Shore Power Changes Are Coming

Since 2011, efforts have been underway from both the building code side and from the boat building side to address safety issues due to stray electrical current in and around docks and marinas. The National Electrical Code Article 555 addresses electrical shock drownings caused by leakage of electrical current from A/C shore power facilities on docks and marinas.  Concurrently, the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC) section E-11.11 has made changes to address A/C power leakage from boats into surrounding waters that endanger people.

As marinas upgrade their facilities, they will be required by building code to add Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter (ELCI) ground fault protection breakers to shore power receptacles. ELCI-protected breakers are designed to ‘trip’ and turn-off power if an imbalance is detected between the power (amperage) going to the boat and returning back to the shore power receptacle. In the past, marina shore power receptacle breakers only protected wiring and cables from over-amperage. The new ELCI-protected breakers will trip, turning off power, if the boat incorrectly leaks amperage ortoo much amperage is consumed.

Newly built boats and older boats upgraded to current ABYC standards include ground fault protection with an onboard ELCI (sometimes known as an RCD – Residual Current Detector). In the past, a boat’s A/C breakers only protected wiring and cables from over-amperage problems. Onboard ELCI breakers now add electrical leakage protection to the boat.

How ELCI-Protected Power Might Affect You

Your first visit to a marina with upgraded shore power may require some extra time and effort. Fortunately, this is a one-time process, so once you have successfully connected to ELCI-protected shore power you can rest assured that your boat is ready for the next one.

Before attempting your first-time connection to ELCI-protect power, make sure you know how to reset the ELCI feature on the shore power receptacle. There are a variety of different ELCI-protected breaker configurations and the ELCI reset isn’t always easy to find – make sure it’s the ELCI reset as differentiated from the over-amperage reset.

Some breakers have a single “reset” position on the breaker toggle switch for resetting both the ELCI trip and the over-amperage trip. Others have two separate reset positions. Some ELCI-protected shore power installations have no ELCI reset at each power receptacle. Instead, they have one ELCI-protected breaker located at the power distribution panel providing power for a section of the marina. Any boat leaking excessive amperage within that section of the marina will trip the single ELCI-protected breaker, turning off power to all of the boats in that section of the marina, and marina staff will need to be notified to correct the problem.

First, try your usual connect and power-up sequence for shore power. If this works, great kick back and enjoy your now safer stay, knowing that your boat doesn’t have A/C power leakage issues.

If the ELCI breaker trips as soon as you bring shore power to your panel, then try some alternate sequences of turning switches and flipping breakers on your boat’s A/C power panel.

  • Turn off Shore power on your breaker panel.
  • Turn off all A/C panel breakers on your boat, including A/C breakers on the separate inverter panel if equipped. Also, turn off all main A/C and Inverter breakers (double-pole breakers – the ones where two breaker switches are tied together).
  • Reset the dockside ELCI breaker and then turn the breaker to ON.
  • If the ELCI-protected breaker trips again, you likely have a boat wiring issue that will need to be addressed by a marine electrician. You will need to find shore power without ELCI-protection or go without shore power until the problem is fixed.
  • If the ELCI-breaker has not tripped, then return to your boat’s breaker panel.
  • Switch the power source to Shore Power.
  • Try different sequences of turning main-double pole breakers on and individual circuit breakers on to discover what is causing the ELCI Breaker to trip. This may take some time as you will need to restart the process by resetting the on-shore ELCI breaker with each attempt. Having someone on the dock resetting the ELCI breaker helps to facilitate this trial and error process.

What is causing the ELCI Breaker to Trip?

Reverse Y-splitters (adapters that combine two 30 amp receptacles into one 50 amp or two 50 amp into one 100 amp) are a known source of ELCI-protected breaker problems and unless specifically designed for ELCI-protected power, will likely not work.

Marine inverters appear to be a possible source of inadvertent ELCI breaker issues. Properly installed marine inverters may trip the ELCI breaker if other onboard A/C breakers are switched on before the inverter completes its process of synchronizing with shore power. Marine inverters correctly tie or connect the boat’s neutral (white) A/C wire with the ground (green) wire when the inverter is creating A/C from DC battery power. When the inverter senses A/C shore power, it begins a process of synchronizing and switching to pass-thru mode.

Once the syncing and switching process is complete, the inverter breaks its neutral to ground connection and correctly leaves the boat’s ground and neutral connected to shore power, ground and neutral. If other main double-pole A/C breakers are ON during this syncing process, amperage on the neutral wire is conducted to the ground wire through the inverter’s neutral to ground bonding and may trip the ELCI breaker.

Marine battery chargers are another potential cause of ELCI breaker issues. Try turning off or lower the amperage setting to provide a temporary solution.

Self-testing galvanic isolators may also be a cause of ELCI breaker problems. Replace with a newer galvanic isolator.

A possible source of an unwanted, problematic, neutral-to-ground connection occurs when home-store (non-marine) appliances are installed on boats.

Inverter installation may be a source of incorrect neutral-to-ground connection when the neutral conductors are not separated into two busses; inverted and non-inverted. ABYC recommendations call for separating all neutral and ground wires for inverter loads from non-inverted. A neutral/ground connection should only be present at a source of power.

If you experience problems with these new ground fault systems, have a qualified electrician check your boat’s wiring.

Do I Need an Isolation Transformer?

An isolation transformer is not required in order to use new ELCI-protected power sources.  If your boat is properly wired and powered up correctly, there is no requirement for an isolation transformer.

Isolation transformers all but eliminate the possibility of tripping dock ELCI breakers. They also bring other benefits and are generally a good addition to the boat. Transformers are available in a variety of different voltages and amperages ranging in price from $1,000 to $4,000.

If an isolation transformer is installed within 10 feet of the boat’s shore power inlet, an onboard ELCI breaker is not required in order to be ABYC compliant.

Why ELCI Breakers?

ELCI Breakers are safety devices to prevent Electric Shock Drownings. While more dangerous in fresh water, drownings happen in both fresh and saltwater when people become better electrical conductors of leakage A/C current than the surrounding water. Faulty dock or boat wiring is a common cause of dangerous electrical power in waters around docks and marinas.  The danger only becomes known when someone enters the water and is immobilized by the electrical shock.  These tragedies grow when rescuers enter the same dangerous waters in an attempt to help, and become victims as well.

ELCI Breakers detect amperage difference (imbalance) between the hot (black) wire and the neutral (white) wire and trip if there is a significant difference (leakage) between power going to the boat (hot wire) and that coming back (neutral wire) from the boat to shore power.

ELCI, RCD, GFCI, GFI Different or Same?

All of these devices perform the same function of detecting an amperage imbalance. The difference is in the level of imbalance, or leaking amperage, that trips the breaker. In-home GFI and GFCI breakers trip at very low imbalance levels while ELCI breakers trip at much higher imbalance levels. RCD’s trip at imbalance levels between GFI and ELCI.

Marinas with ELCI-protected Shore Power?

ELCI-protected breakers first appeared at new or rebuilt marinas in Southeast Alaska; North Harbor in Petersburg, Thomas Basin in Ketchikan, and some docks at Bar Harbor South in Ketchikan.

In Washington State, Rosario Resort, Poulsbo Marina, Eagle Harbor Marina, and Eagle Harbor Waterfront Park dock, have upgraded all their docks to ELCI-protected power. Roche Harbor, Point Roberts Marina, Friday Harbor, Port of Everett and Skyline Marina in Anacortes, have upgraded some of their docks. Saltspring Marina in Ganges is one of the first in B.C. to add ELCI-protected power.

In the Waggoner Cruising Guide, marinas with upgraded power are identified with the label “ELCI-protected power.”

It’s Not the Marina’s Shore Power

If you are having problems with upgraded shore power, the first place to look is your boat. Ground fault monitoring and interrupt technology has been protecting us in our homes for many decades with GFCI outlets.

One way to prepare your boat is to install an ELCI or RCD breaker on your boat. Installing an ELCI breaker on your boat now, will not only help ensure that you won’t have unexpected problems while cruising, but will also make for safer boating. If there are any electrical leakage issues on your boat, an ELCI will bring them to your attention and will do so at your schedule.

ELCI breakers cost about $500 or less and can be added to your existing panel or in a separate enclosure near your boat’s shore power inlet.