What can end your boating fun in nothing flat? Electrical problems can stop the fun before it even starts. This can happen with a battery that won’t turn over the motor, sporadically working marine electronics, or even dead bait and bilge pump problems. Not only can these problems stop your fishing fun, but they can also be dangerous for you and your crew.
It’s time for the good news. These problems can usually be avoided with regular inspection and maintenance of your boat’s electrical system. If your boat has been stored in the off-season, make sure you give it a pre-launch “tune up” at least once a year. Even if you are a year-round boater, it’s a good idea to schedule regular maintenance checks at least once a year to keep small problems from escalating and keeping you off the water.
1. Start at the Heart of the Matter
The batteries are like the heart of a boat’s electrical system. If they’re weak, poorly maintained or poorly connected, you’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Start with a visual inspection and by testing your boat’s batteries. Make sure the tops of the batteries and inside the battery boxes are free of dirt, debris or signs of leaking electrolytes. Be sure to clean and dry as needed (don’t forget that battery acid is caustic and the hydrogen gas released by lead acid batteries is explosive. Always avoid sparks, flames and skin contact with acid). Verify electrolyte levels and top off only using distilled water (not tap water). Batteries that have been sitting discharged for a long time may need replacement. Wait several hours to test voltage after bringing the batteries to a full state of charge. Healthy batteries at rest should read between 12.1 to 12.8 volts. Be sure to follow manufacturer’s inspection and maintenance guidelines for gel cell or AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat) batteries.
2. Power Right
Battery trouble and shortened life can be a result of improper battery application and management. Outfit boats with heavy electrical demands (livewell pumps, fish finders, radar, wash down pumps, trolling motors, etc.) with a cranking battery for engine starting and one or two deep-cycle “house” batteries for powering onboard equipment. Deep cycle batteries are designed for repeated charging and discharging, whereas typical automotive cranking batteries can rapidly weaken under this type of use. Use a quality, ignition protected battery switch that will let you choose which battery or batteries are being used/charged by the engine’s alternator.
3. Install an Onboard Battery Charger
To improve battery performance and life, keep marine batteries at a full state-of-charge at all times improves battery performance and battery life. Most people don’t want to drag a battery charger out to the boat and then reach down in the bilge to hook everything up. For this reason, some boaters will delay recharging their batteries or even just let them sit for months between charges. A “smart” onboard battery charger can be installed on your boat and help keeping your batteries in tip-top shape as easy as plugging in a small appliance. The advanced technology used with these chargers helps to maintain batteries without damaging the cells or “cooking” off electrolytes. These can be kept on continuously.
4. Avoid “Terminal” Illness
You’re still not getting out on the water even with a healthy battery if the battery terminals and cables are loose, damaged or corroded. Be sure you remove the terminals and clean them as well as the battery posts with a wire brush to remove any corrosion. Battery cable ends should be checked for broken strands and signs of corrosion. You’ll want to replace them if serious damage or corrosion has occurred. You’ll then want to reconnect and tighten them securely applying a light coat of dielectric grease to aid in further corrosion prevention. Be sure positive battery terminals have an insulating cover to avoid possible shorts from metallic objects.
5. Beating Corrosion to the Wire
Eliminate the possibility of a tangled jumble of wires, splices and electrical tape—this often leads to problems. Start by visually inspecting wires. Look for nicks, cuts or signs of chafing on the insulation—these areas are subject to corrosion. You’ll want to replace damaged wires with quality tinned copper marine wire of the appropriate gauge. Sharp bends in wire or abrasion against wood, metal or fiberglass can damage insulation as well as the wire inside. Pay attention to how wires are routed. Spliced wires—especially those “protected” with electrical tape—are a common source of problems. Pervasive moisture cannot be sealed out with electrical tape. Humidity and extremes of temperature common aboard a boat can also allow corrosion to occur. The more splices and connections you have, the greater the chance of added resistance to current flow. Extra bundles of wire, even tucked out of the way, has the same effect. You’ll want to minimize unnecessary wire and be sure that all connections are secure and sealed with corrosion inhibitor.
6. Eliminate Inline Fuses
Inline fuses for electrical accessories can also make it difficult to find, diagnose and fix problems—especially on the water. Spend more time with your line in the water than fishing around under the dash or console to find the problem wire/fuse by organizing your wiring system with a quality marine fuse block. These can use glass fuses or automotive style blade fuses. This helps minimize connections and organize the wiring system that delivers power to echosounders, VHF radios, wash down pumps and other accessories. Clearly label everything to make checks and replacements much easier for a specific piece of electronics.
7. Test all Lights
Regularly test and visually inspect all the lights on your boat including running lights, anchor light, cockpit courtesy lights, spreader lights, cabin lights, etc. If a bulb seems to be working intermittently, remove and inspect any non-working light. Replace if necessary. Be sure to clear any dirt or corrosion from the bulb socket, coat the base of the bulb lightly with dielectic grease and replace.
8. Bring Spares
Small problems can crop up from time to time, even in the best laid plans. Make a kit of spare items, and you might just be able to fix a small problem without having to take too much of your fishing time. Keep a small selection of glass and/or blade style fuses, bulbs, assorted marine wiring connectors, heat shrink tubing, tie wraps, electrical tape, multimeter, continuity tester and dielectric grease on hand.
For more information on electrical system tune ups, contact Actuant at 707-226-9600, or log on to www.marinco.com.