The Forgotten GFCI
Q: I want to install some new electrical outlets on my boat so I can run AC appliances without running extension cords all over the boat. My buddy says that regulations require that the AC outlets be protected by a GFCI device. I’ve read that GFCI protection is only required in certain areas on the boat. Am I missing anything here?
It’s been said many places: electricity and water don’t mix. I’m not sure where or when that statement was coined, but it sure is true. That’s one of the reasons the ABYC in its electrical standards recommends boats have GFCI protection of AC electrical circuits installed in galleys, heads, on deck and in engine room spaces. In practice, most builders of recreational boats end up providing GFCI protection for all of the AC receptacles on the boat, but standards only require it in the areas identified here. You would not necessarily need GFCI protection in a sleeping cabin.
The purpose of the GFCI protection is to minimize electric shock hazards to people in the event of an electrical short circuit to ground on an electrical appliance, and this can be a life saving feature. On land, these same devices are required under electrical codes in kitchens, bathrooms and outside receptacles.
The problem here is that these life-saving devices get ignored by most people. Most of the units have embossed on them the words “test monthly” and I know for sure this just does not happen in most cases. Ordinarily, this would probably not be such a big deal, but with these units it actually is. Why? A study done in 1999 by the American Society of Home Inspectors found that roughly 20% of the GFCI devices inspected did not function—and that was in a comparatively non-corrosive environment on land, not onboard boats. The same study found that in areas of high lightning activity, such as south Florida, the failure rate for GFCI devices was over 50%.
The odds of the devices on your boat being in good working order are not too good. If you can get power to the boat in the off season, hit the test and reset button on your GFCI receptacles and make sure they are functioning properly. If not, plan to replace them as part of your routine maintenance before you launch in the spring. The units on your boat are exactly like the ones in your house, so replacements can be purchased at Lowe’s or Home Depot. There is nothing “marine grade” about the ones your boat builder used.
And if you do decide to add some receptacles, remember that these units are not rated for ignition protection in their standard form, so they should not be installed in gasoline engine or fuel tank areas of your boat.