In new construction the National Electrical Code requires dock receptacles to have ground fault protection of 30mA.    This matches the ABYC requirement that boats have ELCI protection on their incoming shore power connection, also 30 mA.  Boaters need to get their boat to meet this requirement because a leakage current in excess of 30mA could be fatal to anyone swimming in the water around the boat. By way of reference the GFI Receptacle that you have in your kitchen has a 5 mA trip. It isnt feasable to have a low trip current like this for an entire boat and the 30 mA limit was set as a compromise between safety and practicality. The high fatality rate of people who swim or fall in the water in marinas is what is driving these regulations.  Many deaths in the water in marinas are reported as drownings but often stray current in the water is the reason.  Swimmers become paralysed and are unable to move or call for help.  People who jump in to help them face a similar fate.  Dont swim in marinas!

The 30 mA standard refers to the imbalance between the power going on board the boat on one wire and coming back on the other.  To balance the circuit what goes out must come back, but when there is an imbalance it means the difference is flowing through the ground wire, and as a parallel path, through the water. How is this current getting to the water? How much current is causing the breaker to trip? Here are some troubleshooting tips to work with:

How much leakage current is there?

It helps when troubleshooting this situation to be able to measure how much leakage we are dealing with.  For that you need an accurate clamp on meter that has big enough jaws to clamp over a shore power cord and is sensitive enough to read the levels of current we are dealing with.  Clamping over the complete shore power cord shows the total amount of leakage going through the water. If there was no leakage the reading would be zero.  If you have access to just the current carrying conductors you will be replicating what the ground fault breaker is measuring, which is the difference between the current in the hot and neutral conductors.  The difference between the two is the total leakage current which is shared with the ground conductor and the water.  You can clamp the ground conductor by itself to see how much is going through it and then deduce how much is going through the water.  You will only be able to make these measurements if you can plug in to a dock that isnt fitted with a ground fault breaker.   The amount of leakage will normally vary with the amount of current you are consuming on board.  The more you consume the more leakage there will be.

The Hioki 3280-20 meter has wide jaws big enough to clamp over a 50 Amp shore power cord and is sensitive enough to read the levels of current we are dealing with.




The drawings below come from Blue Sea Systems, they are from the Product Guide on installing a ELCI breaker


Ground Fault

This article by Blue Sea Systems gives some additional background information on the subject



Looking for obvious sources of leakage

You are looking for connections between the neutral wire and ground. There should be no connection between neutral and ground on the boat. With the shore power disconnected measure for continuity between ground and neutral.  If you find continuity then you have to start disconnecting circuits to isolate which circuit is the culprit.  Often domestic electric stoves, which often have an intentional connection between neutral and ground, get installed on boats.  These kind of stoves normally have a way to break the link between neutral and ground, but if they dont they cannot be used on a boat.  A good start would be to check polarity on your system using a simple polarity tester.

Looking for less obvious sources of leakage

If your leakage was just slightly above the 30 mA level that was causing a trip then this becomes a more difficult problem to troubleshoot.  On an older boat, especially one that has sailed in the ocean and had some salt spray over the years, a fine deposit of salt may have built up on many surfaces and because salt absorbs water and the resulting mixture conducts electricity this could be happening at every electrical connection on the boat and would be almost impossible to fix without a total rewire.  You can try to isolate the problem by turning off all the circuits and turning them on one at a time.  However the neutral and ground wires arent normally disconnected when you turn the breaker off so to really isolate the source you would have to disconnect the neutral wire for each circuit also.  Take care doing this kind of experiment, its easy to get mixed up when you keep turning the power on and off and testing things, if you get out of sequence you will end up touching a live wire.  I have done it and can confirm that it is quite unpleasant.

Is there a short cut?

There is no short cut to the first troubleshooting steps.  If there is a problem that can be fixed you need to fix it. You need to consider the safety of those on board the boat as well as those in the water. However if your leakage ends up slightly over the limit and you still cant solve the problem then there is a way to isolate the problem from the dock.  Installing an isolation transformer on the boat limits the electrical system that is seen by the dock to the transformer itself.  Current leaks are always trying to get back to the source of the power.  If you have an isolation transformer it is the source of the power for items connected on board and any leakage will not leave the boat.  The part of the boat electrical system that is of concern to the dock is limited to the primary coil of the isolation transformer and it should be possible to bring that into compliance, rewiring that first part of the circuit from the power intake receptacle to the transformer if necessary.

What happens if you do nothing?

In the short term you would be liable for any injuries or death caused by leaking electrical current.  In the long term you will find there is nowhere you can plug in to. You might as well address the problem now, it isnt going away by itself.


UPDATES

This is a hot topic so I am getting lots of updates from people experiencing the same problem.  One of my colleagues rented (for $40) a sensitive meter to use for troubleshooing.  The meter was a Fluke 369 FC and he got it from www.globaltestsupply.com who are in North Carolina

One expert I spoke to told me the what his most likely culprits are:

1. Water heaters (a crack in the element is making contact with the case through the water inside the heater
2. Do it your self electricians (look for wiring that is not up to the same standard as the rest of the boat)
3. Old Ferroresonant battery chargers
4. Debris, dust, bugs or other things that have some conductivity across the neutral and ground terminals.  Include in that salt deposits and corrosion by products.


Please tell me your story if you have one to share.

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4 Comments

Mitch Mills

Date 10/17/2019

Hello, Why would older Ferroresonant chargers be likely culprits? What is the issue with them? I believe the older Charles Chargers for instance are Ferroresonant.

Peter Kennedy

Date 11/28/2019

Maybe it is due to a breakdown in the insulation on the windings of the transformer.

Michael Rowden

Date 11/16/2019

Why would turning off my 12volt galvonic isolators keep the ELCI from tripping. Boat is connected to power with all 110 ac breakers off

Peter Kennedy

Date 11/18/2019

If you have Fail Safe galvanic isolators they wont be the source of the problem. If you have one ones with a testing circuit its possible that the testing circuit could be causing the breaker to trip. If you use Fail Safe galvanic isolators you won't have a self testing circuit

Andy Wade

Date 1/11/2020

I have a main 30a breaker tripping. Reset the main with all circuits off, turn one circuit on at a time starting with the smallest load every circuit trips the main on its own. Removed the load side wires from each breaker and checked to ground. Tested good no continuity. Reset the main tried each breaker and doesn't trip. The incoming side of the breakers has1 wire attached to a small buss bar connecting incoming power to the other breakers. It has the same type bar for grounds and does have a galvanic isolator on the ground between the panel and shore power. I'm leaning towards a ground issue. Any thoughts?

Jon B

Date 11/8/2020

I just went to a newly renovated marina with 30A gfci’s at each slip. I could have the batttery charger running, electric stove and microwave was fine, but when i turned on the 16K btu AC unit it attempted to start but tripped the breaker. I tried a number of different shore power connections including a 50A connection- all gfcis tripped. I also found that i could run the AC unit in fan mode only- so it was only when the compressor started to run that the gfci tripped. Boat is a 2002 wellcraft 2600- we have been to many marinas without having an issue. AC unit was installed by wellcraft. What could cause this issue? Would a soft start unit help this issue?

Peter Kennedy

Date 11/9/2020

If it is the ELCI part of the breaker that is tripping a soft start isn't going to help. If you have a ground fault it is a percentage of the current flowing in the circuit. The more current in the circuit the more ground fault current. That why it was OK with the fan but not with the compressor.

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