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May 10th 2018. By Ed Sherman.

Buying a Boat in Europe? Key Changes U.S. Service May Require

Consider these factors before buying a yacht in Europe or elsewhere for use in the United States.

Boats built for use in Europe require careful conversion for safe and successful use with North American electrical supplies. What it will cost you depends on many factors, such as the age of the vessel and the installed systems and appliances, and you are going to need an expert in these sorts of conversions to inspect the boat and provide an estimate. As a starting point, let’s consider the following items, some possible solutions, and general pricing.

Marinas across Europe such as Barcelona’s Port Vell are packed with an array of interesting boats; but before buying one, consider the requirements in converting the electrical system for U.S. usage. John Burnham photo.

Marinas across Europe such as Barcelona’s Port Vell are packed with an array of interesting boats; but before buying one, consider the requirements in converting the electrical system for U.S. usage. Photo by John Burnham.

European shore power systems generally run at 230 volts and 50 Hz frequency. Amperage ratings are typically 16, 32, or 64. U.S. systems run at 120 volts or 240 volts, 60 Hz, and amperage service is supplied at 15, 30, 50, and 100.

Roughly 80 percent of the world runs at the higher voltage and at 50 cycles (Hz). The advantages of running at higher voltages are significant when you consider the high cost of copper and the weight involved. Higher voltage means you can design using smaller gauge wire to distribute power throughout the boat. This may seem counterintuitive, but can be explained this way: If you increase the voltage, you can lower the current requirements to achieve the same wattage (power). For example, 50V@20A or 100V@10A both yield 1,000 watts.

From an upgrade perspective, you need to consider a variety of factors.

Electrical Appliances

The first thing to check is that all of the electrical appliances on board have the ability to run at either 50 or 60 Hz and voltages ranging from 100 to 240. If they are not dual-frequency and multi-voltage, you must replace them.

The good news here is that as the economy becomes increasingly global, more and more appliances are being designed that can run at multiple voltage levels as well as either frequency. But this is where the vintage becomes important. If the boat was built in the ‘80s for example, you’re less likely to find dual-frequency appliances. All of this applies to things like battery chargers, inverters, galley appliances, televisions, and audio equipment. Any appliance with a motor in it such as air conditioners and refrigeration devices are going to be a potential problem. Motors are both voltage and frequency sensitive.

Onboard Generators

The installed generators had to be reconfigured to match U.S. frequency (50 Hz vs 60 Hz). Note that in some cases, this would require replacement of the generators as not all can be converted.

The photos on this motoryacht were taken of work done by Wards Marine Electric, in Fort Lauderdale, FL. The installed generators had to be reconfigured to match U.S. frequency (50 Hz vs 60 Hz). Note that in some cases, this would require replacement of the generators as not all can be converted.

Newer AC generator models have the capability to be converted, but older units do not, according to Ward Eshleman, President of Ward’s Marine Electric in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. This may be another significant expense that will depend on the vintage of the equipment. A new 12KW Northern Lights Marine generator is going to cost roughly $13,000, and that doesn’t include installation.

Electrical outlets and shore-power frequency converters

A European boat will surely have outlets that are of the type used in the country where the boat was built. According to Ward, many customers will address this by adding U.S. convenience outlets strategically around the vessel and providing a smaller separate AC panel and new service to the boat that is dedicated to the new receptacles. The original equipment appliances that use the European receptacles can still be used as long as they are of the dual-frequency and 100 to 240-volt global variety, or if the boat has shore-power converting equipment installed that can adjust frequency and voltage. But it’s going to take an electrical expert to make the correct determination. Make no assumptions here because there are serious safety concerns to take into account.

These photos show the 230-volt convenience receptacles that were rewired and replaced with 120-volt American receptacles.

These photos show the 230-volt convenience receptacles that were rewired and replaced with 120-volt American receptacles.

Ward claims his company has installed bulkhead mounted frequency converters on boats down to about the 50-foot LOA size range. These units are not inexpensive, however—12 KVA units or the rough equivalent to U.S. 50-amp service sell for just over $18,000 plus installation, while 24 KVA units equivalent to 100-amp service sell for $36,000. Ward says that the average 80- to 100-foot motor yacht will often have two of these installed to keep up with the loads from air conditioning and refrigeration units, all-electric galleys, and such.

Wire sizing

The shore-power inlets were completely replaced to match U.S. plug and receptacle configurations.

The shore-power inlets were completely replaced to match U.S. plug and receptacle configurations.

We often hear about wire-size discrepancies when discussing Euro to U.S. electrical conversions. It turns out this issue is more of a concern on smaller boats, say under 50 feet in length, that would typically use only 120-volt service in the US. If wired for European 230-volt, 16- or 32-amp service, wiring will in all probability be too small to run at 120-volt 30- to 50-amp service. So, major rewiring cost will have to be factored in. This is less of a concern on the larger boats because they are more likely to have installed shore-power converters that can adjust incoming power to whatever was specified in the original design, typically 230 volts, 50 Hz, and again, 16-, 32-, or 64-amp service. The 120-volt service outlets can be added, and as long as they are equipped with appropriately sized over-current protection at the panel, the original wiring can be used because the typical use is with low current-draw appliances like cell phone and iPad chargers. That said, for things like hair dryers and any appliances with heating elements in them, the current draws may be such that the original wiring may indeed be too small a gauge size to accommodate the unexpected amperage. So, this is a case where you will need to get U.S.-style outlets and upgraded wiring installed, along with the new shore power inlet and extra panel board already discussed.

Circuit breakers

Shore-power primary transformers were replaced to accommodate higher U.S. current requirements.

Shore-power primary transformers were replaced to accommodate higher U.S. current requirements.

One issue that Ward did bring up was that the European boats are equipped originally with shore-power AC system circuit breakers that are all double-pole, whereas in the U.S. we require a double-pole breaker only on the AC main; everything downstream of the main breaker can then be single-pole. For ABYC compliance, often required by U.S. insurers, this means a major panel board change, which can easily add several thousand dollars to the conversion cost.

Service

I spoke with James Nobel, Vice President and Marketing Director for Viking/Princess Yachts America, to get his take on conversions for their boats. According to Nobel, his company has a strict policy on these conversions: They simply won’t do them. If you want a new Princess, it can be ordered in either a European configuration or a U.S. configuration. When a U.S. boat is ordered, U.S. appliances and parts are sent to the U.K. factory during the new build. When the boat arrives in the U.S., it’s ready to go with no conversion needed.

Crew as well as master circuit breaker panels all were replaced to align with U.S. requirements.

Crew as well as master circuit breaker panels all were replaced to align with U.S. requirements.

Safety

Nobel expressed great concern over the potential danger when a conversion gets done by amateurs or even under-qualified pros, and there’s no lack of evidence to support that concern and the Viking/Princess philosophy. Conversions that simply replace the convenience outlets on the boat with U.S. 15 amp units, without regard for upgrading the wire gauge size that supplies the outlet, is a classic example. This will surely cause the wiring to run hotter than desired and may actually cause a fire on board in the worst case. Another less extreme example that I’ve seen time and time again are European shore-power cords, engineered to work with the 230-volt 16 or 32-amp service used in Europe, being used here in the U.S. for the 120-volt 30 or 50-amp service. Depending on the number of AC loads activated on board the boat at any given time, this can cause overheating of the shore cord at the very least, and premature failure of AC motors used in air conditioners and refrigeration systems on board due to excess voltage drop in the shore power system caused by the undersized wiring. The motors then run hotter than they’re designed to run, and fail early.

Other areas that Mr. Nobel mentioned were insurability and resale value. He points out that it’s getting increasingly difficult to find insurance underwriters who will sign off on these conversions. In the long run, he says, buyers will almost assuredly take a hit on resale value as well.

Cost

I asked Arian Leon, one of the technicians who actually perform the conversions at Ward’s, what some typical labor costs might be for the many conversions he’s done. Obviously the numbers vary significantly depending upon some of the factors discussed here, but he felt that somewhere between $40,000 and $50,000 was fairly typical. In terms of labor time, the range is pretty broad depending upon the size of the boat and whether or not major rewiring is needed, but labor costs ranged from a low of $4,200 to a high of about $16,000. Equipment replacement costs could easily add tens of thousands of dollars to that.

So, if you’re thinking about trying to take advantage of global currency exchange rates and planning to bring that boat back to the U.S., consider transport costs and of course get a specialist to survey the boat. In the case of the on-board electrics, make sure your surveyor checks the items mentioned here before you agree on a final purchase price.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in November 2016 and updated in May 2018.



Ed Sherman

Ed Sherman is a regular contributor to boats.com, as well as to Professional Boatbuilder and Cruising World, where he previously was electronics editor. He also is the curriculum director for the American Boat and Yacht Council. Previously, Ed was chairman of the Marine Technology Department at the New England Institute of Technology. Ed’s blog posts appear courtesy of his website, EdsBoatTips.