[It’s another MadMariner feature from a couple weeks back. —Tim]
I first heard about the SmartPlug back in June, and I’ll admit I was somewhat skeptical. Why would anyone bother "reinventing the wheel" when it comes to shorepower cable connector standards? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
I have changed my mind. In fact, I have converted my boat to SmartPlug. I don’t anticipate I’ll have any trouble at any of the marinas or destinations I visit, despite the fact that my boat’s shorepower inlet is, for the moment, almost unique. How can I be so confident? Well, let me explain.
The manufacturer claims that "SmartPlug is a revolutionary shore power system designed to replace the outdated and problematic twist lock standard in use today. It’s intuitive to use and provides greater protection against loose connections and corrosion—the leading causes of shore power failure and fires."
After taking a close look at my existing shorepower cable and connections, and comparing them to what I saw when I visited the SmartPlug headquarters in Seattle, I was a convert. Especially when I saw several samples of charred melted twist-lock connectors…yikes!
I’m not on the SmartPlug payroll or anything, either; I was genuinely impressed. You don’t have to take my word for it, though: handle a SmartPlug at your local marine store, or track one down at your regional boat show, and you’ll see what I mean. This is one serious piece of engineering.
As I wrote when I first heard about this product, "I still think the SmartPlug folks have got one hell of an uphill battle ahead of them, trying to break into a market already saturated with a pre-installed standard."
Ken Smith, President of SmartPlug, acknowledges the challenge. However, it turns out that my understanding of SmartPlug’s current product offering was incomplete. During my visit, I learned that a boater could upgrade to SmartPlug on the boat side of the power cord, and keep the conventional twist-lock plug on the dockside end. As the website says, "Protect your boat NOW…even if your marina hasn’t yet upgraded!"
I didn’t get it before, and my suspicion is that a lot of potential customers also do not get this. They probably don’t appreciate that they can enjoy most of the benefits of the SmartPlug system even if the marina has not upgraded. Excessive heat aboard the boat could start a fire that might destroy the boat, while excessive heat at the dock’s shorepower pedestal, although plenty bad, isn’t nearly as likely to start a boat-destroying fire.
Shortly after my visit, I decided to upgrade the power connection aboard Two Lucky Fish, my C-Dory 22. I anticipate that I’ll enjoy the benefits SmartPlug claims, plus a couple of secondary benefits the marketing material doesn’t really emphasize: Ease of use for crewmembers, and ease of use for me in the dark.
With the old plug, I never felt comfortable asking other crewmembers to hook up the shorepower when we arrived at a destination, even our home slip. Those twist-lock connectors are a little tricky if you’re not familiar with them. I’ve had children, and even adults, give up and tell me they couldn’t figure it out. In the dark, it’s not uncommon to hear me cursing while I try to figure out which way to orient the twist-lock plug connecter.
In comparison, the SmartPlug is dead simple; it’s completely obvious how to plug it in, even in the dark. Also, it’s fairly intuitive to disconnect, even without somebody explaining that the socket lid locks into place on the plug, providing security in addition to the latches on either side of the plug body.
Upgrading is easy, even if you’re not a boat electrician. There are no special tools required, other than a pair of wire strippers for 30-amp wire. Actually, I don’t possess such a wire stripper; I used a boxcutter, and that was fine.
I won’t describe every detail of the process; be sure to read the instructions. Obviously, disconnect your shorepower cord and turn everything off before you start! Once that’s done, the first step is to disconnect and remove your old twist-lock socket. Don’t panic, because if you have second thoughts, you can always reinstall it.
Test-fit the SmartPlug socket in the existing hole. Mine fit perfectly, but since my old inlet used three screws and the SmartPlug uses four, I had to drill new holes. No problem.
Secure the boat’s black, white, and green shorepower wires into the back of the SmartPlug inlet and tighten those color-coded screws. Then mount the socket into the existing hole, using the provided gasket to seal it up. You’ll have to purchase your own stainless #8-32 fasteners (bolts, nuts, and washers), and you can add polysulfide or silicone sealant if you feel it’s necessary, but I did not.
After you’ve got the socket installed on your boat, it’s time for the truly frightening, irreversible part of this operation. I have to admit that it was nerve-wracking taking a hacksaw to a perfectly good Marinco shorepower cable that retails for about $150.
Once you’ve cut the end off your current cable, you need to strip back 1 ½-inch of the exterior wire insulation (the thick yellow part) from the cable. Now it gets a little tricky. I recommend cleaning the first two feet of the outside of your old cable thoroughly before you start the next step; mine was kind of yucky. You need to force your cable into the SmartPlug plug housing and the rubber cord gasket.
This gasket fits quite tightly around the cord, so it will be necessary to use the clever plastic cone the SmartPlug folks have included in the kit. Add some dish soap as a lubricant, and "thread the needle." It will take some force, and some patience, but it does work. Once you’ve got it all the way through, push a little more through until about three inches of cable emerges out of the plug housing.
Now you need to strip the insulation from the three individual wires (which should be black, white, and green). The instructions say to strip ½-inch of insulation, but I was not happy with that. I ended up stripping about 5/8s of an inch back from the end, and it seemed fit together better.
e="margin: 0px 0px 0px 5px; display: inline" title="At this point, you just work the housing down so it engages with the plug insert, and tighten the screws that hold it all together.: TIM FLANAGAN" alt="At this point, you just work the housing down so it engages with the plug insert, and tighten the screws that hold it all together.: TIM FLANAGAN" align="right" src="http://madmariner.com/files/images/NAVAGEAR_SMARTPLUG_121009_OM-P5.jpg" width="250" height="200" />See, you want the clear plastic "teeth" of the SmartPlug insert to engage with the thick yellow outer insulation of your shorepower cable. When I stripped a bit more insulation off the inner wires, more of the thick outer insulation was available for the plastic teeth to bite into. This is important because those teeth help hold the cable and the SmartPlug together.
At this point, you just work the housing down so it engages with the plug insert, and tighten the screws that hold it all together. Add the stick-on neoprene ring seal around the plug face, and you’re done. Just plug it in and turn on your shorepower breakers.
As with most DIY projects, you’ll encounter idiosyncrasies unique to your own situation. In my case, drilling four new holes in the boat and stripping a bit more insulation were the only aspects that didn’t go precisely "by the book," but you want to make sure you can roll back the conversion if you encounter some unforeseen obstacle. So wait until you’re certain the inlet can be installed before you chop the end of your current shorepower cable.