Electrically organized Page 2

Panel upgrade

Probably the most difficult task in upgrading a panel is identifying all the electrical devices currently connected to it. Start by turning off the battery switch or, better, disconnecting the positive cables from all the batteries to prevent an electrical shock. You should also disconnect the shore-power cord. Once you are sure the electrical system is not energized, remove the existing electrical panel(s) and try to identify all of the wiring leading to each breaker. Label each wire with tape so it can be easily identified when wiring the new panel. Identifying each wire may take some creative detective work since it’s likely that the wires will have been stacked.

If you are careful, you can temporarily reconnect the battery cables, turn on the master switch, and then turn on individual breakers and see which devices work and which don’t. Take care when you do this to avoid shorting any wires or shocking yourself. Twelve volts of DC current can inflict severe burns or may even kill you.

Once you’ve sorted out the wires and the devices they belong to, make a list of all the electrical components you have identified. Then, using the owner’s manual, the manufacturer’s Web site, or the label on the device itself, write down the required amperage or breaker size for each component on your list. Also estimate required breaker sizes for any electrical gadgets you might purchase in the future, and add a few “spare” entries to your list.

Now inventory the amperages of the existing breakers in your current electrical panel(s) to see how they match up with your list of required breaker loads. The breaker amperage is usually written on the side of the breaker, so you may need to remove some breakers from the panel to determine their amperage ratings.

With your electrical-equipment list and breaker inventory complete, you can determine how many additional breakers (plus spares for the future) you will need. This guidance will ensure your new panel has a sufficient number of breakers to cover both current and future needs. You may find that in some cases you have breakers you can’t use because they are the wrong amperage for your equipment. Since almost all panel manufacturers use standard breaker dimensions, you should be able to remove a breaker and screw in a new one of proper amperage.

Once you’ve chosen a new electrical panel, the installation process can begin. Each installation is unique, but all are based on these guidelines:

  • There should be sufficient open space behind the panel’s face for components and wiring.
  • Make sure there is a way to access and run new wiring to the panel.
  • Make sure the space behind the new panel is protected from items being thrown or dropped on it from above or behind.
  • Locate the panel in a place easily accessed from the front and where it will not be obstructed by sails or other gear.
  • Make sure the new panel is in a dry location.
  • Any new panel must have overload protection. A master overload-protection breaker can be located either at the battery bank or on the new breaker panel itself, which is the most common practice today.
  • Follow the ABYC recommendations for wire sizes and color codes. Go to ABYC standards and/or Blue Sea Systems for information. Note that yellow-coated wire is now a recommended alternative to black-coated wire for DC grounds on boats with AC wiring (to avoid confusion over colors).
  • With careful planning and panel selection, upgrading your boat’s electrical panel(s) will reduce potential problems and make using the electrical devices on your boat safer and more enjoyable.

    Semicustom and custom electrical panels:

    Bass Products,

    Blue Sea Systems

    Front Panel Express


    Mobile Marine Electrical Service



    Custom electronic panels

    Sometimes electrical upgrades require a custom panel that your budget cannot accommodate. If you have the time, you can design and build a new panel. I decided to build a custom panel when I rewired my boat, and my first experiment with wood gave new meaning to the word ”homemade.” It was clear to me that using an architectural-grade plastic (polycarbonate or acrylic) or aluminum was a better solution, but would require access to a machine shop. After some Internet research, I discovered a company called Front Panel Express, which will make custom-machined panels of almost any size in either aluminum or plastic. Even better, they provide free design software that you download to your PC; from this you can select the material, color, size, and thickness of your desired panel.

    The software is easy to use and includes many great features; for example, you can create complex cutouts for electrical outlets, instruments, and breakers and insert them over and over again as necessary. When your design is complete, the software will price it. The pricing shows the cost of each element of the panel, so you can lower the price by changing individual elements—for example, the amount of text you choose to have engraved on the panel. In some cases you may want to use “sticky” labels, available from most marine retailers or online suppliers, for the actual breaker labels so you can repurpose your breakers as your needs change.

    Once the panel is complete, send your design via e-mail (or mail a disk) to Front Panel Express. The design file is converted to a control file for a computer-controlled milling machine that produces your design to exact specifications. The process is nearly 100 percent automated, so the panels are reasonably priced.

    The entire process is fast and easy, and the results are extremely professional looking. I am so pleased with my new panel that I’m now planning to install a new main panel, an instrument panel for the nav station, a windlass control panel, and a bilgepump control/counter panel.

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