When my boat was delivered to its first owner way back in 1979, it was almost up to date electrically. There were two issues, however: first, all the wiring was black. Two, it is clear the designers had no clue what the future would bring.
The need for more electrical energy to serve new pumps, motors, electronics, and lighting devices that came to market as the boat aged overwhelmed the functional, but limited, distribution systems-both AC and DC. So, owners took the easy route and jury-rigged to feed power to new equipment as it came aboard.
When I bought the 42 Grand Banks in 1990, I quickly found that someone had added engine room lighting using zip cord, which might be OK for lamps at home, but not on a boat. I yanked out lengths of solid copper Romex-again, a product designed for home construction.
When the DC distribution panel filled up, new 12-volt breakers were patched into open spaces on the AC panel. As systems were renewed and replaced, some panel switches and gauges were removed, leaving gaping holes to be covered with electrical tape.
Later, as electricians tore into the tangle of wiring behind the helm, other problems appeared, including wires that had been stacked on the outlet side of circuit breakers (a bad habit). A label indicated that a circuit breaker served a heating fan, for example, but we found other wires sharing the same post. Where did those wires go? And what boat device did they power?
Because everything worked properly, my boat-improvement efforts usually focused on other needs. But then I read a blog by Steve D'Antonio, PMM's technical editor and also an in-demand marine consultant and friend. (To view Steve's blog, see www.stevedmarineconsulting.com/blog/index.)
Steve focused on a topic of great interest to me: how to make full use of both engine-driven alternators to charge a large bank of house batteries. On most twin-engine boats, including mine, one alternator gets the herculean task of charging those batteries while the other works a few seconds to charge the starting batteries and then snoozes the rest of the day.
I needed to put both alternators to work, I decided. The rest of the electrical system cried out for help, too, so I spent the fall months of last year drafting a plan: the 12-year-old but reliable Heart 2000 inverter would be replaced simply because of its age, new AC and DC distribution panels would be installed, and the existing engine alternators would receive external regulators and some other electronic gadgets that would put both to work charging the house batteries. The goal was to have all the improvements complete well before my mid-May departure for Southeast Alaska.
Theoretically, I knew how to do the job. But common sense told me I should stay in the office doing my kind of work and sign up the pros.
OUT WITH THE OLD
I called on First Mate Marine, whose owner, Bob Dickey, had done good work earlier on heating and plumbing projects aboard Quadra. He and Sam Maynard, a marine electrician who also builds and drives electric vehicles, set to work in early December.
The Heart inverter was the first item to go. I chose a Magnum Energy 2,800-watt pure sine wave inverter/battery charger because of Magnum's reputation for producing quality products (and because they manufacture them in Everett, Washington, not far from my home). The Magnum, which has a 125-amp battery charger, bolted into the space occupied by the Heart for many years, and the existing main cables fit and were the proper size. But it wasn't all that simple, and every time I checked in, I felt moments of pride for being smart enough not to have tried doing the work myself.
The Magnum includes a battery temperature sensor, which the old Heart did not offer. Sam and Bob also installed a Magnum battery monitor, but I miss the Heart monitor, which provided information in a simple, easy-to-understand format. This may simply reflect my many years of using the Heart monitor; I expect I'll soon grow accustomed to the more complex Magnum.
Warming to the project, we moved on to replacement of the AC and DC circuit breaker panels. I chose Blue Sea panels because I liked small Blue Sea panels I had used on other electrical projects and because of endorsements by others.
And, I have to admit, because they fit.
The existing cutouts for the boat's AC and DC panels are 10.5 inches wide, and Blue Sea makes a variety of standard panels that also are 10.5 inches wide. So, no carpentry required. (Also, there was another "homer" issue-Blue Sea is based in Bellingham, Washington, about 40 miles from my boat. This was an advantage when we needed some special parts and unusual labels.)
It was not fun listening to Sam mutter and moan as he struggled through the maze of wiring beneath the helm in search of the back side of the distribution panels. He found poor connections with strands of wire exposed, sloppily done butt connectors, loose lock nuts, and a whole lot of black wiring whose function could not be determined easily. Sam tagged every wire once he'd identified it. Some of the groaning was the result of faulty work of mine, I have to admit. But I pretended otherwise.
BETTER AND SIMPLER
While Sam identified, labeled, and disconnected, Bob customized the Blue Sea panels. On the AC side, he had to isolate a block of breakers that would serve inverter-powered fixtures, including two refrigerators, the freezer, galley outlets, and some electronic items. Other AC consumers, including built-in electric heaters, the galley range, and the water heater, were wired so that they would be powered only by the generator or shorepower.
On the DC panel, custom work isolated the bilge pumps and the watermaker's freshwater flush system from the master on-off switch, allowing them to always be "on." We also made major changes in the engines' start-and-stop circuits.
Grand Banks' method of engine control in 1979 (and later, too) required four circuit breakers and four push buttons-two for start and two for stop-all on the DC panel. A subsequent owner added on-off keys. Mounted in the electrical panel left of and below the helm, the start controls were cumbersome to use, and all those switches and push buttons took up too much space.
We earmarked one new DC breaker for engine starting and a second to control the engine-stop solenoids. Sam and Bob put Sea Dog keyed start switches on the main instrument panel and moved the "stop" push buttons to that panel. No longer do I need to stretch and grope blindly for the start controls with one hand while managing the throttle with the other. Much better!
I could have ordered custom distribution panels, and I worried about the cost of the modifications Bob and Sam performed because of the time required. Bob said he believed I was dollars ahead despite the time he spent customizing the off-the-shelf Blue Sea panels.
Sam and Bob wound up their panel replacement work in late December. They were committed to another major project early in the year and recommended I contract with Steve Tiefisher, long a fixture in the yacht-repair business in Anacortes, for modification of the battery-charging systems. Steve had worked on Quadra before, so that was an easy decision.
I had decided to use Balmar products and had become comfortable with the expensive idea that the project would include replacing the existing Leece-Neville 90-amp alternators. Steve dropped into the engine room and said nope, they were just fine.
He removed the internal regulators from the alternators and mounted Balmar external regulators on the forward bulkhead, along with a device Balmar calls a "centerfielder," which combines the output of the alternators.
That job was complicated, involving some new wiring and system fuses, and I praised myself again for being wise enough to stick with my office keyboard. Steve recommended some additional electrical work in the engine room, but I had already eaten up my boat repair and maintenance budget for the year (and next year's, too). We agreed to look into it later.
When the work was done and the engines were started, Steve measured a combined flow of 175 amps to the house bank (six L16 batteries with a capacity of 1,125 ampere hours). Wow!
During an afternoon and overnight on the anchor, Quadra's systems will draw 200-250 amp hours or more, depending on ambient temperature. With the new system, the engine alternators will charge the batteries in a couple of hours of cruising, significantly reducing generator run time.
What have I gained? Least important is that the AC and DC panels look Bristol and up to date, and that's not bad for a 31-year-old boat. Most important is that flaws and shortcomings have been removed or corrected, and the electrical system now is safe, reliable, and efficient.