Houseboat electricity is a complicated subject without an easy explanation, yet it's essential for houseboat owners to understand.
In short, almost all houseboats have some form of electricity. All new houseboats have both 12-volt DC and 120-volt AC power, though the extent of appliances that can be used aboard varies widely.
In this article, we'll cover the basics of electricity aboard houseboats. We'll explain how electricity is made on houseboats, the basics of houseboat power safety, how to use it, and ways to reduce the cost of generating power aboard.
We sourced the information for this article from industry-leading experts on houseboat design and power generation. We also used marine power guides and drew from the feedback of experienced houseboaters.
Is Electrical Power Available on Houseboats?
Yes! Electricity is definitely available on houseboats. On most houseboats, you can use virtually any small appliance or plug-in device that you use in a home. That includes coffee makers, computers, cell phone chargers, vacuum cleaners, and more!
That said, there are some limitations, and you need to figure out where the power comes from. Houseboats usually aren't connected to the grid while underway, so they have to generate their own power in some way or another. We'll get into that shortly.
How Houseboat Electricity Works
Houseboats usually have two kinds of easily accessible power. The first is the obvious 12-volt cigarette lighter style plug, which is usually available in a few spots around the boat. These supply 12-volt DC, usually from the engine or batteries.
Houseboats also usually have standard household 120-volt outlets, which will work with most devices. Keep in mind that these outlets are connected to a generator or batteries, so your power supply is not unlimited.
What Appliances Work on a Houseboat?
It depends entirely on your generating capacity and how much load your houseboat's power system can be subjected to safely. Wiring is only designed to handle a set amount of current, so it's best to use fused plugs or circuit breaker power strips.
You never want to overload the outlets on a houseboat, as you can cause a fire or damage the system. Circuit breakers alone aren't a guarantee of safety, as they don't control what happens after the power leaves the wall. Check to see what safety systems your boat has installed.
Before plugging in an appliance, make sure it doesn't draw too much power. Also, make sure there aren't any other devices plugged in that can overload the system. A couple of phone chargers should be fine, but a whole power strip of space heaters is a bad idea.
Houseboats usually contain at least a pair of marine 12-volt batteries, and some contain many more. Then they were the houseboat, the more likely it has batteries use specifically for power storage.
These batteries are charged by the engine when it's running, also by auxiliary systems. Keep in mind that, more often than not, these batteries are used to start the engine, so they shouldn't ever be depleted completely.
Batteries are usually charged by the engine when it runs, but they can also be charged by an onboard generator, solar panels, wind turbines, or shore power. An alternator on the motor is responsible for charging the batteries when underway.
Battery charging is controlled by a charge controller, which is usually integrated into your electrical control panel. The control panel is most often found near the steering and problem of the houseboat.
It's important to keep in mind that the battery is charged very slowly. You deplete them at about double the rate or more, so it's important to leave ample time to recharge the batteries if you rely solely on stored power. Charging batteries uses fuel and piles on engine hours, which is a big cost concern.
AC and DC Houseboat Power
Houseboat power is either alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC). Houseboat batteries store DC current at around 12 volts, which works well for some applications but is completely useless for others.
A special device called an inverter is used to convert a 12-volt DC current into a household 120-volt AC current. Remember, AC current from a wall plug is much more dangerous than DC current from a battery, though you can still get a nasty shock from a set of in-line marine batteries.
An inverter is a device used to convert 12-volt DC current from a battery to 120-volt AC current. These devices are typically located near the batteries, and they're controlled by the control panel or a switch. If your outlets are working, there's a good chance it's because the inverter isn't turned on.
Green Energy and Off-Grid Houseboat Systems
About 20 years ago, shore power and engine power were essentially the only ways to get reliable electricity on a houseboat. Thanks to recent developments in affordable green energy, it's now possible to use solar panels and wind power to supplement a generator aboard a houseboat.
You can purchase ready-to-run marine solar and wind kits online, and these devices can be wired into your existing electrical system. Solar panels and wind turbines are great because they passively charge the batteries whenever wind and sunlight are available.
They can save a significant amount of fuel, which reduces costs and pollution. Note that we said these systems could 'supplement' a generator. Wind turbines and solar panels depend on weather conditions, so they shouldn't be relied on as a sole source of power.
The main engine of your houseboat is essentially a dual-purpose generator, though it's usually the largest engine on the boat. Many houseboats have an additional auxiliary generator that is used solely for charging the batteries and providing reliable electrical power.
Generators use less fuel than the main engine, and they often run very quietly. A generator is an excellent way to get electricity on a houseboat. Generators run on gasoline, diesel, and sometimes natural gas or propane. Next to shore power, they are also the fastest way to charge your battery bank.
Shore power does two things. First, it provides reliable 120-volt AC power to all the outlets aboard a houseboat without burning any fuel. Additionally, it can be used to charge a battery bank aboard a houseboat, provided you have a safe automatic charge controller aboard.
Electrical Safety on the Water
Electricity is just as hazardous on houseboats as it is in a typical house, so it should never be taken lightly. The fact that a houseboat is surrounded by water increases the risks, so all wiring should be inspected and installed by a professional.
It's important to understand how to safely operate a power control board and monitor battery levels. Additionally, you should always have a high-quality marine power controller connected to batteries and other systems to prevent overcharging.
Inexperienced individuals should avoid doing any electrical work on their own and should always consult a qualified electrician. If you notice any uninsulated or corroded wiring, have it repaired immediately.
About THE AUTHOR
I have a deep love of houseboating and the life-changing experiences houseboating has brought into my life. I’ve been going to Lake Powell on our family’s houseboat for over 30 years and have made many great memories, first as a child and now as a parent. My family has a passion for helping others have similar fun, safe experiences on their houseboat.Read More About Brian Samson