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October 25, 2001

Retrofitting Electrical Outlets

Updating your boat's power system will maximize the performance of its accessories while minimizing the risk of electrical damage.

What happens when electricity and water mix unexpectedly? The thought of being personally involved in such a combination is enough to stand your hair on end. Yet fishing and its activities often require electrical outlets in open cockpits where electricity and water may well wed. The solution lies in using the right type of electrical outlet and placing it smartly.
Most marine supply houses offer a selection of electrical outlets and everything you need to install them. Resist any temptation to visit automotive or regular hardware stores when shopping for marine outlets and wiring. Their products aren't designed to withstand the saltwater marine environment. Marine outlets use a rubber-covered plug with copper split pins to avoid corrosion as well as a chrome-plated brass receptacle for a safe and long-lasting installation. The receptacle should include a splash cover to keep out water when not in use.
Choose a plug-and-socket combination rated for the amp load of the most power-hungry accessory that you'll use with it. The amp draw should be printed on the accessory's label or listed in its owner's manual. The manual should also recommend the minimum wire size that should be used between the receptacle and battery. The longer the wiring run, the larger the wire size required for less resistance. I recommend using marine-grade, stranded copper wiring a size or two larger than recommended for an absolute minimum power loss. Marine-grade wiring, sheathed in insulation designed to resist salt and UV damage, often has a finer grade of stranded copper. Solder any wire splices and cover them with marine-grade shrink tubing. This makes them about as efficient at moving current as an unspliced wire. Avoid crimped-on butt connectors. After solidly connecting wires to the receptacle, coat the connections with a permanent waterproof material like StarBrite's liquid electrical tape.
Protect against short circuits by wiring fuses or circuit breakers as close to the battery or power buss as possible. Follow the fuse or breaker amp rating recommended by the accessory's manufacturer. If you can't find a rating, a rule of thumb for computing one is to multiply the amp draw of the device by 1 1/3.
As a standard precaution, try to route the wires for your new receptacle away from cables connected to sensitive electronics like sounders, radios and navigation receivers. Always label new wires at the power source, at the receptacle and anywhere between where you have access to wiring bundles. If you ever have to hunt down a problem, you'll be glad you spent the few extra minutes to clearly mark each wire.
Mount receptacles where they aren't going to be submerged. They should be as close as possible to where your plug-in accessories will be used, but where no one will bump into them or snag their plugs and wires while fishing. The wire between the plug and the accessory must be long enough to accommodate the full range of movement needed while fishing. This will prevent jerking the plug out of the socket while fighting fish.
Mounting location selection may be limited by access to the back side of the mounting surface. Always make sure that there are no wires, plumbing or structural members behind the chosen spot before you start drilling. In cases where there isn't access, you may be able to install an aftermarket access port that allows you to reach both the back side of the desired receptacle location and the wires coming from the battery.
When drilling through fiberglass, always use gentle pressure and a slow drill speed to start a hole without splintering the smooth surface. You can apply more pressure and speed up the drill after the bit gets through the gel-coat. I've had good results using a large bit after making a pilot hole with a smaller bit, or by using a hole saw with a built-in pilot bit. I select the bit size that I think will work and drill a test hole through a piece of scrap wood. Holes in fiberglass are expensive to repair, so be sure before you drill.
If the receptacle doesn't come with a gasket to seal it against the bulkhead, add a thin bead of a marine sealer like 3M's 4200 around the edge of the hole. When you anchor it in place with mounting screws, put a dot of sealer in each screw hole before running the screw into it. The type of sealer is important. The 4200 product is about half as strong as 3M's 5200, which is designed for permanent bonding.
An occasional spray with a corrosion inhibitor like Corrosion-X will keep a receptacle's sockets and a plug's pins clean and ready to work.