Troubleshooting a Boat’s Basic Electrical ProblemsModern outboard engines are far more high-tech and complicated than those manufactured just a few years ago. But even with this state-of-the-art equipment, most things that can go wrong with engine and on-board electrical equipment can be simply diagnosed and fixed by the boat owner or renter. Electrical system troubleshooting can be tackled by developing an elementary understanding of electrical systems and terms, some basic skills, simple tools, and caution. 

Before attempting any electrical system troubleshooting, the best initial step boat owners or renters can take is to review the owner’s manual or manufacturer specifications for system information, system safeguards, and safety measures. This information details the steps to take, in logical order, for performing troubleshooting and provides critical data which will make any troubleshooting effort easier and less time consuming. 

Also, remember that the owner’s manual likely provides the standardized marine wire color codes that identify each circuit on your boat. While electrical problems caused by wiring may be inevitable, isolating the cause can be much easier by understanding the wiring color code scheme on the boat. The common wire color used throughout a particular circuit allows an electrical issue to be quickly isolated and corrected.

Interestingly, boat electrical systems break down more often from the failure of some mechanical (rather than electrical) connection issue, like a parted wire splice, a frayed wire, a loose connection, or a missing or loose screw. Each of these can interrupt electricity flow, causing equipment to not work at all or to operate at less than optimum levels. Electrical problems are usually the most common reasons for engines that do not start or for auxiliary equipment that will not power up. In most cases, presuming the battery has a full or almost full charge, issues can be readily traced, repaired, and the boat prepared for a voyage. 

As with any work involving electrical systems, safety is the first priority. All common safeguards (like eye, face, and hand protection, for example), grounded tools, and special procedures for working on battery and related equipment in a marine environment should be closely followed. 

Basic Electric Terms to Know

Understanding a few electrical terms is the first step in developing electrical troubleshooting skills. The most common are described below.

Load: Any onboard equipment that uses electric current, such as a light, depth finder, radio, heater, pump motor, etc.

Ohm: A unit for measuring electrical resistance in a wire or cable. 

Ampere (Amp): A measure of the amount of current flowing through a medium. The medium is normally a wire, but could be bilge water or the water surrounding a boat. 

Volt: A unit measuring the difference in current between one side of a load and the other. The force that pushes the current through the circuit is the power difference, not the power itself. 

Resistance: The opposition to electricity flowing through a wire, created by wire material, diameter, and length. Longer wire and a smaller diameter increase resistance. 

Closed Circuit: A circuit providing a complete uninterrupted path between the positive and negative battery terminals of the battery.

Open Circuit: A circuit with an interrupted path between the positive and negative battery terminals. 

Short Circuit: An unintended direct connection between positive and negative battery terminals, allowing current to bypass the load, usually caused by a faulty switch. Short circuits create a fire hazard by putting an excessive load on a circuit not designed to handle the increased load.

Ground Fault (or Leak): A condition which allows a lower resistance path to ground somewhere other than the actual ground wire. Insulated bilge pump wires immersed in water are a common cause. 

Troubleshooting Techniques 

If the electrical system is causing trouble, consider the following tips to find the cause and a fix: 

  • Ensure battery is fully charged and then activate the switch that tilts the outboard up and down one time. If operating at usual speed, plenty of battery power should be available.
  • If the engine still will not start, the next step is to ensure that the throttle is in the neutral position (most engines will not start if in gear). Even if it looks right, shift in/out of gear a few times to be absolutely certain the throttle is on neutral before cranking. 
  • If the throttle checks out, inspect the battery and starter cable connections; corrosive material on the battery or on the cables/connections may be the cause. Remove the cables, thoroughly clean the connections, reattach the cables, and then start.  
  • If the starter cranks but does not start the engine, the helm kill switch could be the cause. This switch connects the ignition to the operator’s wrist and is designed to shut off (or kill) the engine if the operator becomes incapacitated. Especially for switches mounted horizontally on the helm, water can pool around the button and eventually cause a short. On most boats, it can be disabled by disconnecting the yellow-striped back wire leading to the switch.

Checking the electrical system components listed below may be of help in performing troubleshooting. 

Batteries

  • Acid (electrolyte) level is up to plastic liner inside holes (if the battery is a wet cell) 
  • Specific gravity in each cell is within tolerances identified in owner’s manual 
  • Engine cranks properly for five seconds with each battery (if equipped with two or more)      
  • Battery top(s), connections, and cables are clean and sealed from moisture 

Wiring & Connections

  • Connection contact surfaces are clean and coated with moisture-resisting sealant 
  • No frayed or cracked insulation (check bilge and engine compartment) 
  • Battery switch connections are clean and sealed 
  • Fuses have clean, tight, sealed contacts 

Alternator & Starter 

  • With the engine running, check that voltage remains constant as more equipment is activated 
  • Brushes and slip rings are clean and in good condition 
  • Bearings or bushings in good condition 
  • External connections are clean, sealed from moisture, and positive terminals covered 
  • Alternator drive belt(s) are tight and in good shape 
  • Starter solenoid plunger is clean and lubricated and contacts are clean 

Miscellaneous Items to Check

  • Ensure that compasses are not affected by equipment operation — set out on course legs that use perpendicular headings (for example, north and west) 
  • Radio, radar units, and other equipment operate properly when other equipment is on 
  • Transducers and other in-water equipment is free of marine growth  

Applying some common sense, safety precautions and developing a basic understanding of electricity can allow boaters to tackle electrical system troubleshooting without professional mechanic involvement.