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Houseboats have lots of electrical utilities and appliances, but where does all that power come from?
Houseboats get electricity from onboard generation systems or 120-volt AC shore power. Houseboats can make their own power using the main engine, a generator engine, solar panels, and wind turbines. Houseboats store power in large battery banks.
In this article, we’ll go over all the different ways houseboats get electricity. We’ll cover how houseboats store and utilize power and explain the differences between onboard AC and DC power sources. We’ll also cover the cost of generating power versus using marina shore power.
We sourced the information used in this article from marinas, houseboat manufacturers, and the makers of marine power generators and energy storage systems.
Can Houseboats Make Their Own Electricity?
Yes, houseboats can almost always generate their own electricity in some capacity. The majority of large houseboats can generate all the power they need almost indefinitely—provided they don’t run out of fuel.
Houseboat power systems are much more robust and have higher power storage capacities than other vessels, such as sailboats and powerboats. Houseboats can use renewable energy sources as well, and they’re almost purpose-built for solar and wind energy.
Most houseboats use multiple power generation systems, which are wired into and regulated by a central control system. Houseboats can make power using one or multiple generator systems at the same time and use it directly or send the power to charge a battery bank.
Types Of Houseboat Electricity
Houseboats usually utilize two forms of electricity: low-voltage DC and high-voltage AC power. AC power is used for household plugs and appliances, whereas DC power is primarily used for mechanical and utility purposes. Here’s a rundown of the different types of houseboat electricity and what they’re used for.
Marine 12-Volt DC Power
Direct current is supplied from 12-volt batteries aboard the vessel. This power is typically used to start the engines, illuminate navigation lights, and run small marine appliances like fans and the VHF radio. There are usually several 12-volt DC outlets located around the houseboat.
DC current is generated in several ways. It can come from AC shore power, but it has to be stepped down from 120 or 240 volts to 12-volt DC through a simple onboard transformer. This device is usually controlled by the same unit that monitors battery levels and current load.
Standard 12-volt power can be accessed in several ways. Essential utilities, like lighting and the radio, are wired directly into the system and sometimes the fuse box. There are also 12-volt car-style hookups in many vessels, which can run standard cigarette lighter plugs.
Marine 110-Volt And 120-Volt AC Power
Houseboats are also equipped with standard home power, which in the United States comes as 110-volt or 120-volt AC (alternating current). This power is delivered at between 15 and 20 amps and usually powers larger appliances like stoves, heaters, and washing machines.
Houseboat AC power is available at standard three-prong outlets around the boat. You can use this power to charge laptops, cell phones, and other devices just like you would in a normal house. Houseboat lighting is sometimes powered by 110-volt or 120-volt AC, but small marine lights usually run on DC power.
How Do Houseboats Get DC Power?
DC power comes primarily from the batteries, and houseboats usually have several. This is called a battery bank, and it usually has four to six standard marine lead-acid or deep-cycle batteries wired together to make one large power storage unit.
Batteries are charged using a generator or alternator on the propulsion motor. An alternator makes alternating current to fire the spark plugs (on a gasoline-powered boat), and the current is converted to direct current to charge the batteries.
Houseboats often have separate generating units solely for producing electrical power. These units send DC current to the batteries and around the boat as well, which can be used as 12-volt DC or converted into AC.
How Do Houseboats Get AC Power?
But how do you convert low-voltage DC into high-voltage AC? Transforming AC to DC is easy—all you need is a device called a rectifier, which is like a one-way valve for current. Converting DC into AC is a more complicated process and involves a device called an inverter.
An inverter can convert DC power from a generator or a battery bank into AC. An inverter essentially uses a switching device to periodically reverse the direction of the current and a transformer to increase the voltage, creating alternating current.
Inverters are a key component of houseboat electrical systems, and they allow you to use all kinds of power sources to generate and store electricity. When you want, you can switch it on and utilize a steady supply of household 15 or 20-amp AC current.
How Houseboats Make Electricity
Houseboats can generate their own power through several different systems, including recently developed technology that makes it cheaper and easier than ever. Here are the most common ways that houseboats make electricity.
Main Propulsion Engine
The main engine of the vessel has an alternator or a generator attached, which runs via a belt and a pulley. This is convenient, as it generates power while you’re underway and expending fuel. The generating capacity of the main engine is limited, which is why most houseboats have a secondary generator.
Generators are small gas or diesel engines that serve only one purpose—to make electricity. Generators are smaller, quieter, and use less fuel than the main engine. They’re designed to be started and to run at sustained speeds for long periods of time, and they burn very little fuel.
Most generators are located in a part of the houseboat far from sleeping quarters, and the boat doesn’t need to be underway for the generator to work. Generators are connected to a central power control unit, which allocates power to the batteries or directly to the outlets, depending on the settings.
Generators also run on natural gas or propane, and the fuel system is usually dependent on what fuel the houseboat’s primary engines use. Some houseboats have a separate fuel tank for the generator, but this tank rarely stores a different kind of fuel than the main tank.
Marine Solar Panels
Solar panels generate free power from the sun, and they’re increasingly popular on houseboats. A set of 100-watt or 200-watt solar panels on the flat upper deck of a houseboat can easily charge a battery bank, which saves fuel and money over time.
Solar panels generate direct current, and they are plugged directly into a control box that regulates the current and charges the batteries. You can also run appliances directly off the panels during the day, but they’re best for charging or supplementing another power source.
Marine Wind Turbine Generators
Wind turbines are an excellent addition to a generator or solar panel system on a houseboat. In windy areas, wind turbines can generate the same—or more—power as solar panels, and they also work at night.
The average wind turbine size for houseboats is about 250 to 1000 watts, which is enough to supplement a generator or solar panel system for battery charging. A wind turbine alone won’t run an air conditioner for long, but it can drastically reduce your fuel consumption over time.
Wind turbines usually generate DC current, which feeds into the same kind of charge controller that solar panels use. Solar and wind systems can be seamlessly integrated with generators on houseboats using all-in-one charge control and inverter units.
Do Houseboats Connect To Shore Power?
Houseboats also connect to shore power at the dock. The vast majority of marinas have simple 120-volt outlets, which houseboats can plug directly into using a heavy gauge marine extension cord. When connected to shore power, houseboats can do a number of things.
Shore power can feed into your power control unit and be stepped down to 12-volt DC for charging batteries. It can also run directly to your three-prong outlets and run appliances, air conditioners, and lights.
Is Shore Power Metered?
In many locations, shore power use is metered just like home power use. This is usually the case at liveaboard marinas, and it’s much cheaper to pay for shore power than to burn the fuel yourself.
Overnight stay marinas usually aren’t bothered with metering, as they charge a flat rate for power access. This rate usually doesn’t exceed $50 or $100 on top of the docking fee.
How Much Electricity Can Houseboats Make?
Houseboats have a much greater power generating and storage capacity than other vessels. This is because houseboats are equipped to run large household appliances like washing machines and dryers. Houseboats can also run air conditioning units, which are notoriously power-hungry.
You’re likely to find at least 600 Ah (amp-hour) battery banks on houseboats and often larger. Additionally, houseboat generators can produce between 5 kW and 30 kW of power. These generators are more than adequate for running appliances like air conditioners.