In this last piece of my four-part tool series, I want to share what I have in my bag dedicated to all things electric. These are the basics, but they handle most everything I might work on. They do not include specialty parts, such as one would carry if installing a NEMA network between engine ECM and a new Garmin multifunction display.
I still have a butane-powered soldering iron, but it is does not get used very often these days. (There was a time when a soldered connection was king, but that is no longer the case. The use of marine PIDG terminals provides the most reliable mechanical connection. PIDG stands for Pre-Insulated Diamond Grip, and if you inspect the inside of these terminals, you will notice that they are much more than simple sleeves to push a wire into.
Perhaps you can relate, but much like my soldering iron, many of my mechanic and electrical tools and fasteners are decades old, some going back to my days living aboard a Tahiti ketch in Seattle in the 1970s. You know you are getting old when your 30-year-old heat gun disintegrates when you turn it on. It is a sign of the times, though, as some tools simply wear out, or need replacement with newer models and technology.
I duplicate some of the tools from my mechanic’s bag. Screwdrivers, pliers, and cutters are needed for electrical work as well, so I carry them in both bags.
This bag and its contents have worked well for me for many years. It is easy to grab and take to the job at hand.
It should not be a surprise that I carry a digital multimeter and clamp-on ammeter, both used for all sorts of measurements and tests. I have not even begun to understand all the many ways to utilize such valuable instruments, but they serves my basic needs just fine. I could have bought a much cheaper multimeter, but Fluke’s reputation for quality and ruggedness is legenday. It is money well spent, I think, especially if I need help from a more knowledgeable technician, who can use them in ways beyond my knowledge and experience.
The infrared thermometer comes in handy most often in the engine room. I carry it in the electrical bag as it is easy to grab. I figure it is better protected in this bag of delicate instruments rather than sitting under heavy wrenches and hand tools.
These four screwdrivers are essential for most all electrical projects. While Torx, hex, and other fasteners have moved onto center stage for many applications, the traditional slotted or Phillips screw remains the standard on terminal strips, connectors, and switches. Could not do much without these screwdrivers.
An assortment of wire cutters, strippers, diagonal cutters, crimpers, and pliers. I use them all regularly.
Some tools make all the difference between an enjoyable boat project and a nightmare. Ask anyone who buys a used boat. Behind every locker and cabinet there is the potential for a nasty mess of wires accumulated over the years.
The yellow voltage tester quickly identifies when a circuit is hot, a great help when working on a boat or to determine what is controlled by which switch on an electrical panel.
The wire tracker is a wonderful tool, available from many companies. I remember years ago going aboard friends’ new-to-them trawler, a vintage 1970s Taiwan cruising boat that had several prior owners. The attention to detail in the electrical system was appalling. Open any locker would reveal spooled or cut wires, possibly from old stereo or other equipment. Remember 8-track tape players?
Another fond memory was touring a guy’s cruising boat. The chaos of wires streaming across and around the engine room (some in the bilge) was so counter to the best practices of ABYC’s electrical standards that it struck me as hilarious when I heard he was hired as a technical editor.
Upgrading your electronics package? Sure, go ahead, just snip the wires in the harness that disappear into a bulkhead. You won’t need them anymore, and no one will ever wonder about the other end of those wires that now serve no purpose other than crowding other wire terminals ganged onto a stud. No worries, vibration will loosen them all one day. It will be fun.
The wire tracker connects to one end of a wire and the small, handheld tracking pen quickly lets you know when you get near the other end of the wire. From the helm down into the engine room, it is about the only way to identify both ends of a wire, and is most helpful.
Cleaning up the wiring of a trawler or sailboat has been a necessary task on every used boat I have owned. In the end, however, removing old wiring, adding terminals strips to reduce the number of connections per stud, and generally cleaning up the confusion of wires is a great cause of satisfaction of boat ownership for me.
This is what I found behind the flybridge console of my new boat when trying to troubleshoot a chart plotter that worked intermittently. The boat was only a few years old, but clearly, every installer just picked the closest place to get power without regard to other considerations.
I doubt many ABYC-certified technicians worked on this boat.
Above are common electrical connectors you may have on a boat. The twist-on wire nuts (Top Left) have no place on a boat and are, in fact, strictly prohibited by the ABYC E-11 standards for electrical systems.
The vinyl insulated terminals (Left) are by far the most common available in hardware and other stores. Available in kits, three-packs, and bulk, these terminals are cheap, easy to use with standard crimping tools, although it is not always easy to tell if a good crimp was made. (A good tug on the wire helps.) These terminals also have no protection from the elements, so are best used in protected areas. They are not good to use in engine rooms, for instance. With the other choices now available, I have been moving away from using them.
Nylon insulated terminals (Top Right) have insulation that allows one to see if a good crimp was made, and the insulation is more resistant to UV, oil, and chemicals than vinyl terminals. To correctly install them, and they come with a variety of terminal ends, one should use a double crimp tool. The first crimp ensures a good electrical connection, while the second crimp secures the wire in the insulation to provide strain relief. Like the vinyl terminals, they also don’t seal against moisture. But they are fine for the right application and location.
Terminals with heat shrink insulation with adhesive (Right) are the better terminal for use on a boat. Using a single crimp tool, the quality of the crimp can be seen through the insulation, and when heat is applied to the insulation, it shrinks around the wire. Adhesive creates a waterproof seal as well as strain relief to the wire. While these are more expensive and not usually found outside of marine stores, they are the favored way to make electrical connections on a boat. Using captive ring or spade type connectors that match the diameter of the stud, heat shrink terminals are considered the best for permanent connections. On large jobs, however, they are time consuming to install.
Also available are heat shrink solder and crimp terminals, which are even better for the ultimate connection. But I do not see them for sale very often and they require additional effort to correctly melt the solder onto the wire.
Many marine stores sell Ancor or other premium brand kits of these heat shrink insulated terminals in the most common sizes and styles. They are color coded for the appropriate wire size. It pays to have a kit like this on your boat, refilling as necessary if you buy the most used terminals in bulk.
I try to buy and use products like this that are made in the U.S. In the case of the Ancor brand, I even use the company’s ratcheting crimping tools that are perfectly matched to Ancor terminal products.
Two ratcheting crimping tools that belong in every electrical bag. The one on the left is a double crimp tool, which puts two crimps on a vinyl or nylon insulated terminal at the same time for good electrical connection and strain relief. It ratchets close and only opens when the right amount of pressure is applied, ensuring a good crimp.
The one on the right is my new replacement single crimp tool for use on heat shrink terminals. It is superior to the automotive tool it replaced, and ideal for my current needs. The crimping action is smooth and strong. I now try to use heat shrink terminals as often as possible, as they are just the best way to make a connection.
A suitable heat source for heat shrink tubing or terminals can be found in an electric heat gun or butane torch. On larger projects where I will be doing a number of these connections, it is worth locating a 110VAC outlet to power the heat gun. This newer heat gun is the replacement for one that fell apart, and I am quite happy with how much nicer it works.
Another jewel of technology is a small butane mini torch, a much better alternative to the old standby of a disposable BIC lighter, which never seem to last long on a boat anyway. Once it is lit, it can be set to stay on for hands-free use. It is ideal for times when you just have a small number of terminals to shrink, especially somewhere on the boat far from an electrical outlet.
Cable ties have so many uses they are indispensable for every boat owner. They are perfect for keeping wires neat and tidy, which is important. It is best to use black cable ties, however, ideally ones with UV protection. White cable ties break down quickly in the sun and heat of the tropics, and while even black ties need to be replaced every so often when exposed to the sun, they last a good deal longer.
An example of squared away wiring that originally looked like so much spaghetti (see previous image). As we identified wires and removed ones no longer connected, we added the terminal strip block to provide more connection options. If I wanted to take this to the next level, I would coat the terminals with a dab of liquid electric tape or use heat shrink terminals instead. But this is up under a flybridge helm, and the chances of this area getting wet are slim.
Other odds and ends in my bag include a razor knife, a tube of dielectric silicone grease, some fine sandpaper (for cleaning off terminals and connectors), and yet another LED work light. These items have earned a place to stay in the bag.
You may notice I have mentioned ABYC several times during this article. As a former member of the board of directors of the American Boat and Yacht Council, I fully understand the value and critical nature of the work of this organization, which is dedicated to making boats stronger, better, and safer. I have talked to marine professionals around the world who swear by the practices documented in the ABYC guidelines, which are followed globally.
I intend to introduce more of these guidelines, to raise the knowledge level of boat owners who take their cruising boats seriously. There is usually a “best” way to do something on a boat, so why not learn how to do it right. And when you are shopping for your next cruising boat, look for companies building to these standards.
Whether you are planning the Great Loop, serious world cruising, or simply enjoying a season in the tropics or wilderness, having a well-found and reliable cruising boat makes it way more fun. Trust me, when a job is done properly, there is no lingering need for worry or anxiety. It has been taken care of, using the right tools and following the practices that combine the knowledge and expertise of the best in the marine industry.
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