ELECTRICAL DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM:
Normally, the owner of a new boat does not need to worry about
the on-board electrical distribution system: nowadays it is to be expected that
the yard will do a decent job, in line with state-of-the-art technologies and in
compliance with European technical standards.
A proper electrical
distribution panel aboard Shaula3 (Alubat OVNI 385)
The situation can be totally different in the case of boats
built before the coming into force of the European regulation, at a time when a
boat's electrical system was supposed to power only the nav-lights and little
more, as it has been the case for us with Shaula4:
Other times, other sensibility to the needs of a well-done electrical distribution system: the spaghetti-like wiring behind the panel in Shaula4!
Keeping in mind the good practices seen on Shaula3 and making
reference to the european Regulation, with the help of good manuals such as
Nigel Calder's excellent "Boatowner's Mechanical and Electrical
Manual", we have been able to perform a thorough rebuild of the electrical
The instrument panel
and the electrical distribution panel on Shaula4 at the end of the refurbishing
An orderly distribution system, with properly-sized wires and quality switches and breakers, fulfills several objectives:
We spoke before about battery dimensioning, but not about the
choice of battery TYPE, e.g. Lead-Acid, AGM, GEL or other even more exotic ones?
The battery bank on Shaula3: just 4
Lead-Acid-Silver "low-maintenance" batteries
Books have been written about this subject, so there is no point in repeating the whole story here; we debated the subject quite a lot at the time of Shaula3 preparation for long-distance sailing, given the potential for rough sailing there was a point in favour of GEL batteries, much less prone to spilling acid substances in case of capsize. Unfortunately there are also drawbacks, beginning with the very high price and continuing with the need of dedicated charging devices.
In the end, we opted for the simplest solution: common
automotive-like "low-maintenance" batteries, cheap and perfectly fitting in the
available space. During the circumnavigation one battery
failed, possibly as a belated consequence of our capsize in the Caribbean, and
we had to wait until Australia to replace it. We had no other
problem, and at the end of the voyage the batteries, which had been cycled at
least 1000 times, were replaced with a modest expenditure: is it really worth it
to go for more complex and expensive solutions?
Rules are clear: both the 220V shore-power feed (and, if
present, gensets or inverters) as well as the 12V feed coming from the
batteries, must have breakers or fuses capable of interrupting the current flow
in case of a short-circuit. It's important that these
devices are as close as possible near the power source, but this must be
reconciled with the devices' accessibility: a manual switch buried under a bunk
would not be very useful in a hurry!!
The rules require a differential breaker within 50cm. from the shore-power socket, and battery cut-off switches as close as possible to the batteries themselves, provided they are easily accessible
Problem is that the cable from the battery terminals to the
switch cannot be disconnected in case of a short-circuit, so the ideal would be
to put a fuse on the wire, as near the battery as realistically feasible.
Even better would be an automatic breaker, which could be restored much more
quickly in case of a "nuisance tripping"
Even on a very simple boat, at least a Volt-meter and possibly
an Ammeter would be very useful to keep an eye on the batteries' charge status
and the speed of charge/recharge; since some years more sophisticated
instruments have become common, providing a somewhat more comprehensive picture
of each battery bank's charge status, including Amp-hours supplied or received,
% of charge, time-to-discharge, and so on. Essential? No, but
useful for sure!
Battery management instrument (left) and (Right) an electric-leakage detector
On a metal-hulled boat there is another essential instrument: a detector of electric leakages towards the hull.
Why it is so important? Because if the electrical circuits are in contact with the hull, there may be stray currents flowing through the water, causing electrolythic corrosion! Besides, if the leak concerns the 220V circuits, the hull may become "hot", endangering the crew as well as people swimming near the boat.
Last Update: 07/09/2017
Shaula4 website (text and images) by Gianfranco Balducci is licensed under a