How to Hook Up an Electrical Outlet On Your Boat

Having electricity on your boat may sound like a luxury, but it can actually be quite the necessity when traveling out on the water. Spotlights, cell phones, radios, computers, and other electronic devices can be easily powered by the right outlet and can come in handy on even the most standard voyage. Imagine needing to call land for help and your cell phone has died, or else having a passenger fall overboard during a nighttime sail and needing a spotlight to help bring them safely back onto the vessel. Less urgent but still personally important issues like needing to power a hot plate for food or boiling water, juicing up a radio, warming up a cigarette lighter, or else powering a tablet or laptop are also good reasons to install an electrical outlet on your boat. The most useful outlet type for boats is the 12 volt receptacle. Most electrical items and devices are designed to hook up to a 12-volt lighter socket or receptacle. This means everything from your smartphone to your lamp can be powered via this receptacle. Below we teach you how to install this electrical outlet in your boat, step by step.



What You’ll Need

Before we begin, it is important to note that electrical work can be dangerous if you have no previous experience. Be sure to protect yourself and practice the utmost caution before attempting to work with electricity and wiring. Further, there are certain resources you can utilize for electrical outlet installation on a boat. If you feel able to safely undertake this project on your own, you must first gather the necessary supplies and, of course, follow the necessary safety precautions. For this project, you’ll need the following supplies:

Once you have your supplies gathered, you can get started.



The Step by Step Process

The following step-by-step process will direct you in safely installing an electrical outlet, or 12-volt receptacle, in your boat. Be sure to read through these directions carefully for your own safety and the safety of your passengers. 

Prep:

  • Step 1 - Choose Your Spot: Before you begin the installation process, you have to choose the right spot to hook up the electrical outlet. As your boat is very different from a house or building, not many spaces are going to be ideal for electrical wiring. There are, however, a few prime spots perfect for installing your electrical outlet:
    • The Dashboard - the dashboard is widely considered the most practical place to install an electrical outlet. It is where you will likely spend plenty of time while on your boat, and is already home to a number of important features on your boat. This area is also well equipped to handle secure wiring.
    • The Stern - If your boat has a tiller steer, the stern is an ideal place to install an electrical outlet.
    • The Bow - For boaters who tend to fish from the front deck, it makes the most sense to install your electrical outlet at the bow of the boat. This way your important electronics are close at hand in the space where you spend the most of your time.
  • Step 2 - Ensure Access to the Rear of the Power Socket: Since the wire connections and attachments are located on the back of the 12-volt receptacle, you must make sure that you have access to the rear of the power socket. As you are mounting the receptacle here, it just makes things easier to have access to the back of the socket before you even begin installation.
  • Step 3 - Refer to Your 12-Volt Receptacle Installation Instructions: Finally, every receptacle will come with its own instructions. Even though the unit itself will share similarities with others, different receptacles will have different measurement and ways of working. The instructions should tell you how large the hole to mount the unit should be so that once the receptacle is in, it is secure and working well. If the instructions do not have this bit of information, you can measure the outside diameter of your 12-volt receptacle and then guesstimate the right hole size. To create the hole, choose a good drill-bit size (in relation to the receptacle size) and drill your hole.
  • Step 4 - Insert the Receptacle: Once you’ve read the instructions and drilled your appropriate hole, you can insert the receptacle into the hole. Be sure to tighten up the ring nut located on the back of the receptacle so that it is secured to the surface of your chosen mounting location. Once this is done, you can move onto the proper wiring.

Wiring:

  • Step 5 - Know the Difference Between Black and Red Wires: Before you begin wiring, you must know the difference between the black and red wires. The black wire is the negative wire and attaches to either of these two places:
      • The ground on the power panel
      • The negative post on the battery of the boat

    The red wire, then, is the hot wire. It should attach to either of the following places:

      • The “vacant positive post” located on the power panel
      • Directly on the battery’s positive terminal.

  • Step 6 - Safely Bundle Wires: To keep yourself safe while you work, bundle wires with your wire ties and place them in a safe space where you can easily access them once they are needed. this keeps them out of the way and lowers the risk of grabbing and attaching the wrong wire. If you do not have wire ties, electrical tape is just as effective. The main goal is to ensure that the wires stay properly separated and out of the way.

  • Step 7 - From Battery to Receptacle: With the correct wires at the ready, direct the wires from the battery (or power panel on the boat if your boat has one of those instead), to the rear of the 12-volt receptacle. As you maneuver the wires, be incredibly careful not to cut or sever wires leading to lights, the radio, the stove, or other electrically powered items on the boat.



  • Step 8 - Make the Appropriate Connections: Once you have guided the wires from the battery or power panel to the rear of the receptacle, use a solderless connector to make all the appropriate wire connections. Be sure to use a properly sized and styled solderless connector as not all of them will provide the precision this job calls for.

  • From here, use the solderless butt connector to link an in-line fuse holder to the end of the red wire. The contact point of the wire attachment is typically found on the rear of most 12-volt receptacles, but not all. Other receptacles have threaded posts that need a ring tongue connector. Depending on the type of receptacle you have, attach the   appropriate connector to the black and red wires coming out of the in-line fuse holder.

  • Step 9 - Insert A 5 Ampere Fuse in the Holder: This penultimate step is the most straightforward. Take your 5-ampere fuse and insert it into the fuse holder.

  • Step 10 -Test: Once the 5-ampere fuse has been inserted into the fuse holder, you can test the wire connections. Do so by attaching the clip on the ground wire of your 12-volt test light to the connector on the black wire. From here, bring the red wire’s connector into contact with the light’s probe. If you find that the light glows, the job has been done successfully. Once this is done, disconnect the tester and reattach the wires to the 12-volt receptacle.

  • If all has gone well and the test worked, your electrical outlet has been properly hooked up and you now have a new power source on your boat! Using this new outlet you can charge you phone and other devices, power spotlights, string lights, and even fans, enjoy music, and do just about anything you like with a working electronic device. Even better, this ensures that your necessary electronic devices (phone or other contact device) will always have a power source so you do not lose juice. This way, you always have a working lifeline.


    Other Installation Techniques for Marine Electronics

    In addition to hooking up an electrical outlet in your boat, there are other electronics specifically suited for marine vessels. To learn more about how to properly install marine electronics, check out Boating’s piece on the subject as well as this piece from Boat U.S. In this useful article, you’ll find all the ins and outs of proper installation techniques, how to stay safe, and how to ensure your boat is properly wired for all your needs.