this topology view, the inverter/charger is fully integrated into the boat’s electrical system, and automatically switches between “Standby/Pass Through” mode and “Invert” mode as AC power from another source comes and goes. If a boater in a neighboring slip accidentally turns off Sanctuary’s pedestal breaker(s), our inverter/charger automatically transfers to “Invert” mode to maintain AC power to it’s attached loads. This configuration is the ONLY use case that ABYC supports for inverters or inverter/chargers installed aboard boats.
Figure 4 shows the above AC Electrical System components mapped to the actual wiring diagram detail of Sanctuary’s installed AC electrical system. The remainder of this article focuses on ABYC requirements of the E11 standard related to the AC Division of the boat platform.
Note: Sanctuary is not fit with an Isolation/Polarization transformer (shore power transformer). Shore power transformers have a number of unique ABYC requirements and considerations. Consult the E11 standard for the treatment of these devices.
Note: I occasionally hear that an isolation transformer has been recommended as a means of avoiding the need to “spend unnecessary money” in order to fix/correct conditions aboard a boat that cause dock-side ground fault sensors to trip AC shore power “off.” I strongly discourage that thinking. The conditions that cause ground fault sensors to trip are often serious, potentially dangerous electrical safety or fire hazards. Transformers do mask safety problems which can be a threat to the boat and its occupants, but they DO NOT CORRECT THE UNDERLYING ELECTRICAL FAULT-CAUSING CONDITIONS.
Figure 5 is a clear view of the wiring detail of our AC electrical system. Notice that the neutral buss for house circuits has been divided so that the circuits fed from the Inverter/charger are separated from the house circuits that are not. Further, except as necessary for explanation, AC safety ground wiring is not shown on this diagram; that is a conscious choice made in the interest of simplifying the diagram.
THE ABYC ELECTRICAL STANDARD, E11
The ABYC electrical standard is quite extensive and complex. This presentation only covers the major highlights that apply to the AC system division. Similar requirements apply to the DC division. Get these basics right and the boat will be well on its way to being safe. This presentation does not include a discussion of the requirements of onboard 120V load circuits; it focuses on the power distribution components of the AC division, to which we normally give little specific consideration.
By far the most common 120V, 30A shore power connectors are National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) L5-30R and L5-30P pairs. These are found on the familiar 120V, 30A commercial cordsets. I do not like them because I feel they are not nearly robust enough for the repetitive removal and replacement to which shore power cords are subjected in normal use. NEMA L5-30 connectors were designed 80 years ago for light industrial applications where outlets were sometimes ceiling mounted and machinery cords hung from ceiling receptacles. They were plugged in and given a twist, and they were rarely touched again. They are not intended to be roughly handled by boat owners and dock assistants, dropped on docks, stepped-on, rained-on, snowed-in and otherwise abused in routine service.
Which brings up an important point about all ABYC standards. The “requirements” stated in ABYC E11 are MINIMUM PERFORMANCE REQUIREMENTS. They do not require a particular piece of equipment or a particular manufacturer’s product. They simply specify minimum compliance requirements. So, NEMA L5-30P/R connectors ARE NOT “required” by the standard. What is required is a “grounding plug that locks into place” so it can’t “fall apart.” Also realize, ABYC standards apply to boat manufacturers, marine equipment manufacturers, and service technicians. Only indirectly do they apply to boat owners. The standards DO NOT contemplate that DIY electrical work will be done by owners, but they do contemplate that all work done by anyone will comply with the requirements.
I have personally chosen to replace the OEM NEMA L5-30P shore power inlet receptacles with those made by SmartPlug, LLC (http://www.smartplug.com/) (no personal financial interest; just a very happy customer). I personally feel SmartPlugs are much safer and more robust than L5-30 twistlocks, and they meet all NEC (UL, cUL, eTL) and ABYC requirements. That said, the SmartPlugs EXCEED the minimum performance requirements of the E11 standard.
The following slide shows requirements for the shore power CORDS and the shore power INLETS of the boat. The E11 standard refers to the “Type” of the wire. The cord’s “Type” descriptor is part of the information printed on (or molded into) the cord’s insulation, and should be easily readable on all marine-complaint cordsets. Don’t worry about the “Type” descriptor on Shore Power cables unless for some reason (I discourage this) doing a DIY shore power cord fabrication project. Simply buy products made by marine manufacturers and certified for marine use. The cordset manufacturers will have covered all that’s necessary for ABYC standards compliance.
The following slide illustrates a very important concept for shore power systems which all boaters should know; most especially, those who do DIY electrical projects! At the head of the dock, in the facility’s electrical service infrastructure, the safety ground conductor is bonded (connected) to the neutral conductor. This is an NEC code requirement for all sources of AC power throughout North America, and results in a system referred to as a “Grounded Neutral System.” In a “Grounded Neutral System,” the neutral is intended to carry all of the current returning from the boat to the shore-side source. By design, the ground conductor IS NOT intended to carry current except to trip a circuit breaker in a fault situation. Thus, the neutral-to-ground bond is located in the facility’s infrastructure for both 120V and 240V systems.
The following slide emphasizes the boat-side of the shore power connection. The E11 standard requires that there be no neutral-to-ground bond(s) on the boat. At this point, for clarity, that firm statement can be modified to read, “there must be no neutral-to-ground bond(s) on the boat when operating on shore power.” The reason for this distinction now will become clear later, but for shore power, if there is a neutral-to-ground bond on the boat, that wrongly-placed bond creates a connection between the neutral conductor and the ground conductor that electrically parallels the two conductors all the way back to the dock-side infrastructure’s correct ground bond. Since the ground conductor on the boat is in direct contact with the sea water in which the boat is floating, this also parallels-in a ground path through the sea water. When all of these paths are in parallel, current that should flow only on the neutral will divide and flow in equal amounts on both conductors, and in some amount, through the water itself. By definition, this is a “ground fault,” and it will trip power “off” if there are ground fault sensors on the dock-side pedestal, but it can also kill people, pets and wildlife in the water. Incorrect neutral-to-ground bonds on boats are a primary cause for AC power leaking into the water, and can lead to incidents of ELECTRIC SHOCK DROWNING. For further information, readers are referred to my article on “Electric Shock Drowning.”
The following slide shows correct and incorrect wiring examples. In my article entitled “AC Electricity Fundamentals – Part 1,” I explain that a boat connected to a pedestal is intended to be wired like a sub-panel in a residential installation. Many residential electricians and DIY boat owners do not understand that technical detail, and so often connect neutrals and grounds together as they would in the main panel of a residence. On boats, as explained above, this is WRONG and DANGEROUS. Those who DIY must understand this natty technical detail.
The following slide shows the next major component in the flow of AC power into the boat: the Shore Power MAIN DISCONNECT BREAKER. This device is mainly for overload (and since 2012, ground fault) protection. Note that for 120V, 30A circuits, both the hot conductor and the neutral conductor must be switched, so this disconnect must be a 30A, “double-pole” circuit breaker with either a single operator handle or operator handles that are mechanically interconnected so if one side trips, the other side is also opened.
Boats built before 2012 will not have OEM ELCI (Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter) circuit breakers installed. That is OK. Although required since 2012 on new construction boats, ABYC states that boats that complied with the version of E11 that was in effect at the time the boat was built by the OEM manufacturer are “grandfathered” for compliance. Note that MANY MARINE SURVEYORS do not choose to adhere to/acknowledge the ABYC “grandfathering” policy. That can result in an inappropriate non-compliance finding in a boat survey.
The following slide shows the MAIN DISCONNECT SWITCH on a boat fit with 240V, 50A service. The significant difference is that here, only the two hot conductors (L1 and L2) are switched. The neutral is not switched. Thus, a double-pole breaker rated at 50A is appropriate here. As before, this breaker must have either a single operator handle or operator handles that are mechanically interconnected so if one side trips, the other also opens.
Note that the neutral-to-ground bond is only correctly located in the shore power infrastructure, which is one of the National Electric Code (NEC) “rules” for residential and light commercial 120V/208V/240V electric services.
The following slide illustrates another very important wiring detail. Recall, Sanctuary is served by two 120V, 30A circuits. Earlier, we saw that neutrals and grounds MUST NOT be connected together aboard the boat. This is a similar case, and for the same reason. Here, it’s essential that the neutrals from Shore Power Circuit 1 and the neutrals from Shore Power Circuit 2 be SEPARATED aboard the boat. The reason is, both of the neutrals run back into the marina pedestal, or may run all the way back to the marina main service panel. If they are connected together on the boat, they become electrically paralleled all the way back to wherever they are ultimately joined together (pedestal junction, panel neutral buss, etc). All current returning from the boat will divide and flow equally on both neutrals. By definition, that is a “ground fault” at the pedestal circuit breakers, which will trip both breakers and interrupt power to the boat. But even more importantly, if one of the shore power cord neutral conductors were to fail open (due to, for example, a burned blade on a NEMA L5-30P twistlock plug), the other neutral circuit would become overloaded and could easily become a fire hazard aboard the boat. Preventing that fire hazard is why understanding and complying to these standards is important.
The following slide shows the “right” and “wrong” views described above. Again, MANY, MANY RESIDENTIAL ELECTRICIANS DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS REQUIREMENT BECAUSE BOATS ARE NOT HANDLED IN THE SAME WAY AS THE MOST COMMON RESIDENTIAL INSTALLATIONS.
And by the way, the “wrong way” is a common way to find neutral wiring done on older boats.
Check your boat.
The following slide highlights the need for Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter (ELCI) devices for protecting against ground faults on the boat.
Those interested can read more about ELCI circuit breakers in my article entitled “ELCI Primer.”
The ELCI requirement was added to ABYC E11 in 2012 for new boats. ELCI devices are intended to both protect from overloads and detect ground faults. Ground faults on boats can result in dangerous levels of AC power being dumped into the water, which is a hazard that can lead to Electric Shock Drowning (ESD), as discussed previously.
An ELCI device on the boat is the same thing as a “ground fault sensor” on the dock-side pedestal (ground fault sensors on docks have many acronyms, including “EPD,” “GFD,” “GPD,” and “RCD;” don’t worry about what they’re called. By any name, they do the same thing.) ELCI devices also do the same thing as pedestal sensors, but the ELCI is physically installed aboard the boat. The value of having an ELCI on the boat is twofold. First, the simple act of installing an ELCI will flush out any silent, hidden wiring problems that currently exist on the boat. Second, ELCI will trip instantly upon the spontaneous emergence of a ground fault issue on the boat at some later date, so the boat owner will become aware of it, and be able to initiate repairs, as soon as it surfaces as a safety issue.
The following slide introduces the concept of a GALVANIC ISOLATOR. Galvanic Isolators are very important to controlling corrosion of underwater metals on any boat.
Galvanic Isolators are installed IN SERIES WITH the safety ground conductor AT THE POINT WHERE THE GROUND CONDUCTOR ENTERS/EXITS THE BOAT. Nothing – NOTHING – should be connected to the side of the isolator that leads to the shore power inlet connection except the actual safety ground conductor, itself.
The E11 standard considers Galvanic Isolators to be “optional” equipment, but if they are installed, the standard provides installation requirements.
If a Galvanic Isolator is NOT installed, the rest of the GROUNDING CONNECTIONS are still mandatory.
Earlier, above, the ABYC requirement that “there must be no neutral-to-ground bond on the boat when connected to shore power;” was mentioned with the proviso that it would “become clear later.” Now is the time to clarify as we look at the topic of POWER-SOURCE SWITCHING. The following slide shows the three possible sources of AC power on Sanctuary: 1) shore power, 2) genset, and 3) Inverter. The North American design standard for ALL AC power sources is, ALL power source neutrals are grounded at the source. Since shore power sources are grounded on land in the facility infrastructure and NOT aboard the boat, and since both the generator and the inverter are located aboard the boat, then how is it possible for them to be “grounded at the source” if neutral-to-ground connections are not allowed on the boat? Well, compliance is accomplished through appropriate source transfer switching.
Note the construction of the GENERATOR TRANSFER SWITCH shown on this slide. That Generator Transfer Switch on Sanctuary is a three position rotary switch: “Shore,” “Off,” “Generator.” When the switch is in the “Shore” position, the generator’s neutral-to-ground bond is switched out of the circuit, thus meeting the shore power separation requirement. When the switch is in the “Generator” position, the shore power circuit is switched out of the boat’s electrical platform, thus permitting the onboard neutral-to-ground bond at the generator. The same type of logical switching is accomplished for the inverter by a relay located within the inverter.
Note: ABYC A31 requires that Inverters installed on boats be certified to UL458 (Power Converters/Inverters and Power Converter/Inverter Systems for Land Vehicles and Marine Crafts) to ensure this grounding management relay is present. ABYC E11 includes ABYC A31, amongst other boat electrical standards. BOAT OWNERS SHOULD ENSURE THAT ANY INVERTER INSTALLED ON A BOAT IS COMPLIANT WITH UL458. Especially, be aware that inverters from Harbor Freight and other discount sources will not be compliant to UL458 and are not suitable for use on mobile platforms like boats and RVs.
Following is a close-up of Sanctuary’s Generator Transfer Switch. This is a three-position rotary switch. There are other switching styles that use lockout slide mechanisms to accomplish the same thing. Here, the breaking of the neutral conductors is highlighted by the red ellipses.
The following slide is just a reminder of what we looked at earlier WITH RESPECT TO SHORE POWER SOURCES. For Shore Power, the neutral-to-ground bond is in the shore power infrastructure and NEVER on the boat.
And this slide shows the generator neutral-to-ground bond that is switched into the boat’s onboard AC system when the genset is running…
And this slide shows requirements specific to inverters…
The following slide moves to another very important safety issue. Rarely, it is possible to encounter a 120V dock power pedestal source in which the black (hot) and white (neutral) wires (or red and white) are physically reversed inside the pedestal or other location in the dock-side infrastructure. No, it should not happen. Yes, it should be found by the installing electrician before the circuit is put in service. But folks, it does happen (rarely, thankfully). I have seen it three times in 16 years of cruising.
What’s particularly bad about a “reverse polarity” situation is that it can be present and also be entirely symptomless on the boat. Electrical equipment aboard the boat will work normally. But, touch potential shock hazards are likely. Because this condition is largely symptomless, it’s important to detect it and warn the boat operator of the potential life-safety issue. The “RP” warning lights (and/or audible alarms) are connected between the Safety Ground (green) and the Neutral (white) conductors on the boat. There should never normally be more than a volt or two between those conductors. Anyone who sees a ”Reverse Polarity” warning light(s) illuminated on their boat should immediately DISCONNECT (physically unplug) the shore power cord from the pedestal and report the condition to facility management. This can be a potentially lethal condition in the right (wrong!) circumstances.
This slide shows “Reverse Polarity” warning lights wired between the safety ground and neutral conductors aboard Sanctuary.
Actually, Sanctuary has some duplication here. Our Generator Transfer Switch has Reverse Polarity indicators, as do both shore power distribution panels.
ABYC specifies the minimum impedance of RP detection devices must be ≥ 25kΩ. Since these devices are connected between the neutral and the safety ground, they are a possible path for small “ground fault” currents, and properly installed sensors on some boats can cause false trips of a dock-side or ELCI ground fault sensing device. This would be caused by either multiple sensors in combination or older incandescent sensors having too low an impedance, thus allowing too high a “ground fault leakage current.”
The most current revision of the ABYC E11 Standard (July, 2018) as of this writing (April, 2020) is 67 pages of “shall” and “shall not” requirements, technical tables and example electrical drawings. Far more than I have covered here. Furthermore, there are several other ABYC Standards that apply to electrical subjects, such as A27, “Alternating Current Generators,” A28, “Galvanic Isolators,” A31, “Battery Chargers and Inverters,” E2, “Cathodic Protection” and E10, “Storage Batteries.”
These standards – and all ABYC Standards – make us all safer. They save property damage losses and they save lives. A marina fire is one of the most terrifying things any boater can ever experience, and there have been several this year alone (winter, 2019-20). When we aboard Sanctuary arrive at a marina, we must assume all of the boats that will be our new dock neighbors are safe. All of those boaters must also assume that we are safe. These standards are the reason we can all have some confidence in those forced assumptions. If there are condition(s) aboard your boat that you know need to come into compliance, please do so. The family you save may be your own!
For the record, I’m not much of a fan of covered slips, either. Those roofs help with UV damage and weather, but in a fire, heat arising from the fire’s origin is contained by the cover and spreads linearly along the dock until the cover finally burns through. This greatly foreshortens escape time; and, not a good thing for survivability of boats that were otherwise uninvolved in the first place. Always think fire safety and escape routes…