Sailfeed
January 4th

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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:
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…or this:
Windlass Rewire
…But if your windlass has both power up and power down, it’ll look something like this:
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…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

12 comments on “How to Fix Your Electric Windlass 9 out of 10 Times

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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?

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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

  11. 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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