The second switch in the bilge pump circuit, corroded from…?

Probably the biggest project of “Electrical Month” – wiring and power distribution – was finally completed today.  I’m a firm believer in the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and some could argue that my power distribution panels weren’t broken, but I’d disagree.

To turn on the bilge pump (which had no automatic switching), I first had to turn on the “Sump Pump” breaker on the distribution panel (for the shower drain) and then pull an aftermarket switch labeled “bilge pump” bolted into the fiberglass bulkhead.

The deck light that lights up the foredeck of my boat was wired to the “Cabin Lighting” breaker and then to its own aftermarket “Deck Light” switch.

Inspecting all of these switches revealed bare wire, corrosion, and unprotected circuits – on top of no automatic bilge pump switching – that all presented a serious safety hazard.  Must rectify!

This whole thing started with the fact that I had no automatic bilge pump switch, i.e. if water entered my boat from somewhere and I wasn’t there to turn on the pump myself, the boat could sink.  This was a shocker even for small boat electrical systems, but it didn’t seem to be too important to any of the owners in the previous thirty years.

I purchased an Ultra Pumpswitch Senior that is essentially a floating magnet inside a plastic tube down in my bilge, protected from debris, and when the magnet floats high enough inside the tube it turns on the switch and activates the pump.  I didn’t want this switch on the breaker panel because I wanted it to always have battery power, even if  the master battery switch was turned off.

This meant that I’d have to wire it directly to the battery and install an inline fuse, something that can become a little messy and potentially unsafe with too many wires going directly to the battery terminals.

To address this, I installed a Blue Sea Systems Dual Battery Main Distribution Panel.  This is a battery isolation switch on a panel that also has protected circuits that are always connected to battery power, regardless of the position of the battery switch.

The isolation switch also isolates my starting battery from my house battery circuits, always ensuring that my starting battery has enough juice to start the motor with the option to combine all the batteries if needed.

I finished the bilge pump installation with a Rule three-way switch, enabling me to manually activate the bilge pump when desired.  Phew…there, now I have an automatic bilge pump.

Old isolation switch on the left with the new switch and bilge switch on the right. All that’s left is to refinish the teak bulkhead plug.

Now I had to do something about those corroded wires and piecemeal switch configurations.

I purchased separate AC and DC panels, also made from Blue Sea Systems, one of the leaders in marine electronics and boat wiring panels.  These panels have all the fancy backlit labels and LED indicator lights, but more importantly, the DC panel comes with a digital multimeter allowing me to monitor my battery charge state and amperage consumption.  It and my AC panel also have room for expansion, so I don’t have to keep adding random switches in random places about the boat.

After removing the old panel, I noticed some corrosion on some of the wires.  I never did nail down the source of the corrosion (more important than replacing them), but I’ll keep an eye on them.  I still got those wires replaced – another two days’ work – and would urge any used boat owner to inspect their wiring all the way from the batteries to the distribution panels to the load.

Electrical Panels

30-year old panels on the left with the new on the right. While I was working there, I noticed the table hinges needed some polishing too! My temporary cover for the old switches was a velcro pen holder. I’ll do something more permanent with it later.

This entire portion of my upgrades cost over $1,500, but since faulty wiring is the leading cause of boat fires, I didn’t want to skimp on quality or cut corners – that’s boat wiring basics!

Then again, I seem to be using that argument about every system.

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