By Tom Burden
If your boat came from the factory with only one battery, or with two batteries of inadequate size, consider installing a second battery bank. Boats often need two banks to have a second “reserve” bank to be sure the engine will start, or to have a large “house” bank so you can run bigger DC loads for longer time periods. If you are installing a reserve starting battery, you can usually ensure enough amps of cranking power by duplicating the type and size of your original battery. To install a “house” bank, you should probably invest in a quality deep-cycle battery.
Starting batteries are similar to automotive batteries. They can supply lots of current for a short period of time, but like to be recharged almost immediately and are not tolerant of deep discharges. They are appropriate as the single battery for wakeboard boats, runabouts, personal watercraft, and other boats with minimal DC loads where the engine is always running.
Deep-cycle batteries can endure repeated deep discharging and recharging without damage. They are appropriate for sailboats, fishing boats, and all other boats with larger DC power requirements. Any battery used to power onboard DC loads (lighting, trolling motors, inverters, etc.) should be a quality deep-cycle battery, like our SeaVolt brand. Most boats with dual-battery systems use one starting battery and one deep cycle battery.
Dual-Purpose Batteries work well in some applications, and are a good compromise, tolerating deep discharges that would ruin a typical starting battery. Since they have lower storage capacity than comparably-sized deep cycles, we recommend them for boats with two identical batteries used interchangeably for starting and house electrical loads.
This credo works as well for batteries as it does for real estate. Batteries are temperature sensitive, needing a temperature that is comfortable for a person, and high temperatures dramatically shorten their life. If the proposed battery location is too hot for you, it is also too hot for your battery. This presents a dilemma for many battery installations, since you want short runs of battery cable to your engine’s starter or alternator to prevent a loss of voltage, but your battery won’t last long in a hot engine room and must be ventilated.
Batteries, especially the flooded type, give off lighter-than-air explosive hydrogen gas when charging, so they must be vented from the top directly to the outside of the boat. If there is not sufficient natural ventilation you may have to add a sparkproof exhaust fan to eliminate gas buildup and to lower the temperature. Batteries, especially the flooded type, must also be easy to service.
We recommend low-resistance, tinned copper wire in all applications. Moisture, vibration, heat, abrasion, and chemicals are major enemies of all electrical system components, and only marine rated wire (like that from Ancor Marine) is built to withstand these conditions. Be sure to use tin plated copper connectors as well, for the least electrical resistance and the best corrosion protection. We recommend double-crimped terminals, with solid metal-to-metal connections and heat shrink tubing for waterproof protection.
Pre-manufactured battery cables are available in various lengths with well-constructed connectors, properly covered with adhesive-lined heat shrink and terminated with closed barrel ring terminals. However, the lengths available may not be appropriate for your installation so you may have to make your own battery cables.
To do this requires a proper crimper. There is no way to shortcut this, since terminals smashed on the cable with a pair of Vise Grips or a few hammer blows will certainly fail, perhaps with catastrophic results. You must use a heavy-duty crimper designed for the purpose. Use closed-barrel terminals with holes the right diameter for the bolts to be used at the terminations. Positive and negative terminals often have different diameters.
Spray a corrosion inhibitor such as Fluid Film, Lanocote, or Boeshield into the connector before crimping. Cover the joint between the cable insulation and the connector body with a three-inch section of adhesive-lined heat shrink tubing. Using a heat gun is the best way to apply heat shrink, although you can use a propane torch with a flame spreader if you are very careful. Be sure to have a fire extinguisher on hand. You can also tape the joint with several layers of quality electrician’s tape and finish it with a small nylon tie where the tape ends to keep it from unwrapping due to heat and solvents. Remember to cover positive terminals with a boot (or the battery box cover) to prevent shorting.
The batteries must be secured so there is no more than one inch of movement in any direction. A loose battery skidding about (weighing about 3/4lb. per amp hour, or 150lb. for a 200Ah battery) is both a physical hazard and a fire hazard. Pre-manufactured acid-proof battery boxes, available in various sizes, are the best way to safely anchor the batteries.
Use more than one box if your batteries require you to make a series or parallel arrangement. Home-built battery boxes must be ruggedly constructed from marine grade plywood, covered inside and out with fiberglass cloth saturated with several coats of epoxy, and secure even in the event of a capsize. Do not mount batteries directly above or below a fuel tank, fuel line or filter, or directly below battery chargers or inverters.
Most single engine boats built in the last 40 years are equipped with two nearly identical (and undersized) marine batteries, used interchangeably for starting or house loads. Prior to starting the engine, the operator would turn the OFF-1-2-BOTH battery switch to the BOTH position to have both batteries’ full cranking power. With the engine now running, the switch would stay in the BOTH setting, and both batteries would be charged while powering to the day’s destination.
Once the engine was turned off (while anchored or under sail) the operator would (in theory) return the switch to the 1 or 2 position, and reserve a battery for starting. When it was time to crank the engine again, the battery switch would be turned to BOTH, or possibly to the reserve battery, and the engine would be started.
The problem is that this requires a lot of thought by the operator, who is trying to relax in the first place. Inevitably, the operator (or the operator’s Brother in Law) may leave the switch in the BOTH position, resulting in a very dead battery. Statistically, dead batteries are one of the most common reasons for calling a towing service. “I can’t crank my engine!” is right up there with “I’m out of gas!” for ruining a day on the water.
A simpler alternative to isolate your Start and House circuits is available in the Dual Circuit Plus Battery Switch (Model 7808801). In the ON position, it keeps your batteries isolated, so both can’t be fully discharged by accident. In the COMBINE position, it parallels your batteries in the event of a low Starting battery. Used with the 7610 Automatic Charging Relay (ACR), it automatically combines or isolates your batteries when in the ON position. The most affordable way to purchase the Dual Circuit Plus switch and SI7610 ACR is to buy a kit that includes both, the “Add-a-Battery” Dual Circuit System, Model 8646275.
Battery Isolators used to be the best method of distributing charging current to multiple battery banks while assuring that they remain electrically isolated during discharge. These devices are electrical “one-way check valves” that allow current to flow to, but not from, the battery. Their disadvantage is that diodes cause a voltage drop that wastes charging energy, creates heat and causes batteries to be undercharged. Alternators with external voltage sensing can correct for the undercharging problem, but voltage drop and the heat generated remain a problem.
Automatic Charging Relays (ACRs, also called Voltage Sensitive Relays) are a popular method for achieving the same goal as isolators, but they work on a different principle. Instead of using diodes to block current from flowing in both directions, ACRs use mechanical relays combined with a circuit that senses when a charging source is being applied to either battery. When a charge is being applied, the ACR closes; and when the circuit senses that the charge is no longer present, the ACR opens (after a short time delay to assure that the ACR doesn’t open due to temporary voltage sags caused by load startups, like a refrigerator turning on).
Automatic Charging Relays have lots of other uses in addition to isolating the Start and House batteries, and we offer a broad selection now from Blue Sea Systems and BEP Marine. ACRs can be used for load shedding, pilothouse navigation battery isolation, and charge current limiting for a remote battery.
Adding another battery is a good idea if you want to add a powerful stereo subwoofer system, cabin lighting, electric windlass, wakeboard ballast pump or any of the other electrical and electronic accessories we all want. The installation can be as simple as connecting two batteries in parallel to make one larger battery bank. You can build in redundancy and failure protection with two battery banks, battery switches and charge management devices like ACRs. That way, when you drop anchor and use all your new gadgets, your engine will still start at the end of the day.
Remember that you must match battery chemistries between your banks. If your starting battery is of the lead-acid type, stick to a deep cycle battery of the same chemistry, instead of choosing a gel or AGM battery with different charging requirements.