How to Fix Your Electric Windlass 9 out of 10 Times

4 Jan

attachment 3626550438
If you have an electric windlass, eventually you will step on the foot switch, or flip the switch in the cockpit, and nothing will happen. Of course this can be caused by many problems, but the most common are corroded contacts on a solenoid. In a blog post a while back I discussed solenoids in general terms. If you don’t know what a solenoid is, or what it does, it would do you well to read this brief primer.

Here we’ll discuss windlass solenoids, or what they call a windlass control box, which is really just two solenoids in the same box and sharing some of the same circuitry. If your windlass just powers in one direction (up!) then your windlass control solenoid will be a simple one like this:
Publication10
…or this:
Windlass Rewire
…But if your windlass has both power up and power down, it’ll look something like this:
June 020
…or this:
Imtra
…or this:
IMG 0582

Hey, wait a minute, those last two look exactly alike. Yes, many windlass control boxes are made in Italy by the same manufacturer, and other companies brand them as their own. We must stop this evil Italian monopoly on windlass control solenoids!…or just address one problem at a time, like a windlass that won’t work.

Most windlasses are switched through a solenoid, like those ones pictured above, but some are switched directly through a high-amperage foot switch, with no solenoid between the foot switch and the windlass. In both cases, the problem and solution are the same: The solenoid in the control box, or your foot, presses a large copper bar against two contacts. Since this is a high amperage connection, this copper bar can spark, arc, and take a lot of abuse. Over time, the points of contact will become fouled, “carboned up,” as they say, and will no longer make good electrical contact.

There will usually be some warning: You’ll go to raise your anchor and the windlass won’t work. You’ll try a few times and it will work, then you’ll forget it didn’t work the first time, but the first time should serve as a warning that troubles are on the way.

The telltale sign is the solenoid clicking, or stomping on that foot switch, but the windlass still not working.

The solution is simple – clean the electrical contacts – but of course it’s seldom that simple. If yours is a solid state solenoid, as in many up-only installations, you simply can’t get at the contacts and the solenoid must be replaced (about $50). If you’ve got one of the Italian jobs, or one of their American (meaning Chinese) equivalents, you can get to the contacts and clean them.

During my ten-year circumnavigation this was an annual task, heralded by the aforementioned warnings.

Usually you’ll have to completely remove the control box and disconnect all wires. Note where everything goes: digital cameras and smart phones are great for this. Once you’ve got everything disconnected you can confirm your diagnosis by touching the power cable directly to the power lead(s) on the windlass. If it jumps to life, you’ll know your solenoid/control box is indeed the problem. If it doesn’t jump to life, your problem lies somewhere else.

Remove the screws that hold the lid on the the control box:
IMG 0586
Inside, you will see something like this:
IMG 0587
On both sides, down in the box, are the solenoids. Above are the contacts, the filthy, fouled contacts, which must be cleaned. But to clean the contacts you must loosen and remove the studs from the top of the control box:
IMG 0589
Once everything is out and exposed, go to it with a wire brush. Don’t be shy: The fouling on the contacts can be tenacious, and require vigorous action with a wire brush or sandpaper. The copper contacts will probably be zinc plated, but the zinc may have to go bye-bye to make clean electrical connections again. This isn’t rocket science: It’s brute physical/electrical stuff, where copper bars have to come into contact with copper studs like a punch in the face:
IMG 0592
IMG 0591
Once the contacts are clean, reassemble the control box, reconnect the wires, and you should be up and running again. Yes, there are many other things that can go wrong electrically with a windlass, but in my experience it was this about ten times in a row, followed by something more serious (I’ll get to this later).

Most importantly, a new windlass control box will cost $150-$180 retail. Forty-five minutes in the most uncomfortable position imaginable in your anchor locker to deal with a faulty windlass control box…priceless.

This article was syndicated from The Adventures of the Vessel Condesa

Comments

  1. Neil McCubbin

    Our 6 week old Lofrans Tigres 1500 watt 12V windlass worked OK first few times used, but is now gutless
    It trips a 150 amp breaker, although I can pull the chain in a few inches with one hand.
    Motor runs at advertised speed on no load (chain off) BUT draws 180 amps. Full load is supposed to be 130 amps.

  2. Clark Beek

    Hi Brian, Hmm, to actually sheer a sheer pin would take some force, so unless there’s been something catastrophic that’s unlikely. Usually a cone or washer friction device engages the motor to the gypsy/wildcat/drum. This device can get stripped or just weirdly-greased. I mean, the two halves of the cone/washer are supposed to be greased, but if they’re too greased, or if you don’t crank down enough, the joint just slips. On mine, with fresh grease, I’ve got to really crank on it- Like use all of my strength to tighten the clutch–so if you really crank on it, and no love, then suspect a sheer pin, or something mechanical that’s come undone.

  3. Brian

    The motor on my unit seems to be working fine but doesn’t hoist. Are there sheer pins or something like that might have been compromised?

  4. Colin Walsh

    I have a Lofrans Project 1500 windlass. One of its selling points in the literature is that it has internal solenoids. Now that one has failed I am told by the supplier that it is not a spare part and it will cost me over £1,000 for a new motor! I’m pretty cross about this as I know solenoids will eventually give trouble. The windlass comes with an emergency terminal marked E to bypass the ‘up’ solenoid so the manufacturer knows it will fail at some point. So why is it not a replaceable part!!
    Anyone know if it’s possible to source and replace it?

  5. Clark

    Hi Trevor, I’d circumvent the solenoid and touch the power lead from the windlass directly to the power cable coming from the battery (carefully, and ready to abort quickly, as there may be sparks), with the anchor down so there is some load on it. If it makes the same noises and complaints this eliminates the solenoid. It could still be electrical, like something in the windlass motor, or could be motor bearings or other mechanical bits in the windlass. If it’s old and it’s about time anyway, it gives peace of mind to pull the motor, take it to a reputable shop, and have it completely rebuilt and tested. It’s usually about $300, then you know you’ve got a solid motor for the next ten years-ish, and you can eliminate it at a possible cause.

  6. Trevor Coverdale

    Hi Clark,
    The Muir VRC1250 winch has recently begun labouring and making loud wining noises when anchor is being raised, it has also thrown the circuit breaker several times. I am about to strip the mechanical side down to clean and grease, but wondered if I should also be looking for an electrical problem. I would appreciate your helpful advice.

  7. Clark

    Hi Mel, That’s definitely a bizarro one. The fan circuit is somehow cross-connected with one side of the windlass control circuit (but not the windlass power circuit). I guess first see which way it turns with both the fan breaker and windlass breakers on, then you’ll know whether the up wire or down wire is suspect. You’ll probably need to test for voltage at the solenoid to see which wire is energized. From there you can turn off the big windlass breaker so it doesn’t spin, but leave on the control circuit power, which I’m guessing is on a separate breaker/circuit from the main windlass breaker. It won’t hurt to leave the solenoid energized while you’re testin, but I’d give it a break every few minutes to let it cool off. Then it’s just matter of testing for voltage (with the fan breaker on) back from the solenoid. I’m guessing you’ll find wires melted through, or some erroneous cross-connect in the back of a panel somewhere. Do you have a remote switch in the cockpit, or just the deck switch forward? If it’s just the deck switch forward, then the problem has to be somewhere forward. If you’ve got a cockpit switch, it’s more likely to be along the up or down wire from this switch. It should be straight shots from the up and down sides of the cockpit switch to the solenoid (no switches, breakers, or fuses along the way) so my bet is on something in your fan circuit actually touching one of the terminals on the back of the switch, or a melted/chafed wire making unintended contact somewhere. If all else fails, replace the the whole up or down wire, at least with a temporary test wire, and see if this fixes it.

  8. Mel

    HI Clark- I recently purchased a new solenoid because my windlass would only spin one direction, and when I disconnected the solenoid and tested the windlass it would turn both directions when I changed the leads. I also changed the outside switch because it was fairly corroded and to make sure that wasn’t a source of another problem. I have a forward remote switch that I have taken out of the picture since that is fairly corroded and I don’t have a replacement. Now the windlass works great with the new switch in back operating it up and down but I still have one problem that may have caused all this in the first place. When I turn on one specific breaker (fans), the solenoid makes a click/pop sound. And if I have the fan breaker on and the windlass breaker on it actually spins the windlass. I am checking all the wiring to ensure there are no bad connections but right now, I’m not finding anything. Any ideas on how to better narrow down this search would be greatly appreciated!

  9. Dave

    Anyone help with an IZ Leroy Somer 12v 100 amp vertical windlass 1999 (model courant continu) that will turn only about 1/4 inch and then it seems to lock up or stop abruptly So it has power but will not turn except the 1/4 inch distance? Possible solenoid problem or mechanical freeze up?

  10. Johann

    Can I have some info about a CIMA windlass, don’t know how old is it? How do I know how use are the carbon box ? Visual ? Technic list would be good to have for spare part
    Thanks

  11. Paul

    thanks Clark, yeh thats what i was thinking, just never had an anchor motor before. there is a 50 amp breaker associated with the system as well. this one just through me off being on such a heavy gauge wire.

  12. Clark Beek

    Hi Paul, I’m thinking the 3 Amp fuse is just the fuse for the switch circuit. IE It’s just carrying the current that runs through the switch when you step on it, not the full current going to the windlass motor. That should have a BIG fuse, like 100 Amps, or similar-sized breaker, somewhere.

  13. Paul

    hi, restoring a bot presently. the winlass works as far as can tell right now being out of the water but the question i have is regarding an in line fuse coming from the control box going up to the switch. i had to break apart the fuse holder to see what size fuse was in there and to my surprise it was only a 3 amp fuse on what looks like 10 gauge wire. i only ran the winlass out about 15 feet and back just to see if it worked and it seemed fine but is that the correct fuse for that location?

  14. Clark Beek

    Hi Mike, Start by checking and cleaning all the electrical connections. A simple bad connection can do that, work fine at first then cause the device to fade as the bad connection heats up. If you’ve got a multimeter and/or amp clamp you can check for Voltage drop along the cabling and see if it’s drawing the right amount of juice. If all the cabling and connections are solid, then it points to warn motor brushes, or brushes that aren’t making good contact. Replacing the brushes and cleaning the commutator is something you can do yourself, if you can get hold of a brush replacement kit, or you can just take the motor to an electric motor shop and they’ll make quick work of it. Getting a motor out of a windlass can either be easy or take an entire weekend, unfortunately.

  15. Mike P

    Hi my name is mike perkins I have a Lewmar 500 it works most of time but it just seems weak and some times just struggles to pull up the anchor does that mean the motor is getting weak please email if you know or can help at jmp6411@aol.com
    thanks

  16. Paul

    Thanks Clark

    This was useful and led to my own project following a failed windlass a few weeks back. I’ve documented my findings (and referenced your useful detail above)

    regards
    Paul

  17. Pingback: Windlass cutting out, fusing, anchor counter resetting | Just Sail

  18. Clark Beek

    Hi Michael, I would think it’s got to be a stuck switch, or something bridging the contacts on the switch. I’d disconnect the leads on both sides of the switch, just for sanity’s sake, and see if touching them together and separating them starts and stops the windlass from going up. If that’s the case, something is funky in the switch.

  19. Michael Moloney

    After blowing a fuse overworking my Lofrans windlass I replaced the fuse only to find the windlass instantly ran in up mode without pressing the switch. I removed the power and checked and cleaned the switches then hooked the power up and again it ran without pressing the switch in the up mode. Any ideas where next to look??????

  20. Clark

    Hi Jane, You’ve got me. Sometimes you can get faulty readings with a digital voltmeter. You might do better to use a test light rated for the ship’s voltage and see if it lights up when touched to either side of the switches. And just see if the windlass moves when you bridge the contacts that the foot switch should be making. I’ve seen some Lewmar foot switches that seem to have some electronics built into them, so they’ve got more to them than just two contacts and a copper bar.

  21. jane towler

    we have a Lewmar windlass it has a switch in the cockpit that works, a remote in the anchor locker that works but the two foot pedals don’t work, I have taken them apart and cleaned the contacts but no go. I put a voltage meter on first the remote and it reads 13.7 same as the Xantrax. When I put the meter on the up switch I get 40.3 and when I put the meter on the down I get 194.1 what am I doing wrong

  22. Susan

    When ever the anchor windlass is activated a loud noise comes from the stereo speakers when stereo is on. I have had an electrician look at and replaced the AMP in stereo but can not find the problem. Ever heard of this? What could it be?

  23. Clark

    Well, no, but I’d guess the don’t make their own electric motors, so if you can look at the motor itself and get a manufacturer and a model number, you can probably get them from a motor supply place instead of from Lofrans.

  24. Clark Beek

    Hi Michael, You say a little shaking in the electric motor shaft? That sounds like you’re getting current to the electric motor, but the motor isn’t turning. The fact that you’re seeing/hearing some vibration means (maybe/probably) that either the motor is locked (it’s stuck and trying to move) or maybe has a stuck brush or two: Usually simple DC motors have brushes (which are actually solid and not very brush-like) that contact the commutator, on the end of the rotor. I’m not sure how many brushes can be stuck and still get noise/vibration from the motor without any real oomph, but that’s a simple thing to check with a preliminary disassembly of the motor. Or just pull the motor and take it to a motor shop, where they can check it out and make quick work of it. Before any of that I’d try touching the power leads from the battery directly to the leads/posts on the motor and see what happens. Keep in mind you’ve got a motor that might be locked or have something wrong with it, so expect sparks (wear glasses) and be ready to abandon the effort quickly.

  25. Michael Warlick

    Hi Clark, I disassembled my solenoid that operates my Seawolf windlass. It was mounted inside at the front of the V-Berth so corrosion does not seem to be an issue here. The contacts are clean. I see only where they have been arcing clean as they made contact. So with the clicking sound coming from the solenoid and little movement from the motor except for a little shaking in the electric motor shaft, what would be next on the list to check? Thanks

  26. Clark Beek

    Hi Keith, It’s hard to say what’s going on without seeing it. The up/down control circuit on the control box should be fairly low amperage (your model probably calls for a 3-Amp fuse) so 14-16 AWG wire (1.5-2mm) should be big enough, and it’s odd that only the ground wire gets hot. As every electrical instructional begins, “ensure that all connections are clean and secure” so I’d disassemble all the connections and scrub them with a wire brush, then reassemble. I suppose a bad connection somewhere on that ground wire could cause only it to get hot. I assume there’s a fuse on the positive side, yet it’s not blowing?

  27. Keith Francica

    Hi, I have a problem with my Lofrans solenoid that takes 4 Main contacts + the 3 small contacts for the control…
    Motor seems to work well and the switching of the solenoid as well.
    The only problem I have is that I have 3 new wires of 1.5mm squared/ approximately 15AWG from the solenoid to the toggle switch and when I operate the motor in any direction the ground 15awg wire gets hot after only 5 seconds of operation.
    Is the wire so thin ?
    but it was the same gauge before I overhauled this boat….
    (wires in solenoid make contact with sliders like the ones in your pictures)
    Distance from solenoid to toggle switch is 4 metres.
    Thanks

  28. Clark Beek

    Hi James, Definitely, as long as it’s 12-volt. Remember it’s a high amperage motor, so when you touch the cables to the battery there will be sparks! To be safe, you should have a fuse or breaker in the circuit too.

  29. James Herbertson

    I recently purchased a lofrans tigres 1500 at auction. I’d like to test the motor before fitting it. Is it possible to test it in the garage using a car battery to power it?

    James

  30. Carlos M.

    I have a windlass control box IMTRA, 12v, 500-1500 watts, 3 terminals. I tried the above procedure step by step, still the windlass will not move, the control box is just doing the clicking sound. Any other ideas???

    Thanks

  31. Clark Beek

    Hard to tell what’s going on there without seeing it, but sounds like you don’t have power at all up to the bow. Trace it all the way back to the batteries. Once you get juice to the big wires up to the bow you can touch them directly to the windlass motor cables to see if the windlass is alive…then it’s back to troubleshooting switches, solenoids, connections, et al.

  32. Mike Crouse

    I have an older windlass electric anchor and it is now dead. The foot pedal nor the switch in the cabin make it work. There is no electrical clicking heard coming from the solenoids. I have put a tester on the high voltage line and ground on solenoid and there is no power there at all. I have checked the cable from front to back looking for a fuse or in line breaker switch and have not been able to find anything that resembles a breaker.

  33. Michael Roberts

    Thank you for this invaluable information.

    Two hours ago we were seriously jammed in a bay in the Cyclades with a gale forecast tomorrow.

    Encouraged by you we now have a reliably working solenoid and we can get to a safe anchorage.

    Thanks again

  34. John T

    This is called just in time publishing. During the survey of my GS 50 it was noted that when attempting to activate the windless only a click was heard. That led me to believe it was a connection someplace. I will be back to the boat in a couple weeks and will start there. Previous owner says it has not been used in a few years.

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