New code requirements are causing marinas around the country to update their electrical service and address the risk to life safety caused from faulty or incorrectly wired boats. As a result, some boaters are experiencing trouble by tripping newly installed, more sensitive shore power breakers.
Understanding Electrical Safety Devices
Most people are familiar with a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) outlet. For many years, we used them in home kitchens and baths or anywhere something plugged into an electrical outlet could come in contact with water. You know them by the small reset button built into an outlet. They are mandated in residential wiring by building codes for personal safety against electrocution.
Electricity flows from an outlet to an appliance and back again in a loop along the hot and neutral wires in a power cord. The GFCI monitors the electricity flowing through the loop. If the device fell into a bathtub or got wet, and allowed electricity to flow into the water, the GFCI would detect the loss or current imbalance in the loop and trip a highly sensitive breaker in the outlet. GFCI outlet receptacles detect an imbalance of as little as 4 or 5 milliamps and react quickly in as little as 1/13th of a second. Boats built to American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC) standards also have GFCI outlets installed in the boat's heads, galleys and exterior spaces.The updated code requires marinas to install devices called Ground Fault Protection (GFP) which are like GFCI outlets in your home. The GFP can detect electricity leaking from a circuit the same way a GFCI does and cut off the boat's electricity supply. The code requires ground fault protection not to exceed 100 milliamps of ground fault current leakage. However, most marinas are opting to install even more sensitive Ground Fault for Equipment (GFE) breakers at individual boat slips, which disconnects electricity to the boat at 30 milliamps of ground fault leakage.
Shore Power Electricity
When you link your boat to shore power, it's like connecting an appliance to an outlet: a flow of electricity travels in a loop between your boat and the shore power pedestal along hot and neutral wires in a shore power cord. A third wire in your shore power cord is the ground wire. If anywhere in the boat's wiring, or in an appliance on the boat, the neutral and ground are connected, current will be diverted from the loop, creating a leak of electricity from the circuit and into the boat's bonding or ground system.Due to a prior lack of standards or variances in how a boat's appliances are wired, this condition could occur in many recreational boats. Electricity flowing through a boat's bonding system through the ground wire results in electrical current possibly flowing intothe water around the boat. One of the primary reasons marinas post signs prohibiting swimming in the marina is the potential for electricity in the water and the risk of drowning by electric shock.
ABYC Boat Safety
At the same time marinas are instituting new safety standards, ABYC is also recommending that boat manufacturers install a similar safety device at the boat's shore power entry point, called an Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter (ELCI). The ELCI monitors the electricity flow in a circuit in the same way as the previously mentioned devices. If the device senses an imbalance of more than 30 milliamps, it cuts off the electricity supply to the boat. All new boats should comply with this ABYC recommendation; however, an ELCI can also be installed in an existing boat's shore wiring circuit.
Boaters connecting to renovated marinas are becoming aware of their boat's wiring issues due to this newly installed, more sensitive equipment. Older boats aren't the only ones with problems; many late model boats have similar wiring issues. Finding the exact problem in the boat can be difficult, which elevates the frustration of boaters and marina staff.Michael Giannotti, an ABYC-certified electrician and master technician from Hartge Yacht Yard who has investigated these problems, has discovered several likely causes including:
Household appliances, such as washers and dryers
Ice makers and refrigerators
Generator transfer switches
Older or faulty galvanic isolators
Air-conditioning control boards
Corroded electrical connections
Faulty power cord, splitter or smart Y adapters.
Discovering the actual cause makes it especially important to follow the correct steps when connecting a boat to shore power. First, turn off the primary breaker in the shore power connection, then turn off all branch circuit breakers in the boat. Once the shore power cord is connected and locked into place, turn on the shore power connection at the dock pedestal with the boat's main AC breaker still off. If the breaker trips immediately, the problem is likely the shore cord or Y adaptor.Next, turn on the boat's main AC breaker with all the branch circuits still off. If the shore power pedestal breaker trips, the problem is likely an improperly wired transfer switch or inverter. If the dock pedestal breaker trips after an individual branch circuit breaker is switched on, it is likely a device connected to the breaker or defective control board in an HVAC or refrigerator circuit. This procedure works in diagnosing at least where the problem lies for most boats, assuming they have two pole main breakers for 30 amp/125 volt inlets and three pole main breakers for 50 amp/250 volt inlets.Whether investigating an electrical problem or installing new electrical equipment, all the work should be performed by an ABYC-certified electrician or with complete knowledge of and following ABYC standards.
Frequent analogies are made between piloting an aircraft and piloting a boat. Both require similar skills and place you at the mercy of the elements in a medium that's foreign to our bodies. Granted, being suspended in the air may be a tad more precarious than floating on the water, but when the downward spiral of a problem begins in either setting, it typically doesn't end well. For this reason, an aircraft pilot wouldn't dream of taking off without performing a pre-flight checklist. Boating is safer when using checklists, too.
The concept of a pre-flight checklist was developed following the fatal crash of a test flight in 1935. Leading up to WWII, the U.S. Army Air Corps was looking for a new bomber to meet the demanding needs of long distant flights with heavy payloads. U.S. aircraft company, Boeing, submitted a new plane model for the Army to consider. The Army agreed to try it and scheduled a test flight to see how it would perform.Flying the plane that day were two highly experienced Army pilots, Boeing's chief test pilot, along with a Boeing mechanic and a representative of the engine manufacturer. After takeoff the plane began to climb, but suddenly pitched up, stalled and crashed into a ball of fire upon impact. All on board were initially rescued, but both pilots died from injuries sustained in the crash.The accident investigation determined that before takeoff, the pilots overlooked a safety lock on the elevator and rudder controls, which kept them from controlling the plane's pitch or attitude. Following the accident, a newspaper stated that the Boeing plane was just too much plane for one man to fly.Fortunately, this was not the end of the story, but the beginning of a life-saving idea that would transform how highly complex systems can be operated by average people. Out of this tragedy came the simple and effective concept of the pilot's pre-departure checklist. Time would prove the Boeing plane was not too much for one person, but just too much for one person's memory. Using a simple checklist on future flights would ensure that important steps required prior to takeoff were not forgotten.Checklists were developed for more and more parts of a flight, for emergency situations as well as more routine situations. NASA adopted the use of checklists for almost every part of the Gemini and Apollo space missions, and all astronauts were trained in how to use them. Astronauts logged hundreds of hours familiarizing themselves with and learning how to use these checklists. In fact, checklists were so important to the success of the Apollo moon landings that astronaut Michael Collins called them The fourth crew member.
Safety from the Skies to the Seas
Aboard our boat, we have several checklists for different applications. For example, we've found it useful to have two pre-departure checklists: one for leaving a marina and another for leaving an anchorage or mooring.Preparing for each is different enough that having a specific list for the different situations ensures that everything is safe to get underway.A checklist is also one of the best ways to manage your boat maintenance and personal safety. When your boat breaks down out in open water, you become vulnerable to additional problems.Reminder and to-do apps popular on smart devices today are a great platform for building a list of regularly scheduled maintenance tasks. The apps allow you to set a date to inspect items like fire extinguishers, or when engine fluids or anodes need to be changed. Using apps with reminders set, relieves you from having to remember critical items that need attention. They also have a notes section where you can record engine hours of the last change and numbers for any parts used in the process.
Checklists are most useful for regularly reoccurring tasks, ones we believe we do so often we've memorized them tasks like starting your boat and leaving the marina. Therein lies the problem: It's easy to become complacent with reoccurring tasks and believe you've done this so many times you don't need reminders of how to do it.For most people, life is busy, so it's easy to get distracted while going through a task. I've seen it happen on many occasions the ever-present phone rings or a boat neighbor asks a question as you're preparing to get underway and the next thing you know you're pulling out with the shore power cord still connected. Before we started making checklists a habit, I was occasionally upset by a boat passing close by, without calling us on the VHF radio, only to realize I'd forgotten to turn it on.Checklists are also important when multiple people are involved in the same process, so we use checklists for departing from the boat as well. More than once on our Sunday drive home from the boat, we looked at each other and asked, did you take out the trash or did you turn off the propane? Using a boat departure checklist makes sure important items don't get missed and you don't assume the other turned off the water pump breaker or turned on the battery charger.Using checklists also has unforeseen benefits: The more you follow them, the more you benefit. The more you follow a routine process in the same order, the more you understand its faults and failings, allowing you to make improvements.It's easy to see the benefit when developing a checklist and when you first begin using them, but the real benefit comes into play when you continue using them even though you feel like you don't have to anymore. That's when they keep you from forgetting something important.
The best advice I ever received about boating was from a salty old captain years ago. He said, "Safe boating is simple: keep the water out of the boat, keep the boat off the bottom, and everything else can be worked out." Truer words were never spoken, but despite their best efforts, boaters fail at one or both on a regular basis.For this reason, we are fortunate to have access to professional towing services, covering most recreational boating waters in this country. Whether boating in the ocean near shore, or in most large inland lakes and rivers, assistance on the water is just a VHF radio or phone call away.
Two national entities Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S., along with a few smaller regional companies make up a network of towing operators ready to help you on the water during a boating mishap. Towing service is not inexpensive, with the cost of a response averaging $1,000. That's why most boaters take advantage of the annual membership programs these companies offer, where the cost of service is covered by their membership plan.
I absolutely recommend membership in one or both national companies. While Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S. have boats in most popular boating destinations, neither covers all areas. Having a membership with both assures you can access help in most locations. In joining, it is important to know what you're getting in return for your membership fee, what the service covers, and maybe more importantly, what it doesn't cover.
Although commonly referred to as such, a membership with a towing service is not insurance. Towing services offer no coverage for loss of your boat or boating equipment, nor do they cover personal injury or any sort of liability. Within the terms of their membership agreement, both national companies provide similar services to their members. While each differs slightly in what they provide, the basics they both offer are towing, fuel, jump starts for dead batteries and delivery of easily accessed basic parts for a mechanical breakdown.
It is important to understand having a membership is not a promise of rescue and is restricted to the services that can be provided by the equipment available in the specific area at the time of need. Each individual towing operator is an independent business, which provide services under an agreement with or as a franchisee of the national company. Their equipment could vary from small single engine center-consoles to medium sized commercial RIBs, or in some areas large offshore vessels.
For offshore assistance, all towing companies have limits on how far they can go to offer assistance, but it varies. In Sea Tow's case, they state: We do not have specific offshore distance limits. How far offshore Sea Tow will go to get you is only limited by the sea conditions, fuel capacity of our boats and our ability to communicate with you. If, for any reason, Sea Tow cannot respond, we will assist in arranging for an alternate provider and provide reimbursement up to $5,000 per incident. In most cases, if we are unable to respond no other commercial assistance provider will be able to either, so we will defer to the U.S. Coast Guard.
If you frequently boat offshore, know how you will communicate with the towing providers. In practicality, the offshore range they are capable of reaching could be up to 30 or 40 nautical miles from the towing company's base. Keep in mind this could be out of mobile phone or VHF radio range. It will do you no good if they can help you, but you can't reach them. Ask if the towing provider in your area can communicate with a satellite texting device like a Garmin inReach or a satellite phone.Occasionally a dispute between towing operators and boaters arises over the thorny issue of whether you simply needed a tow or whether the assistance is considered salvage. Both national towing services attempt to describe the difference in their agreement; however, despite their best efforts, it can still be highly subjective. If it is considered salvage, the terms of the assistance changes dramatically.
Your towing provider will likely ask a lot of questions before dispatching a boat in order to arrive properly prepared to assist. However, they cannot know the exact degree of assistance needed until they actually arrive on the scene and assess the situation. When they arrive to offer help, always ask the towboat captain if this is a tow or salvage operation. The difference in the cost and who pays the bill could be substantial.
Given the potential for subjectivity between towing and salvage, it is imperative that you know the nature of the assistance you're receiving. Salvage is historically and more importantly legally defined as the rescue of a boat from a peril at sea.
The definition of peril may take many forms. Typically, a marine peril involves a dangerous situation at sea, wherein a vessel may incur damage if it is left to the forces of wind, waves, weather and tide without prompt assistance. Any number of simple boating mishaps can quickly descend into peril if left unaddressed. What may have been a soft grounding on a sand bar can quickly become a salvage operation, with an ebbing tide and slight shift of the wind.
Marine salvage laws have existed for centuries. They were derived to incentivize salvors to come to the assistance of vessels in distress, thereby saving the loss of property and possibly life. Marine salvage laws date back to a time when most vessels at sea were commercial and have changed little with the growth of recreational boating.
Many boaters believe salvage laws do not apply to them and think salvage only applies to big ships, not their 33-foot express cruiser. Marine salvage laws apply to every vessel upon navigable waters, from a kayak to a 600-foot container ship. They are not limited to only vessels engaged in commerce. This opens all recreational vessels to claims for salvage rewards.
When selecting a towing provider, read and understand the terms you are agreeing to for dispute resolution. Many towing providers will ask the boat owner to sign a contract before towing. In signing these contracts, you may be agreeing to some form of binding arbitration, which is intended to provide for a quick determination of the appropriate amount of the salvage reward. You may also be acknowledging that the services provided will form the basis of a salvage claim, where the salvor could be entitled to a lien upon your boat in the amount of the claim.
Too frequently boaters discover the difference between towing and salvage when presented with a bill for something they believed was covered under a membership plan. Boaters also must be careful when accepting assistance from a passing boater. It is not necessary for a salvor to be a professional towing company. If you accept assistance from a passing boater, they may have the right to claim a salvage reward; legally these are referred to as chance salvors.
Assistance to boaters is offered regularly without any extraordinary needs or costs, but exceptions occur often enough. Read and understand the terms of service offered by your towing provider. The national companies offer excellent service within the terms of their agreements and individual towboat captains do their best to assist boaters for the least cost; however, sometimes assistance truly deserves to be salvage. Always protect yourself by knowing which you are receiving before you connect a towing company's line to your boat.
When we last visited the subject of remote boat monitoring, it was an emerging technology with young innovative companies developing smart phone apps that informed you if your boat's battery died or a bilge pump came on when you were away from the boat. Today, those startups have matured into sophisticated technology companies, offering a range of services to help manage and monitor your boat.
These companies began their businesses from different starting points. Some technology companies adapted their products to boats. A few were boaters who saw a need based on their boating experience and developed products to address that need. The differences show up in some of their application programs and ease of use for the boat owner.
All the systems generally follow the same concept, using a series of sensors or actuators connected to a hub or base station. The hub then communicates the sensor's information through a Wi-Fi, cellular or satellite network to an app installed on a smart phone or tablet.
When selecting a monitoring system, first consider what method of communication best suits your needs. If your boat stays in a modern marina with a stable Wi-Fi, a system that communicates over a Wi-Fi network may be acceptable. The downside to Wi-Fi-only systems is their need to use a mobile hotspot or other means of connecting to a data network to report a problem when you're away from a marina.
If you travel aboard your boat to remote locations or internationally, a system that communicates over cellular or satellite networks may be more reliable. Be mindful of differences in cellular network equipment: some work great in the United States and Canada but may not work elsewhere in the world. Look for cellular networks that work over a wide area. It's best to know where you will be cruising before selecting.
The costs also vary with the system type, with Wi-Fi being the least expensive, then cellular and satellite typically the most expensive. When selecting a system that uses a cellular network to send notifications, it is also helpful to know which generation technology is used: 3G, 4G or the growing 5G. We are accustomed to 4G networks being the norm for voice communication, but many systems still transmit data using older 3G technology, which in parts of the country is being eliminated from cellular towers. This can affect how well the unit will work in different coverage areas as you travel.
Many of the systems require ongoing fees or subscriptions to stay active. If the system you choose has a subscription, verify if you are entering an annual contract as part of the agreement. If your boat is hauled out during part of the year, it may be better to find a system that allows monthly terms or the option to suspend the service during the haul-out period.
Method of Linking Components
All systems work on a sensor and hub network. Individual sensors monitor specific information such as battery voltage, integrity of shore power connection or bilge pump activity. Systems use either hard-wired or wireless sensors. The wireless systems are easier to install, but also may have some limitations. For example, there is a maximum distance the sensors can be from the hub, in some cases as little as 30 feet. If your boat is very large, it may require more than one hub.
The early wireless systems used either Bluetooth or ultra-high frequency radio waves as the link between the sensors and hub. The connections were generally stable; however, it's not uncommon to have interference from materials or other electronics on board. Today, industry-leading companies use an LTE Category-M communication protocol, which allows high volumes of IoT data to be transmitted at lower rates of power. The latest version of wireless sensors also uses a more reliable advanced sub-gigahertz network.
Matching Hardware to Application
Knowing which components you want to monitor or control may help you decide on one brand over another. Some systems come prepackaged in a kit form with a few specific sensors and a hub unit. For small boats, this may suit your needs perfectly. A prepackaged arrangement may be inadequate for larger or more complex boats.
An a-la-carte capability to tailor the system to your vessel may be a better choice. All systems can monitor battery voltage, but if you have multiple battery systems or engine-start batteries of 12 volts and a 24-volt house bank, you'll need a system that can monitor those independently.
Some systems enable a video feed from onboard cameras; some do not. Not all manufactures' systems allow device control, such as turning on or off the air conditioning or lighting. Consult system capabilities if device control is a feature you intend to use.
Method of Communication
The method of communicating varies among the systems. Some send notifications through an app on your smart device. Some systems send SMS text messages; others use email or a combination of both. A helpful feature on certain systems requires the boat owner to acknowledge the notice or it will send a repeat message or a notice by a different method.
The more advanced systems are also monitored by a central station like a land-based alarm company. If the notice isn't acknowledged, the station operator will attempt to locate the boat owner. A few of the companies offer web-based computer access to your hub if you are away from a cellular connection. Lastly, look for systems that allow more than one person to be contacted.
Theft Deterrence & GPS Tracking
One of the most valuable features of remote monitoring systems is theft deterrence. With this feature, when the system is set, alarms and lights can be programmed to come on when an intruder attempts entry. More advanced systems prevent engines from starting when activated. If the boat were to be moved, the systems provide GPS tracking to locate it.
An added benefit to all these features is a possible reduction in insurance premiums. The GPS tracking feature on some systems can also allow family and friends to follow along on your travels.
Ability to Update
Make sure the system can easily accept firmware or software updates over the Internet and does not require the components to be returned to the manufacturer to install updates.
Remote monitoring technology is advancing rapidly. New features are introduced at boat shows every year, providing more ability to monitor and control boats when life takes you away from your favorite pastime.