Yacht Electrical Systems - Basic Overview & Useful Resources

Dimitris Tsapis
May 8, 2021

Yacht electrical systems are often overlooked. This can come from intimidation, lack of knowledge, or fear of accidents. For the most part, however, it is the result of lacking the expertise to deal with issues that arise.

Yes, yacht engineers may be the experts when it comes to everything below deck, but not all are qualified to operate as electricians. Due to this, boat owners often outsource such tasks to local contractors.

However, involving third parties is not always necessary. Very often, a basic understanding of the boat’s electrical systems will help you troubleshoot and resolve small issues before they turn into big problems. All you need, in this case, is an organized overview of the things you need to pay attention to. And that’s exactly why we created this post.

The goal of this article is to give you a high-level understanding of your vessel’s electrical systems. This way, you will be able to turn from reactive to proactive, eliminating any and all potential issues that can be prevented.

In the next few chapters, we will discuss four areas you should focus on, and some useful resources to help you learn how to handle them properly. Hence, it might be best for you to bookmark this article for future reference. Let’s delve in!

Contents

1.Learn how to use the right tools

yacht electrical systems

An engineer’s ability to discover and resolve electrical issues is directly linked with the tools he uses. There are several tools that are important for this. You will usually find them in the form of a “basic toolkit”, which includes things like wire-cutters, a crimper, a multimeter, a wire stripper, among others.

The most important tool among them, and the one you should definitely learn how to use, is the multimeter.

The multimeter is one of the most critical tools to have on your boat to keep yourself self-sufficient for troubleshooting. It is fairly simple in its use, and common among all types of electricians. The following video gives a great overview of the way you should use it on your boat.

2.Yacht electrical systems - Start from the battery

One of the first and most important things you need to learn is the types of batteries on your vessel, and how you should go about maintaining them. Start from this guide to get a better understanding of the different types of batteries and what is required for their maintenance.

To ensure that your batteries and charging station are working as they are supposed to, you need to be aware of their “normal” state. To establish this baseline, start by tracking your battery levels during different parts of the day (morning, mid-day, night), and collect data based on different weather conditions (windy, rainy, sunny). Then also check if the charging stations are operating the way they are supposed to. This way, you will be able to identify when the levels of your battery are out of the norm, which in turn will help you spot what caused the irregularity.

Here are some useful questions to answer when it comes to your battery system:

  • What type of batteries does your vessel have and what is their current condition?
  • Are the battery connections well-maintained and clean?
  • Is the battery system properly enclosed and secured?
  • Is it possible that the battery is overcharged or overfilled?
  • Does your vessel have a secondary, starter battery?
  • If you have a separate starter, can it be paired with your main battery in case of an emergency?

The answers to these questions will help you determine the current condition of your yacht electrical systems, while also save time for contractors that may be called to do some work on board.

Of course, batteries are just a small part of the total. To get a better understanding of the basics of electrical systems on board, it might be a good idea to take a seminar that delves into all the important aspects. We managed to find a great 6-part recorded seminar on Youtube that educates boaters on marine electrical basics. The videos are free to watch and filled with useful tips and information to help you get a better understanding of your vessel’s electrical components. Note that the educational part starts at the second video of the series.

3.Dealing with corrosion

By now you should have gained some basic knowledge of the tools and skills you need to tackle problems related to yacht electrical systems. At this point, you will want to learn how to spot and deal with corrosion issues, in order to save yourself time, money, and unnecessary stress. Thankfully, this can easily be done in a DIY fashion, as you can mostly troubleshoot the issue on your own.

Corrosion is one of your most feared enemies onboard. It is important that you know what to look for and learn to identify situations that can lead to it. A common quote among marine electricians is that, if a marine electrical problem occurs, it is 90% of the time a result of corrosion. 
Due to this, most electrical issues can be resolved if you simply learn how to spot and deal with corrosion. As mentioned above, it is also a great way to save money and time, as you will cancel out this possibility before calling expensive contractors. 

yacht electrical systems


If you have at least some basic experience in yacht electrical systems will most likely be able to spot the cause of a problem if you have an adequate understanding of how to use the multimeter. In many cases, all that needs to be done is clean up the corrosion, put everything back in its place, and check to see if everything works properly. 

We recommend reading through this article, to get a better understanding of the issues leading to corrosion and how to deal with them.

4.When to call in an expert

It is important to note that experts in this particular field are either ABYC-certified marine electricians or trained in RCD and ISO standards (Europe). If you can’t find someone with these particular certifications, then at least try to find someone with adequate experience in marine-based electricity systems. Land-based electricians may be experts in their field, but can often cause more problems than repairs when working on your vessel.

Knowing this, there are several occasions on which it is best to call an expert:

  • If you do not have the experience and expertise to resolve the issue at hand and are worried that your efforts may worsen the situation.
  • If the problem involves shore power and problems with wiring. Unless you are a qualified electrician, it might not be in your best interest to start rewiring the pedestal, transformer, or cables. Make the dockmaster aware of the issue and, if needed, call a yacht electrician.
  • In case of evidence pointing to electrical damage onboard. This includes things like burnt wires or melted parts. You can see most of them in the first part of the seminar we linked to in the video above.
  • If you notice early indications that could lead to a fire onboard (e.g. if you smell smoke). In this case, make sure to shut down all power sources, including the batteries. Then, call in an expert to help.
  • When dealing with AC shore power circuits, as they present a greater risk than DC circuits.

If you run into issues and do not have any contact information of marine engineers, it is best to ask your dockmaster for a list of marine electricians that you can reach out to.

Wrapping up

The aim of this article was to offer you a relative overview of yacht electrical systems and where you should pay attention to. To this end, the chapters above should give you a high-level overview of the things you can do to prevent issues from arising. 

The additional resources in the form of articles and videos are also a great way to enrich your knowledge of electrical systems. Whether you are an experienced engineer, or a new boat owner, knowing what to do to prevent electrical problems from arising adds to the diversity of your skillset.

Finally, if you have very specific issues or simply wish to learn more about the electrical systems of your yacht, it might be a good idea to join relevant yachting forums and Facebook groups, where you will be able to connect with like-minded boaters.