The boat’s electrical system is often the most vexing for boat owners-but it doesn’t have to be. With the right tools, quality materials, and a modest amount of preventative maintenance, you can ensure a flicker-free (or nearly so) existence on the water. Back in 2012, I first put together this link-loaded blog post on the art of taming onboard electrons. I’ve updated it again this week, adding a few links to some of our most recent reports that help fill in some gaps in our coverage. If you’ve got a rewiring or electronics installation project ahead of you, this blog’s for you.
Of all the many maintenance jobs on a boat, DC electrical problems were probably among my favorite to deal with on Tosca-100 times more enjoyable than painting the bottom or cleaning the hull. Except for a few tight spots in the bilge and behind the nav station, all of the wiring and connections on our gaff-rigged ketch were easily accessible, so trouble-shooting required no contortions. It was clean work that called for brain-power, not brawn, and the results were instantly gratifying-a fan that started whirring again, a mast light that came back to life, a solar panel that began pumping amps again. Having easy access to the wire runs and connections made all the difference, something to keep in mind as you rewire your boat, or add new electronics.
Over the years, Practical Sailor has published numerous tests and reports that can help guide a boater through the most common marine electrical problems. In this blog post, Ill introduce the tools you will need for DIY electrical work, recap a couple of the more recent articles with links, and point you to a couple of good resources that will provide more details on repairs and upgrades. One key disclaimer: This post deals only with DC circuits. The AC shore power circuits present a greater risk, and, in my view, are best left to someone who is experienced in that field.
Before diving into any electrical repair project, you’ll want to have the right tools. Fortunately, you’ll need very few-a basic multimeter, a good set of wire-cutters, a quality crimper, and wire stripper for removing the wire insulation for fitting terminals. Two-time circumnavigator Evans Starzinger opened up his toolbox for us back in 2007, revealing just how few tools are required to fix most wiring problems on a boat. Unless you go whole hog on top-of-the-line gear and want a fancy Fluke multimeter, you should be able to put together a kit for about $100-$150.
A $40 Radio Shack multimeter like the one that performed well in our digital multimeter test will suffice for most DC projects. When choosing a crimper, avoid the cheap combination crimper-cutters available in automotive stores. For new installations, or workshop projects that allow plenty of elbow room, look for double-action, double-crimp ratchet crimpers with replaceable, hardened dies for crimping. These meet the industry standard, are relatively inexpensive, and have proven very reliable so long as they are matched with the right sleeves. The drawback to a ratchet crimper is their unwieldiness in tight quarters. For tight spots, the relatively inexpensive Klein 1005, which doubles as a wire-cutter, was a favorite among pros surveyed in our comparison of wire crimpers and strippers.
Ancor, maker of testers favorite budget-priced tool for stripping insulation makes a popular (but not inexpensive) double-action crimper designed for insulated terminal fittings; this makes it much easier to apply the correct amount of compression to insulated terminals. One reader recommended a more reasonably priced crimpers (#22-770) from MCM Electronics, (now Newark element14) which look very similar to those from Ancor. As for wire-cutters, a good set of 8-inch, heavy-duty cutting pliers or lineman’s pliers from Klein tools or something similar offer better leverage and a sharper edge than a cheap set of needle-nose pliers with a cutter.
Tools in hand, were ready to roll. First the wire. To determine whether your wiring has been affected by moisture, cut off the terminal on a suspicious wire and strip back about a half-inch of insulation. If the wire is black, and not shiny pink, then corrosion has begun to migrate up the conductor. You’ll need to strip back the insulation until you find clean, pink copper (or shiny silver in the case of pre-tinned boat cable). Usually, this requires stripping back no more than an inch or so of insulation.
If you find extensive corrosion and need to run new wire, consider paying a little extra for pre-tinned, multi-strand “Boat Cable” labeled “UL 1426 Type III,” which indicates that a wire is finely stranded (Type III) and complies with Underwriters Laboratory (UL) Standard UL 1426. If you are required to run new wiring, it doesn’t have to be painful. To minimize the gymnastics required to run new wire cable through your boat, try some of the hard-won tips on rewiring offered by contributor Bill Bishop, author of the Marine Installer’s Rant blog.
We found that THHN machine wire (available at home supply stores like Home Depot, Lowes, etc.) held up just as well as tinned wire in our marine wire corrosion test, but if you buy in bulk, tinned boat cable is only slightly more expensive and will add to the resale value to your boat. Pacer and Ancor are leading wire brands among boatbuilders. Before buying, you will want to refer to the American Boat and Yacht Councils wire-sizing guide to determine what gauge (thickness) of wire is adequate to carry the anticipated current. Don’t assume the existing wire was the correct gauge.
Chances are, the wire is still in good shape. As we found in our test of marine electrical wire, the key to durability is a good, tight connection at terminals. In fact, copper-strand wire without the protective marine coating of tin can last for years, if the terminals are well-protected against oxidation. That we had no crimp failures in our wire-test torture chamber speaks volumes for a good tight crimp, in which the strands and the terminal are effectively welded together by the pressure of the crimp.
Most of the terminal fittings for our wire test were tinned copper fittings made by Ancor (ring crimp connectors and terminal blocks) or Ideal (heat-sealed crimp connectors and push-on connectors). Standard crimp connectors don’t do the job. They leave the wire ends exposed to moisture, and eventually corrosion will begin at the terminal and migrate into the conductor as the moisture tracks up the wire under the insulation via capillary action. By using heat-shrink crimp terminals or adhesive-lined heat-shrink tubing on conventional crimp connectors, you can effectively seal the ends of all the wire on your boat. (A good online source for a variety of heat shrink products is www.nationalstandardparts.com.) Watertight integrity is especially important in wet areas such as the bilge. If you are dealing with the tiny wires common to marine electronics wiring harnesses, make sure you choose high quailty Eurostrips that are less likely to damage the wire strands. A proper splice is often more secure than any mechanical fastener. As our testing showed, simple heat shrink seals—without any splicing—are not worth the trouble.
What about protective sprays or coatings? Twice, Practical Sailor looked at anti-corrosion sprays suitable for wire terminals. In 2007, we looked the best anti-corrosion spray treatments for electrical equipment, and our long-term wire test compared protected and unprotected terminals. Bottom line: These products will help, but a strong, tight terminal connection is the first priority.
For more details on using dialectric grease to make tight connections, Ralph Naranjo offered this tips in our Mailport section. Charlie Wing’s Boatowner’s Illustrated Electrical Handbook also guides you through the steps. For more advanced troubleshooting or installation projects, Ed Sherman’s textbook Advanced Marine Electrics and Electronics Troubleshooting is an excellent guide. Nigel Calder’s excellent Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Handbook also offers good advice on this and many other topics related to the electrical system. You’ll also find related DIY books in Practical Sailors online bookstore.
When rewiring or replacing wire terminals, here are some key points to keep in mind:
Match the Lug Terminal Size to the Cable Size. It matters. If you use too large a lug terminal, the air pockets or voids in the crimped joint (especially when using coarse stranded wire) will increase voltage resistance. Resistance equals heat, which in turn will lead to a faster rate of corrosion at your terminal end. Never “trim off” strands of wire because the lug terminal you are using is too small to accept your wire. The American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) standards state that wiring connections shall be designed and installed to make mechanical and electrical joints without damage to the conductors.
Rotten to the Core: The wire that you are terminating must be completely free of corrosion and oxidation. If internally the wire is black or green in color, you must cut back until you find virgin copper, or consider replacing the wire (with tinned wire). The lug terminal must also be free of oxidation. If your spare lugs were stored wet, replace them. The most common problem on a boat is failure of the electrical system.
Crimp Tip: Make sure that the strands of your wire don’t extend too far out the front of the lug and into the terminals eye or spade contact area. When applying pressure with your crimp tool to the lug terminal, make sure that you apply enough pressure so that good metal-to-metal contact occurs. The goal here, in addition to forming a good mechanical contact, is to break down the oxides that build up on the inside of the terminal lug. Unless a good metal-to-metal contact occurs, the oxides will not be broken down and resistance will build up inside the terminal. Check your crimp by giving the wire a good tug.
Plastic Not Welcome Here: The best-insulated lug terminals are those with nylon insulator sleeves. Nylon resists UV, gasoline, and oil. Unlike the cheaper vinyl and plastic insulator sleeves, nylon will not punch through or crack and fall apart when the squeeze gets applied. When installing new or replacement equipment, check the lugs supplied by the manufacturer. If they’re not nylon, consider replacing them with a better quality, or plan on using shrink tubing to dress up the connections post crimp.
Solder vs. Crimp: National Marine Electronics Association standards state that solder shall not be the sole means of mechanical connection in any circuit (with the exception of certain-length ship’s battery cables). If inclined to add solder to a lug terminal, solder it after you apply the crimp. A good solder joint is bright and shiny.