If you have a boat that relies on a battery, then the worst thing that can happen is the battery draining or even dying on you. You then better hope you have oars, or you’ll have to wait until a fellow boater or even the Coast Guard can rescue you. If your battery keeps draining, you’ll certainly want to get to the bottom of it. Why does this happen and what can you do about it?
A boat battery that’s continuously draining could be caused by:
- Bad installation
- A damaged or broken rectifier
- Low-quality batteries that can’t generate enough power
- Dead battery cells
- Other onboard items using too much power
- Lack of maintenance on the batteries
In this article, we will explain each of the above boat battery issues in more detail. We’ll also provide some troubleshooting tips so you never have to worry about being stranded on the water again. Keep reading, as you’re not going to want to miss it!
What Causes a Boat Battery to Die + Troubleshooting Methods to Use
The Problem: Poor Installation
You’ve done some research into the batteries outfitted in your boat and they seem sufficient. Not every boater who has these same batteries complains of them draining, so why do yours?
Perhaps it’s not something you did at all. It could have come down to a bad installation job by the team that put your boat together. That’s especially likely if your boat has high-quality batteries that won’t hold a charge or stay charged long.
What could happen during the installation phase that kills your batteries? Plenty. Perhaps the installation team used very inexpensive battery boxes to house the boat’s batteries. The cheap, plastic shells don’t do much to protect your batteries from damage.
It’s also quite problematic if the team put the batteries somewhere that’s not easy to get to. If you have to squeeze into tight cavities or get down on your knees to reach the battery box, then guess what? You’re not going to touch it again and neither will a professional boat repairperson. The batteries can then waste away with no care.
Solution: Move the Battery Box
To reduce costs, it’s common to have your battery box near the engine. This cuts down on the amount of cables needed to connect the batteries across a distance. However, it can be a very tight fit to reach the batteries in this location.
The good news is, the batteries don’t have to stay there. You can move them yourself if you’re comfortable or hire a professional to do it, but you don’t want your batteries to stay by the engine anymore. Instead, the best place for them is a dry, accessible area of your boat. Depending on the size and layout of the boat, only you can decide where that location is, but choose a new home carefully.
The Problem: Damage to the Rectifier
Boats with an outboard engine have what’s known as a rectifier. This is a small black box capable of taking alternate current or AC power and making it into direct current or DC power. In other words, the rectifier captures power the boat’s batteries cannot use, the AC power, and translates it into something that can charge the batteries, or DC power.
Your boat engine must be on for the rectifier to work, so that’s something to keep in mind. While you enjoy your time on the boat, your rectifier should keep the battery charged to the point where it doesn’t drain on you in the middle of a ride. The battery should certainly never die, either.
If it does and you’ve determined it’s not an issue with installation, then the rectifier is the next great component to explore. When it stops working, your battery no longer has that reliable source of DC power to keep it going. As a result, it stops getting a charge and dies on you when you need it most.
Solution: Get the Rectifier Repaired or Replaced
You can try tinkering with the rectifier to see if that fixes it, but in most instances, a faulty rectifier necessitates replacement. To do this yourself, you want to begin by disconnecting your boat battery using the negative terminal. If your engine has a cover overtop it (which it should), then take this off next.
Now you can search for the rectifier. It should be attached to the rest of the engine via a series of wires and screws. Start by unscrewing the rectifier’s left screw. The old rectifier should come right off. Put the new one in with the positive or plus sign on top. You’ll have to use new nuts and bolts to secure the rectifier.
The Problem: Low-Quality Batteries
What kind of batteries are you using for your boat? There’s always a possibility that the installation team who put the batteries in didn’t use the highest-quality batteries right out of the gate. If you kept up the trend by sticking with these low-quality batteries, then you can’t expect miracles. These will only work so long and hold a charge for a little while.
You also have to watch how often you discharge the battery. Discharging is simply the opposite of charging, and it means to let the battery drain nearly all the way if not completely. It’s okay to discharge batteries sometimes, especially if they’re made of nickel-cadmium. However, if you have lead-acid batteries in your boat, by discharging them, you can accidentally ruin them. You’ll never get a battery with a full charge again once you discharge a lead-acid battery.
Solution: Invest in Higher-Quality Batteries
Listen, the batteries currently in your boat clearly aren’t cutting it. You can keep going out and hoping you don’t get stranded, but that’s no way to enjoy using your boat. You should be relaxing and having fun, not battling worries about getting stuck. It’s much smarter to buy some higher-quality batteries than what your boat currently has. You’ll be happy you did.
The Problem: Dead Battery Cell
All batteries have cells within them. The cell is a combination of a cathode and an anode with an electrolyte in the middle. Each cell works in conjunction to provide current and voltage.
Depending on the battery, it may have one cell or multiple. The classic single AA battery is named such because it has only one cell. Most boat batteries come with more than one cell, probably even the battery that’s giving you so many headaches.
As great as battery cells are, they’re not invincible or immortal. Some can die independent of the others. Since the battery still works, or at least sort of, it’s not always easy to tell there’s a problem. That is, until it takes twice or thrice as long for your boat battery to get back to full charge than it usually does.
Solution: Replace the Damaged Battery
To tell if your battery is just sluggish or truly has a dead cell or two, you can do a load test. Appropriately enough, a battery load tester is used for this job. By putting your battery in the tester, you get an ampere measurement.
If you can’t get you hands on a battery load tester, you can always reach out to your favorite boat repair company and let them do the testing for you.
If it turns out that your battery does indeed have a few dead cells, then the best course of action is to replace the battery outright.
The Problem: Too Little Power Left for the Batteries
Think of the power aboard your boat like a pie, be that a pizza pie or your favorite dessert pie. Everything that uses power takes a slice of the pie. Some of these slices are going to be bigger than others.
When we say everything that uses power, by the way, we do mean everything. That goes for the smaller things you might not think about, like listening to the radio aboard your boat or leaving a few extra lights on. These electronics can suck up more power than anticipated, thus leaving next to nothing for your batteries. Or, using the pie analogy, crumbs.
Solution: Allocate Your Power More Thoughtfully
When you know your batteries are running low, rethink whether now is the time to listen to the radio or fully illuminate your boat. Be thoughtful of how you use power onboard, ensuring there’s more than enough for the batteries to get to full charge and stay there. Remember the pie analogy as you go along and turn things off on your boat.
The Problem: No Maintenance Routine
Even with the best care, your marine batteries should last about three years, give or take. That’s not a whole lot of time, granted, but if your batteries are dying on you after a year or less, that’s a problem.
Again, part of the issue could be poor-quality batteries, but one thing we have to ask is this. Do you maintain your batteries? You know, make sure they’re clean and dry? If not and all the other troubleshooting tips didn’t help your problem, you’ve figured out why.
Solution: Get into a Maintenance Schedule
A good maintenance schedule that you commit to at least once or twice a year will do your batteries well. You could even expand their lifespan beyond their recommended three years; you never know!
Here’s some things to start doing right away if you haven’t already:
- Make sure all the cables and wiring attached to your batteries stays dry. This may seem very common sense, but some boat owners don’t notice when their battery’s cables slip somewhere unintended and get soaked. The wet wires are not only dangerous, but they can lead to current leakages as well. This means the current is leaching out and using up your battery faster than intended.
- Check for spliced wires. If your wires were in the water for a while, then they’re more likely to splice. This will again cause current leakages, so get these wires replaced right away.
- Avoid putting the batteries near any water ever. Even if the ground is a little damp, that’s still not good for your batteries.
- A few times a year, check the electrolyte levels in your batteries. This fluid can tip out if your boat moves around a lot. This encourages both discharging and current leakage. Wipe down the batteries so they’re clean and top off the electrolytes if the levels are too low.
- Get into the habit of cleaning your batteries at least twice annually. When batteries are too dirty, both terminals generate an electricity flow that could trigger discharging, especially when wet.
Stranded on the Water? Here’s What to Do
Earlier in this article, we talked about the possibility of you ending up stranded on the water if your boat’s battery dies. This is no laughing matter, as you’re now completely dependent on the help of others to get back to shore.
Here are some methods we recommend for minimizing the time you spend stranded.
Have an Oar or Several Onboard
If your boat has frequent battery issues, it’s not at all a bad idea to buy a few oars and have them handy. Now, if your battery dies unexpectedly, you’re not potentially stuck for hours or longer. You can begin paddling to shore right away.
Keep a Portable Battery Charger Close by
We also recommend you buy a portable battery charger or several. This is something you never want to disembark without. Should your battery begin draining to the point where it’s almost dead, your portable charger can get the battery in good enough shape to get you back home.
Have Visual Cues for Attracting Attention
If you go without a portable battery charger and oars, then you have no choice but to hope someone on the water sees you and decides to help. Using visual cues is one way to let other boaters know that you have a problem and you’re not just taking a leisurely joyride.
Flare guns are best in lower-light conditions like sunset, dusk, and nighttime, but you can fire them during the day as well. The brilliant flash of light ought to attract the attention of other sailors and even the Coast Guard if they’re around.
You might want to combine your visual efforts with noisemakers to get boaters headed your way. Whistles can really help, and you want to make sure everyone onboard your boat has one.
Check That Your Radio Works
If worst comes to worst, you can always try communicating through your citizens band or CB radio. You can get in touch with either the authority at the harbor or even the Coast Guard and alert them of your predicament. From there, you’d wait for help until it arrives.
A dead or draining battery can put a real damper on your time on the water. There are lots of reasons your boat battery may die. Other equipment could suck up too much juice, leaving the batteries with nothing to use. You could also have cheap batteries or some with dead cells. The rectifier can break, providing no further charge to your batteries. Also important is that poorly maintained batteries won’t last long.
With the advice and information in this article, you should be ready to combat your boat battery problems. You also know how to get out of a situation if you ever find yourself stranded with a dead battery. All the best and happy boating!